As my quiet American Christmas winded down, I decided to give myself a precious gift…time. Time to do whatever I wanted at that particular moment…no thought to other people’s needs or to the perceived necessity of my choice. I decided I wanted to gain some knowledge about something that had been intriguing me the past few weeks…
I’ve spent the past two Christmas seasons in Germany. It’s magical, festive and…complex. Many of the beloved traditions and characters are unfamiliar to me…they are from another time and place. And, just to make it even more confusing, each region has it’s own set of traditions. So be warned…this blog contains only the most consistent and prevalent info I dug up and is just a taste of Christmas in Germany.
St. Nikolaus Klaus (St. Nicholas) ~ The benefactor of the little treats that fill children’s boots or shoes on Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day)…not Christmas Day. He resembles a bishop, wearing a red robe trimmed in white and carrying a staff. He does not own a sleigh…but rides a beautiful white horse.
Christkindl ~ A beautiful angel, believed to be the Christ Child’s messenger, dressed in white robes and a gold crown adorned with candles. She visits each home on Christmas Eve with a basket full of gifts. Children usually address their sparkly Christmas wish letters to her…not St. Nikolaus.
Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas Man” or Father Christmas) ~ A very generic character encompassing St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus…the secular counterpart to Christkindl and a “new” tradition dating only back to the 1800‘s.
Knecht Rupprecht, Krampus, or Ru Klaas ~ Even back in the 17th century, kids needed some motivation to behave and the Germans created a particularly effective motivator. One of these “Bad Santas” may accompany St. Nikolaus, Christkindl or Weihnachtsmann carrying a switch instead of gifts. The “naughty” kids didn’t used to get only coal…they got a whuppin’.
The fourth Sunday before Christmas…The First Advent. The Christmas season is launched on this day. Decorations are put up, the baking begins, and an advent wreath is made out of fir or pine and holds four colored candles and one white one. One of the colored candles is lit on each of the next four Sundays…preferably while eating a Christmas cookie…and the white one on Christmas Day.
December 6…Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day). This tradition dates back to the mid-1500‘s when it was the only day of the season involving gifts. On the night of December 5, children leave a shoe or boot (and sometimes their Christmas wish list for Weihnachtsmann or Christkindl) outside the door for St. Nikolaus who will leave little gifts if they were nice. If Knecht Rupprecht/Krampus/Ru Klaas has come along, the parents will be questioned about their childrens’ behavior and the naughty ones will get a switch instead of treats. This is often a day when families will bake cookies or do holiday crafts together.
December 24…Holy Eve. Considered the most special night of the season, this is when mass is often attended and Christkindl or Weihnachtsmann delivers presents to the children. And, they don’t have to spend a tortuous night waiting for the gift opening frenzy. Children are often sent to their room before they arrive and are only allowed to come out when a bell is rung. When they emerge, they find a tree adorned with decorations and filled with presents. Stores and offices are typically open only half the day.
December 25 and 26…First and Second Christmas Days. Germans don’t just get one Christmas day, but two. These days tend to be more quiet and focused on family, friends, and food. Lunch is the primary meal and usually includes goose, turkey or duck as a main dish. The white advent candle is lit on the first Christmas day. Both days are federal holidays.
January 6…Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night. A Catholic tradition where boys and girls dress up as kings and visit homes, singing carols and collecting donations for special projects. When they visit a home, they leave a souvenir…a chalk marking, usually above the door, with the first and last two numbers of the year separated by the first initials of the three kings C…aspar, M…elchior, and B…althasar.
Christmas Trees ~ The tradition of the Christmas tree, or tannenbaum, began in Germany back in the 16th century when small firs were cut and decorated with fruit, nuts and paper decorations. It is said that Martin Luther was the first one to adorn a tree with candles.
Christkindlmarkts ~ Dating back to the 14th century, there are very few German cities who don’t host a traditional Christmas market…usually in the old town square or a medieval castle. At these festive outdoor markets, which begin on the First Advent, vendors sell their wares from stalls…a combination of factory and handmade Christmas ornaments and decorations, toys, candles, kitchenware, winter fashions, or unique works of art. Hundreds of people gather to drink glühwein (hot spiced wine), eat stollen (fruit bread), lebkuchen (gingerbread biscuits), roasted bratwurst, mendeln (warm candied almonds), and maroni (roasted chestnuts).
Gingerbread Houses and Cookies ~ Out of all European countries, Germany has the longest tradition of baking gingerbread cookies and houses.
Advent Wreaths & Candles ~ Advent calendars are also popular for kids. (We can thank the head of a Hamburg orphanage who came up with this brilliant idea to resolve the incessant “How many more days ‘til Christmas???”.)