In an overly commercial Christmas season, which starts at some retailers in September, it is wise to remember some of the German Christmas traditions of our childhood, which made the season mysterious and wonderful. Although German and Anglo-Saxon holiday traditions are nowadays inextricably linked, there are some noteworthy differences worth exploring. Here’s the skinny on ten favorite German Christmas traditions, with some historical background, anecdotes and recipe suggestions.
Counting down the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve is one of childhood’s greatest memories. And nothing sweetens the moment more than opening a new door on the Advent calendar every day in December to reveal a sweet chocolate. The Advent calendar tradition began with plain cards with paper backing with 24 windows that opened to reveal Christmas symbols and scenes. Today you can get original German chocolate-filled calendars with religious motifs, naughty calendars for grown-up boys and girls or Playmobil calendars containing cute figures and scenes.
Many families in Germany put a Advent wreath with four large candles on the living room table on the the fourth Sunday before Christmas. As lights and lamps are dimmed, the whole family gathers around the wreath to enjoy a quiet, reflective hour together. Some families may sing Christmas carols or enjoy a child’s performance on the flute or piano; others may watch an afternoon family movie, sipping their hot chocolate, tea, coffee or glühwein, and munching on stollen, cookies, marzipan chocolate, roasted chestnuts and fruits. Each Sunday another candle will be lit until all four candles light the room. The Advent wreath tradition is especially observed in those households where the decorated Christmas tree is not unveiled until Christmas Eve. Till then, the Advent wreath provides the heart-warming candlelit look and evergreen aroma throughout December.
Sankt Nikolaus Tag (St. Nicholas Day)
In Germany, the night of the December 5th is special one. Children place a freshly polished pair of boots in front of their bedroom doors, hoping that St.Nicholas and his assistant Knecht Ruprecht will come to their house to leave a little gift, perhaps a little chocolate, a few nuts or fruits, or a bag of gummy bears, in the boot. On the morning of December 6th, parents have no trouble getting their children out of bed. They will already have sneaked out of the bedroom to take a peak at what St. Nicholas has brought them. But not all children are that lucky. St. Nikolaus only brings presents to those children who, on balance, behaved well throughout the year. Those who did not may find a piece of coal in the shoe, courtesy of Knecht Ruprecht, who carries a sack of coal on his shoulders.
While Sankt Nikolaus dresses quite like his American counterpart, he does not drive a reindeer sleigh or come down the chimney, completely unseen. In some households, children may actually come face to face with Nikolaus. The impressive Saint (most likely played by a friend of the family) asks the children whether they have been naughty or nice. Lying is pointless because Sankt Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht know everything, carrying around a record of each and every child’s good and bad behavior in Nikolaus’ golden book. While Knecht Ruprecht is a menacing figure whose role is to frighten children into good behavior with threats of being spanked, Sankt Nikolaus is a goodhearted character who exudes gentleness and authority at the same time. In fact, the German Nikolaus is based on an actual person, a popular bishop who lived in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) during the fourth century and became a legend due to his humble and generous nature.
With the Reformation came a movement away from the worship of saints, and the tradition of giving and opening gifts was moved to Christmas Eve. Gifts have since been brought by the Christkind (Christ Child), from whom Kris Kringle derived his name, and in Germany they are usually opened on Christmas Eve, December 24, after a traditional family meal and the singing of Christmas carols.
In Southern Bavaria, local folks celebrate St. Nicholas Night in an alternative fashion. Muscular men in demonic costumes, devilish masks and furry coats march from house to house, banging on doors, and, when invited in by expecting parents, attempt to frighten kids into good behavior. Occasionally, a recalcitrant teenage male may be dragged by hand and feet outside into the open and dunked several times in the deep snow, to the delight of his younger siblings. Afterwards, the Krampus and his fellow devils may be found ant the local pub celebrating long into the night.
During Advent season the historic city centers of every major German city and many smaller towns light up with Christmas markets (Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt in German). Holiday lights and decorations, lure locals and tourists alike with vendors of local arts and craftsmanship, plenty of great food and the ubiquitous Christmas market beverage, Glühwein. The Christmas market tradition dates back to the 15th century. Today over 2500 Christmas markets all over Germany invite visitors to get into the festive mood. Markets commonly feature a nativity scene; bigger cities might offer a central stage for traditional musicians and dancers. Vendors offer a wide range of gifts that are often still handcrafted, as well as a mouthwatering array of grilled sausages and meats, fried fish fillets on a fresh bread rolls (Backfisch), sautéed mushrooms, and an unending variety of specialty sweets, confections and baked goods. Christmas markets are a treat for all the senses — beautiful to behold, delicious scents wafting through the air and a definitive feast for the taste buds.
More and more North American cities have adopted this wonderful German tradition. Find a Christmas market near you.
On a cold day, nothing will warm you up faster than a mug of steaming Glühwein. This quintessential Christmas market beverage consists of hot mulled red wine, with an optional shot of brandy (Glühwein mit Schuss). Most major cities in Germany serve Glühwein in ceramic mugs specifically designed for the local Christmas markets. Similar to the practice in Bavarian beer gardens, when purchasing Glühwein, you will pay a deposit on top of the price of the beverage. This gives you the option of either returning the mug once finished to get your deposit back or keeping it as a nice souvenir. While the designs vary, the mugs usually depict either the respective historic city centers or the Christmas market.
To make Glühwein at home, follow our Glühwein recipe. If you prefer, you can purchase the ready-made beverage in a gourmet food store near you. All you will have to do is heat up the mixture and serve it.
Feuerzangenbowle – a Modern German Christmas Tradition
Feuerzangenbowle — this mysterious tongue twister is the name of a spectacular drink involving hot mulled wine, high percentage alcohol rum and open flames. Feuerzangenbowle has become a popular Christmas season tradition. Although the concoction itself is most likely considerably older, it was the 1943 comedy movie “Die Feuerzangenbowle” which made it widely popular. The movie has achieved cult status and has created a new tradition among fans who invite friends over for a mug of Feuerzangenbowle and a screening of the film.
The movie stars the iconic German actor Heinz Rühmann as writer Johannes Pfeiffer. It begins in a bar in Germany where the middle-aged Pfeiffer and his friends gather around a big pot of Feuerzangenbowle. Pfeiffer, having had a bit too much of this potent drink, decides to dress up as a high school student and to go back to school, since as the son of a prominent well-to-do family he had been privately tutored and missed out on that formative experience. The movie chronicles the mischievous deeds and tricks of Pfeiffer and his young classmates come. It is not hard to see why the drink has become a fun new holiday tradition which enjoys particular popularity among German students. If you’d like to try a at home, follow our Feuerzangenbowle recipe.
“Oh Tannenbaum” — The Tradition of the Decorated Christmas Tree
At merely 400 years of age, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree is a comparatively young German custom. Historically, families decorated their living rooms with evergreen branches at Christmas time, a custom which eventually evolved into bringing in whole trees. In the 17th century people started decorating their trees with ripe red apples, scrumptious gingerbread and silk flowers, creating the illusion of a tree blooming in winter. By the 19th century, the Christmas tree had replaced the nativity scene as focal point of German Christmas festivities.
Modern Christmas trees are usually conifers such as fir, spruce or pine. Decorating the tree with live candles or strings of lights and a variety of intricate ornaments is a matter of great pride in most families. Some of the ornaments may be heirloom pieces, handed down from generation to generation. Homemade cookies, decorative candy and chocolate are also often added to the ornaments.
From the Erzgebirge, the mountainous range between Saxony and the Czech republic, come these wonderfully crafted and carved wooden figurines, depicting angels with musical instruments.
Lastly, one of the most anticipated of German Christmas traditions is the festive Christmas dinner. The traditional German Christmas holiday meal features duck, goose, rabbit or a roast, accompanied by German delicacies such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage, and potato dumplings. Dessert will likely include a Christmas Stollen, considered one of the most precious Christmas pastries in the world. The most famous kind of Stollen, which can now be found at many supermarkets, is called Dresdner Stollen, originating in the city of Dresden. This tasty version bursts with nuts and fruit and is sure to change your mind about the term “fruitcake.” Stollen is shaped with tapered ends and a ridge down the center, symbolizing the Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. If you’re an experienced home baker and would like to try your hand at making Stollen at home, we have a recipe for this and other holiday baked goods on our German Christmas Holiday Baking page.
Other traditional foods associated with the Christmas season in Germany, and readily available here in the USA, are Lebkuchen (gingerbread), chocolate Santas and various other Christmas confectionery. In Germany, Christmas is also a time for baking “Plätzchen” or Christmas cookies. Check out our authentic German Christmas cookie recipes. For those that don’t have time to bake during the Christmas season, German Christmas cookies can be found in many gourmet and specialty food stores as well as more and more supermarket shelves!