Christmas in Germany
(Weihnachten in Deutschland)
As my quiet American Christmas came to a close, I decided to give myself a present—time to do something I’d been wanting to do without a thought to anyone else’s needs or the perceived importance of my desire. I wanted to know more about Christmas in Germany just because.
I have been so fortunate to spend the past two Christmas seasons in Germany. It’s magical, festive and…so complicated. There are traditions and characters that are literally and figuratively foreign to me. And, just to make it even more confusing, said traditions and characters vary by region within Germany, so it’s no wonder I was in need of a Christmas education.
The Who of Christmas in Germany
St. Nikolaus Klaus (St. Nicholas Claus)—St. Nikolaus Klaus is the benefactor of the treats that fill the boots and shoes of children on Nikolaustag [St. Nicholas Day]…not Christmas Day. St. Nikolaus resembles a bishop with a white-trimmed red robe and tall staff. No sleigh here…he rides a white horse instead.
Christkindl—Believed to be the Christ Child’s messenger, Christkindl is a stunning angel dressed in gold and white robes and wearing a crown adorned with candles. She brings gifts to each home on Christmas Eve, hence SHE is the recipient of “Dear Santa” letters, not St. Nikolaus.
Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas Man” or Father Christmas)—A generic character who is a blend of St. Nikolaus, Father Christmas and Santa Claus, Weihnachtsmann is the secular counterpart to Christkindl and a “new” tradition, dating back a mere couple hundred years to the 1800‘s.
And, to put a stop to all the warm and fuzzies, let’s move on…
Knecht Rupprecht, Krampus, or Ru Klaas—Even back in the 17th century, kids needed some extra motivation to behave and the Germans have a particularly effective motivator. One of these “Bad Santas” may accompany St. Nikolaus, Christkindl or Weihnachtsmann, but instead of bearing gifts, Knecht Rupprecht, Krampus or Ru Klaas bears a switch with which to dole out some “whuppins” to the naughty kids whose parents rat them out. Yup, pretty much the stuff of nightmares.
The When of Christmas in Germany
The fourth Sunday before Christmas…the First Advent. The First Advent is the day the Christmas season is launched. Decorations are put up, the baking extravaganza 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). Dating back to the mid-1500‘s, Nikolaustag used to be the only day of the season that involved gifts. On the evening of December 5, children leave a shoe [and maybe a wish list for Weihnachtsmann or Christkindl outside the door for St. Nikolaus. If they were deemed to be “nice,” they are filled with little gifts. But, if Krampus has come along, the parents are questioned about their offspring’s behavior to determine whether any switching is called for. Families usually spend this day baking cookies and making holiday crafts.
December 24…Holy Eve. Considered the most special night of the season, Holy Eve is when mass is often attended and Christkindl or Weihnachtsmann delivers presents to the children. This original tradition was definitely pro-kid. There was no tortuous night spent waiting for the gift opening frenzy the next morning—at some point in the evening, they were sent to their room and allowed to come out when a bell was rung. They emerge to 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 & Second Christmas Days. Germans don’t just get one Christmas day…they get two (and both are federal holidays)! The white advent candle is lit on the first Christmas day. 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.
January 6…Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night. Three Kings Day is a Catholic tradition that has boys and girls dressing up as kings and visiting homes, singing carols and collecting donations for special projects. When they visit, they leave a souvenir consisting of 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).
The What of Christmas in Germany
Tannenbaum (Christmas Tree)—The tradition of the Christmas tree 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, many German cities host a traditional Christmas market, usually in the old town square or the local medieval castle. At these festive outdoor markets, which begin on the First Advent, vendors sell their wares from individual stalls—a combination of factory and handmade Christmas ornaments and decor, toys, candles, kitchenware, winter fashions, or unique handicrafts. Crowds of people gather to drink Glühwein (hot spiced wine) and eat Stollen (fruit bread), Lebkuchen (gingerbread biscuits), roasted Bratwurst, Mendeln (warm candied almonds), and Maroni (roasted Chestnuts). December became my favorite month in Germany on my very first visit to Munich!
Gingerbread Houses & Cookies—Out of all of the European countries, Germany has the longest tradition of baking gingerbread houses and cookies.
Advent Wreaths & Candles. Advent calendars are quite 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???” question.
If you can only make one trip to Germany, let it be during the magical Christmas season so you can celebrate Christmas in Germany.