Christmas Traditions in Germany
It’s rather fitting that the federal republic of Germany lies in the heart of Europe, for this robust country is the life source of many secular and religious Christmas traditions that are celebrated throughout the world.
If this sounds like heady praise, try imagining Christmas without a Christmas tree, Santa or an Advent calendar – three seasonal customs that are largely credited to this mostly Christian country of about 82 million people. It is largely assumed that even “Silent Night, Holy Night” premiered as a Christmas carol in Germany on December 24, 1818 – in St. Nicolas Church in Oberndorf, near Salzburg.
As with most countries, Germany’s rich historical legacy can comingle with myth and even folk tales and fairy tales. (After all, the country is home to the famous brothers Grimm.) Still, it is not disputed that St. Boniface played a large role in cultivating the growth of Christianity in 8th century Germany.
As an apostle of the church, he was driven to an angry fit after discovering a group of Germans worshipping an oak tree. He promptly cut down the tree, only to discover a fir tree growing inside of it. St. Boniface considered this a religious miracle, and so he dutifully spread the word of the transformation and the Christmas tree became an article of Christian faith in Germany.
Still, it apparently took some time for German families to adopt the custom of decorating an entire tree in their homes. Many families simply draped evergreen branches on mantels and furniture until the 17th century, when the practice of putting up an entire tree and decorating it with apples, German gingerbread and silk flowers began to catch on. By the 19th century, the Christmas tree had become the focal point of Christmas decorations in many German homes, and the Nativity scene found a new place underneath or next to the tree.
The Christmas tree found its way to America in the mid-1850s and achieved national prominence thanks to two presidents: President Franklin Pierce, who requested the first White House Christmas tree, and President Calvin Coolidge, who authorized the first national Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.
One German custom, though, seems to have remained integral to Europe – that of the golden angel, which either adorns the top of German Christmas trees or serves as a centerpiece on holiday tables.
The story of the angel has captivated Germans since the 18th century, when a craftsman from Nuremberg often made wooden toys to amuse his young daughter as he supported them with the tools of his trade. Contented and happy, his life suddenly took a tragic turn when his golden-haired daughter died unexpectedly.
Tormented by grief and unable to sleep, the craftsman finally had a dream in which his daughter appeared to him as an angel, with a grand dress and two golden wings. Inspired, he carved his daughter’s likeness into the form of an angel, with the dress and wings as he remembered them in his dream. The Germans who visited his shop fell in love with the beautiful angels and bought them all, so the craftsman made more. He continued to refine them for the rest of his life, trying to find some peace in the notion that the depiction of his beloved daughter brought others happiness.
Ubiquitous throughout Germany, the golden angel is sold at Christkindlmarkets throughout the country in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In addition to other handmade dolls, toys and gifts, these festive Christmas markets also feature a wide array of meats, fried fish filets on fresh bread rolls (backfisch), sautéed mushrooms and an equally wide variety of gingerbread, sweets and confections.
The Christmas tradition of Weihnachtsmarkets dates back to the 15th century in Germany. In larger cities, they might feature musicians, dancers and the favored Christmas market beverage: Glühwein. The markets showcase Germany’s rich Christmas heritage and serve as bustling community focal points, drawing the German people together night after night.
The frivolity of the Christmas season in Germany reaches a fever pitch on Christmas Eve, which is even more important than Heiligabend, or Christmas Day. Families often gather for a traditional German meal of duck, goose, rabbit, turkey or a roast, accompanied by German dishes such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage and potato dumplings. And as any loyal German knows, a side dish of grilled sausages – known as wurst – would be lost without a heaping bed of sauerkraut underneath.
While Germans are almost universally credited with spreading the appeal of gingerbread and apple strudel, it is actually the Stollen of which they are most proud. No mere holiday fruitcake, Stollen originated in the city of Dresden in 1329 and bursts with the rich flavor of butter, fruit and nuts. Moreover, this German delicacy is shaped with tapered ends and a ridge down the center, symbolizing the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.
The religious overtones of Christmas Eve culminate with a visit by the Christkind, an angel-messenger sent by the Christ child who may be accompanied by a mischievous companion, such as Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle and Ru-Klas, as he delivers gifts to children. Wearing a flowing white robe, a white veil and gold wings, the Christkind often enters by an open window and rings a bell as he departs.
If he is observant, the Christkind will have taken note of the Advent wreath or calendar on many German tables, with one last window waiting to be opened on Christmas Day. This day is usually a quiet one for many Germans, but the noise grows in some parts of the country over the next 12 days of Christmas. Germans once thought that the world was full of spirits during this period, so in some places, people still fire guns or beat drums at night to drive the spirits away.
The fear dissipates on January 6, or Three Kings Day, when little boys dress up as the three kings -- Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar – and sing carols to mark the end of a memorable season that continues to touch lives, lighten hearts and inspire appreciation for beloved Christmas traditions throughout the world.