I was asked to submit an article about Christmas traditions in Germany to Gen X Moms Blog. I wanted to share what I wrote here.
Christmas in Germany
Living on the edge of the Bavarian Alps as we do, one of my favorite times of year here is the Christmas season. Between the holiday decorations, Christmas markets and the impressive backdrop of snow-covered Alps, this time of year is magical.
We call him Santa Claus, but in Germany he’s called Sankt Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas. In Germany, Saint Nicholas brings gifts to children on December 6th, his feast day.
This year, I thought Rosebud was old enough to learn about Saint Nicholas. On the evening of December 5th, Rosebud and I sat at our kitchen table, where I sang her a song about Saint Nicholas called “Lasst uns froh und munter sein” (or “Let us be happy and cheerful”). The song is about how children put out a plate on Saint Nicholas Eve, and then while the children sleep, Nicholas puts treats in the plate for the children to find the next morning. We sang the song several times (“Mommy, sing it again?”), and then I helped Rosebud put a plate on our kitchen table for Saint Nicholas. The next morning, her eyes were wide with amazement when she discovered her plate was full, with a few sweets and many clementines.
Originally, children in Germany would put out a boot or a stocking, just like the tradition of having Christmas stockings for Santa to fill. Usually Saint Nicholas leaves gifts of oranges or clementines, nuts, chocolates, Lebkuchen (similar to gingerbread) and maybe some other small gifts. A friend of mine in the Netherlands told me that Saint Nicholas is very important there; he’s called Sinter Klaas and children get most of their gifts on Saint Nicholas day.
At some of the Christmas markets in Germany, Saint Nicholas appears in costume. He asks the children if they have been good and usually gives them a clementine or apple. Unlike our jolly Saint Nick in North America, Saint Nicholas is slender rather than plump, and dressed like a bishop in red and gold.
O Tannenbaum – Oh Christmas Tree
The custom of bringing an evergreen into your home and decorating it is an old one; the tree symbolized the return of spring. Traditionally, Germans decorate their tree with candles and bows; also common are sweets, glass balls, straw stars and wooden ornaments and figures. Most people have lights in the shape of candles for their tree, but some families still put actual candles on their tree. When I was an exchange student in Köln (Cologne), my family had real candles for their tree. We lit the candles and admired the tree for about twenty minutes, but then extinguished the candles and plugged in the string of lights for the rest of the time. The candle-lit tree was beautiful, though. I’m not brave enough to do it myself, but the candle-lit tree is something I’ll always remember.
Some families put up their tree on Christmas Eve and then take it down on January 6th, which is called Three Kings day. In the ballet The Nutcracker, the parents of Clara put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. The children don’t get to see the tree until the parents finish decorating it, which is another tradition that some families have.
Adventskranz – Advent Wreath
Most families have an advent wreath in their home, even if they aren’t necessarily religious. It’s thought that the Advent wreath originated before Christianity spread throughout this part Europe. In the Germanic and Scandinavian countries, a large wheel was decorated with four candles. The four candles represented the four seasons, and the wheel represented the earth. The candles were lit in the hopes that the wheel would turn back toward the sun.
Today, the candles are lit for each Advent Sunday and instead of a wheel, a circle is usually fashioned out of pine boughs. Last year, one of the students I tutor in English was telling me how he and his friend always collect pine boughs to make into wreaths to sell at their local Christmas Market. The hand-made wreaths I’ve seen here are decorated with ribbons, pinecones, dried oranges, whole spices and other seasonal items. The wreaths make for a beautiful table decoration and help to bring a little light into one’s home during the dark December days.
Christkindlmarkt/Weihnachtsmarkt – Christmas Markets
The Christmas markets, which are outdoor street markets, are probably my favorite tradition here. Especially in southern Germany where we live, the markets are called the “Christkindlmarkt” but in other parts of Germany the markets are called “Weihnachtsmarkt”. When the festive Christmas markets open on the first weekend of Advent, I feel like finally it is time to get ready for the holidays.
The markets are generally held in town squares or pedestrian zones, and wooden stalls are set up to display handmade crafts, foods, ornaments, jewelry and other items. It wouldn’t be a Christmas market without sausages or bratwurst, gebrannte Mandeln (candied almonds) and Glühwein (mulled hot wine) or Kinderpunsch (spiced warm fruit punch).
Larger cities like Munich have multiple Christmas markets, and even special themed ones. This year, with baby Superdude in the stroller and Rosebud who likes to walk, we have gone to the smaller markets in our region. Rosebud in particular has loved going to the Christmas markets. She gets excited over the lights and decorations, the outdoor music and even all the people.
Even though the weather can be very cold and snowy, somehow we don’t mind when we are walking around the Christmas markets. A mug of Glühwein or Kinderpunsch helps keep the cold away. My children are lucky to experience the Christmas traditions here. As they grow older, we will all have fond memories of celebrating Christmas in Germany.