Germany, Christmas in

Germany, Christmas in

German Christmas celebrations braid together a rich heritage of folk, food, and religious customs. Many of these customs have spread to other parts of the globe. Indeed, the Christmas tree, which emerged in Germany several centuries ago, has become a nearly universal symbol of the holiday. German Christmas customs and traditions have probably exerted more influence on mainstream American Christmas celebrations than those of any other ethnic group.

Advent

In Germany Advent is called Lichtwochen, which means "light weeks." The Germans observe Advent with Advent wreaths and Advent calendars. These two customs, German in origin, have spread far beyond Germany. Carol singing is another popular Advent and Christmas custom. One of the world's most popular Christmas carols, "Silent Night," was originally composed in German by an Austrian priest and his organist. Other internationally known carols of German origin include "In Dulci Jubilo" (also known as "Good Christian Men Rejoice"), "Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming," and "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree." Germany's famous Christmas markets offer another way to prepare for Christmas. Traditional German Christmas foods, crafts, and gifts can be found at their many, busy stalls. The famous Nuremberg market opens on the Friday closest to St. Barbara's Day, December 4, although most Christmas markets are open throughout Advent.

Frauentragen, or "woman carrying," an old German Advent custom still practiced in some areas, closely resembles the Hispanic folk play Las Posadas. Children carry a picture or figurine representing the Virgin Mary to a neighborhood home. Once there they sing or enact a brief scene from the Nativity story, say a prayer, and place the picture or figurine near the family crucifix. The children return for the image the following evening and carry it to a new home. In this way they act out Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve the children carry Mary back to the church, where she takes her place in the Nativity scene.

Special Days Within Advent

In past eras various customs and superstitions attached themselves to the saints' days and other special days that fell during Advent. St. Andrew's night, November 30, presented young girls with the opportunity to use folk magic to foresee their marital futures. One old superstition advised girls to wait up until midnight and throw a slipper at the door. If the slipper landed with the toe pointing out the door, they would be leaving their parents' home for their husband's home in the next year. St. Thomas's Day, December 21, provided another opportunity for young women to exercise various fortunetelling charms. In past years St. Thomas's night was also known as spinning night. Young women stayed up late into the night spinning thread that might be sold to help pay for Christmas expenses. On St. Barbara's Day, an old folk tradition recommended cutting branches from cherry trees and placing them in vases of water near the fire. If timed correctly these branches, known as "Barbara branches," would bloom on Christmas or Christmas Eve.

St. Nicholas's Day, December 6, offers children a preview of Christmas pleasures to come. On St. Nicholas's Eve youngsters leave a shoe or a boot by the fireplace, window, or bedroom door. The next morning they find it filled with sweet treats. Although St. Nicholas usually disburses presents, German folklore warns that he will sometimes leave poorly behaved children a stick as a warning of punishment to come. St. Nicholas's assistant, Knecht Ruprecht, usually performs the unpleasant task of disciplining naughty children.

The Knocking Nights - the last three Thursday nights in Advent - constitute a different sort of Christmas season observance. In some regions of Germany folk tradition encourages people to take to the streets making loud noises and wearing frightening masks on these nights. Folk rites designed to ward away evil spirits and influences were also practiced on these days.

Christmas Decorations

Besides Advent calendars and wreaths, home decorations in Germany include red candles, pine twigs, and candlesticks. One regional folk custom encourages families to display candlesticks shaped like miners and angels in their windows at Christmas time. Families display one miner for each boy child in the house and one angel for each girl child. The Christmas pyramid is another traditional German Christmas decoration. Some researchers believe that this pyramidal arrangement of shelves served as the forerunner to the Christmas tree. Many German families display a Nativity scene in their homes. This is especially popular in Roman Catholic areas. Bavarian craftsman have a reputation for producing marvelous Nativity scenes out of carved wood. Many fine Christmas cribs are produced by German artisans and sold at Christmas markets. The most famous German Christmas decoration, however, is the Christmas tree. In the last several hundred years the Christmas tree has spread throughout the world, and today is recognized as a nearly universal symbol of the holiday.

Christmas Baking

The Germans are famous for their Christmas baking, and, indeed, a German Christmas is filled with many delectable treats. Christstollen, also called Chrisbrot, Stutenbrot, or Striezl, constitutes Germany's most famous Christmas cake or bread. To make it bakers enhance a sweet yeast dough with dried fruits, various fruit peels, almonds, and spices. After baking they apply a coating of sugar icing. Baumkuchen, or "tree cake," serves as another special Christmas or Advent treat. The logshaped cake is prepared in such a way that each slice is imprinted with concentric circles resembling tree rings. Gingerbread is another German Christmas favorite. The Germans not only shape it into cookies, but also into gingerbread houses. Other well-known German Christmas cookies include Lebkuchen, Pfeffernüsse, and Springerle. The German baker may also produce other Christmas treats from Germany's storehouse of cookie recipes, including vanilla rings, cinnamon stars, various kinds of nut cookies, spice cookies, macaroons, marzipan, and more.

Gift Bringers

In addition to St. Nicholas, a number of other Christmas gift bringers visit Germany each year. The Christkindel, or "Christ Child" usually brings gifts to children in southern Germany. In the north the Weihnachtsmann, or "Christmas man" typically delivers the gifts.

Christmas Eve and Day

In Germany Christmas Eve is known as Heilige Abend, or "holy night." Throughout Germany many offices and stores close by noon and people scurry home to make last-minute preparations. Lutherans often attend church services on the afternoon of the twentyfourth, while German Roman Catholics wait until Midnight Mass. Many people visit family gravesites on Christmas Eve. In some areas they leave lighted candles on the graves. In rural areas farmers pay their respects to the family farm animals by making sure they are fed before the Christmas tree is lit. This custom honors the folk belief that farm animals were among the first to welcome the baby Jesus into the world, since he was born in a stable. Some German families decorate their Christmas trees on the afternoon of December 24. Mother and father may do so behind closed doors, allowing the children their first view of the illuminated tree after sunset. Some German families still light their trees with candles, although others now prefer electric lights as a safer option. In addition to store-bought ornaments German families festoon their Christmas trees with cookies and candies. Families often read the Christmas story aloud by the light of the Christmas tree candles and sing their favorite carols before settling down to open gifts. In some families parents give children sparklers to hold while they stand around the tree and sing.

Today Germans display their Christmas presents under the tree or near the Nativity scene. In the past, however, some gifts were tossed through an open window or door and were known as Julklapp, or "Christmas knocks." Gift givers wrapped these boxes in many different layers, with a different name attached to each layer. Part of the fun lay in finding out who the gift was really for.

Many different dishes appear on Christmas Eve menus in Germany. In past times, carp was standard fare on Christmas Eve, in keeping with the Roman Catholic tradition of fasting on December 24. In Roman Catholic areas of Germany people may still prepare a meatless meal for Christmas Eve. Sweetened rice pudding, a dish which still finds favor with some Scandinavians, once served as another traditional Christmas dish in Germany (see also Denmark, Christmas in; Norway, Christmas in).

In Germany Christmas Day is sometimes referred as the "First Day of Christmas," der erste Weihnachtstag. Germans typically spend the day at home with their families or visit relatives. The main meal of the day usually features roast goose.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The rest of the Twelve Days of Christmas fall between Christmas and Epiphany. In past times many superstitions attached themselves to this time of year. Many people believed that the Wild Hunt, a band of fierce spirits, rode abroad on these nights. Berchta, a witch-like figure, was also said to wander through German-speaking lands at this time of year. Many of the old folk customs associated with the Twelve Days offered protection from these roaming phantoms. For example, Germans often burned incense as a means of frightening off evil spirits. The Twelve Days were sometimes called the "Smoke Nights" in reference to this custom. Loud noises were believed to ward off evil creatures as well, and many noisemaking customs attached themselves to this season. According to folk tradition, wearing frightening masks and costumes also put evil influences to flight, and in some areas people went from house to house in such garb. In Bavaria women refrained from spinning, baking, washing, and cleaning during the Twelve Days of Christmas, believing it unlucky. For this reason the period became known as the "Twelve Quiet Days."

The magic of the Twelve Days also extended to fortune-telling. One folk belief cautioned that events that occurred during these twelve days set the pattern for the twelve months to come. For example, rain on the second day of Christmas meant that much rain would fall during February, the second month of the year. Folklore advised young girls to harness the magical properties of the twelve days to see their own futures. They could choose from a number of spells and charms designed to foretell whether or not they would marry in the coming year, and to reveal the identity of their future husbands. For example, the sparks of a fire lit on New Year's Eve might spell out their future husband's name, or the entire peel from an apple, tossed over one shoulder might fall in such a pattern as to give a clue to the boy's identity. These charms were especially popular on New Year's Eve.

St. Stephen's Day

Germans celebrate St. Stephen's Day, December 26, in much the same way they celebrate Christmas, with family visits. In the evening many Germans enjoy dining out and attending the theater. Since St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, many old St. Stephen's Day customs involve these animals. In rural areas, farmers still ride their horses in processions to be blessed. Moreover, horse trainers and breeders often sponsor equestrian processions on this day.

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve is also known as Silvester Abend, or Sylvester's Eve, in recognition of the fact that December 31 is St. Sylvester's Day. Germans celebrate New Year's Eve with parties, fortune-telling, and practical jokes. Traditional party foods include carp, herring salad, hot wine punch, and champagne. Bleigiessen, or molten lead pouring, is a traditional method of fortune-telling on New Year's Eve. A partygoer drops a spoonful of molten lead into water and lets it harden. The shape it takes will foretell something about what that person will be doing in the coming year. Many luck charms and superstitions have also attached themselves to New Year's Eve. One folk belief warns that spilling salt on New Year's Eve brings bad luck. By contrast, coming into contact with a pig, chimney soot, or a chimneysweep on New Year's Eve brings good luck. Sometimes a thoughtful party host will bring both a live pig and a chimneysweep to his New Year's party as a way of offering good luck to his guests. Another superstition advises that the sight of a young, dark-haired man soon after the start of the new year brings good luck (see also Firstfooting).

In the days following Christmas many shops sell joke goods. These include things like sugar cubes that have a spider inside them, or chocolates filled with mustard instead of candy. The Germans celebrate the new year by playing these kinds of jokes on one another. Noisemaking is another important New Year's custom. Fireworks explode at midnight, and in some villages, horn players "blow in" the new year from the local church tower. In other regions people shoot off guns or even small cannons in honor of the new year (see Shooting in Christmas).

Epiphany

Epiphany, January 6, is called Dreikönigstag, or "Three Kings' Day" in Germany. In past times many people celebrated Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, as the end of the Christmas season. Some Germans still follow this old custom, electing a King of the Bean and Queen of the Bean to preside over Twelfth Night or Epiphany parties. Another old Epiphany custom, the caroling of the star boys, or star singers, also survives in contemporary Germany. Nowadays these costumed lads, dressed as the Three Kings, or Magi, may collect coins for charitable causes rather than treats for themselves.

The blessing of homes with incense, holy water, and the initials of the Three Kings is a religious custom connected with Epiphany. The Germans use the initials CMB to represent the Three Kings, which come from the names most associated with the Magi in folklore: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These initials are printed over the front door in chalk, surrounded by the numbers representing the year. Thus, in 1999 the inscription would read 19 CMB 99.

Two final Christmas customs take place in German homes on Epiphany. Many German families add the figures representing the Three Kings to their Nativity scenes on this day. In addition, Christmas trees are taken down, and children are permitted to eat the treats that have been used as decorations.

Further Reading

Christmas in Germany. Second edition. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Passport Books, 1996. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982.

Web Sites

The German Embassy in Washington, D.C., maintains a number of pages describing German Christmas foods and customs on its web site. Go to the site listed below, click on "search," and enter the word "Christmas":

A site sponsored by German instructor Robert J. Shea, Missouri:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003