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Family Christmas Traditions from Germany
German legend says that, on Christmas Eve, all the rivers turn to wine, the animals speak to each other and to humans, trees bear fruit, church bells ring from the sea, and gems pour forth from the mountains. Is it any wonder, then, that family Christmas traditions in Germany are bold, beautiful, and full of cheer? When Christmas, or Weihnachten as the Germans call it, rolls around in Germany, you’ll find lots of beautiful decorations, delicious treats, and traditional stories to brighten the season.
The first part of December is traditionally reserved for solemn religious reflection. In years past, this quiet period lasted right up until Christmas itself. This time included a focus on reconnecting with your religion through reflection and fasting. Modern Germans, however, tends to use a slightly shorter period of time while still preserving the idea of concentrating on the religious aspects of the season.
The four weeks leading up to Christmas usually beginning just before December first so as to include four Sundays before Christmas) is the Adventszeit or Advent season. Many German households include an Adventskran, or Advent wreath. This is a
wreath of leaves with five candles, usually with four purple candles and one white. On each Sunday of Advent, one of the purple candles is lit. The white candle is traditionally lit around midnight on Christmas Eve to signal the birth of the Christ Child. Most families also have an Advent calendar for each child. There’s a door on the calendar for each day from December 1st through 25th, and behind each door the child will find a small chocolate or toy. Many families open their doors just before bed, giving the children something to dream about in anticipation of the arrival of Christmas.
Children in Germany tend to honor both St. Nikolaus and the Christ Child in their traditions. On December 6th, families celebrate St. Nikolaus’s Feast Day by placing their shoes by the fireplace. The children hope that St. Nikolaus will deem their behavior throughout the year as good enough to warrant treats of fruit, nuts, chocolates, candies, and marzipan instead of the coal and twigs his partner Knecht Ruprecht bestows upon naughty children. Many modern Germans now use a decorative item like a small wooden sleigh or shoe in place of actual shoes when waiting for the arrival of St. Nikolaus. After St. Nikolaus has come and gone, the children write letters to the Christkindl or the Christ Child, addressing them to his home in Himmelstadt.
According to many accounts, the Christmas tree that has become traditional throughout many parts of the world originated in Germany. Known as the Weihnachtsbaum to the Germans, the Christmas tree is traditionally a live fir or pine tree that is decorated with candles, marzipan, beautifully wrapped chocolates, hand-blown ornaments, and tinsel. Tradition dictates that the children of the family aren’t allowed to see the Christmas tree until the Christmas bell rings on the night of Christmas Eve. Many families now keep the Christmas tree in a locked room for such a purpose, while others prefer to put their trees up on Christmas Eve evening.
On Christmas Eve, the German family traditionally starts their evening with a service at their church. When they return, one member of the family rings the Christmas bell, signaling the start of the Christmas celebration. The family then goes to the Christmas tree to open gifts. This tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve is different from many other Western countries, but remains true to this day. Different parts of Germany believe differently about who brings the gifts. In the northern part of the country, families traditionally believe that the Weihnachstmann or Christmas Man brings their gifts. In the southern part of the country, however, the Christkindl is who brings the gifts that everyone enjoys.
Then comes the Christmas feast. Different families partake of this feast at varying times; it can take place before the gift giving, after the gift giving, or even after the midnight Christmas church service. Regardless, the feast traditionally consists of a roasted goose or carp and lots of goodies. Some typical side dishes include Christstollen, which is a long loaf of bread stuffed with nuts and marzipan fruit; Lebkuchen, or gingerbread; marzipan fruits themselves; and Stollen, a fruit-filled bread. The feast is usually ended with plates of cookies and chocolates to bring a proper end to the celebration.
Christmas Day itself is spent with family and friends and usually includes time for religious activities. The Christmas season doesn’t traditionally end, however, until January 6th. This day was traditionally used to celebrate the birth of Christ, and is still used today as the Feast of the Epiphany or Heilige Drei Könige. This day celebrates the three wise men, and their initials along with the year are written in chalk above the doors of German homes to protect the family throughout the year.
Germany is the source of many Western Christmas traditions. While maintaining their own unique intricacies, Germans have shared their traditions throughout the world and can be looked to for wonderful ideas on how you can start your own family Christmas traditions. Maybe this year, your family can participate in the celebration of the Advent with a beautiful calendar filled with chocolates, or decorate your tree with marzipan and cookies. Make the traditions your own, and your family will remember your Christmas celebration for years to come.
About the Author: Jane S. Roseen is the Owner and President of Harmony Sweets, an international gourmet chocolate shop. Harmony Sweets' mission focuses on individual consumers purchasing gourmet chocolates from around the world for their friends and relatives, as well as corporate gift giving. Gourmet chocolate gift baskets and personalized chocolates are also available.