In an overly commercial Christmas season, which starts at some retailers in September, it is wise to remember some of the December traditions of our childhood, which made the season as mysterious as exciting. Although German and Anglo-Saxon holiday traditions are nowadays inextricably linked, there are some noteworthy differences worth exploring. Here’s the skinny on our Top Ten German Christmas traditions, with some historical background, anecdotes and recipe suggestions.
Counting count 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 chocolate-filled Advent or Christmas calendar every day in December. The tradition began as a plain card with paper backing with 24 windows that when opened revealed various Christmas symbols and scenes. Today you can get original German choco-filled calendars with religious motifs, naughty calendars ones for grown-up boys and girls or Playmobil calendars containing cute figures and scenes.
Many families in Germany put a decorated Advent wreath with four large candles on the living room table on the first Sunday in December (or the fourth Sunday before Christmas at the end of November). As the ceiling 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 on TV, sipping their hot chocolates, teas, coffee or gluehwein, and munch on stollen, cookies, marzipan chocolate, roasted chestnuts or fruits. Each subsequent Sunday, another candle will be lit until all four candles lighten up the table. This tradition is or was observed especially in those households, where the decorated and candle-lit Christmas tree was unveiled only on Christmas Eve. Until then, the Advent wreath provides the heart-warming evergreen look and aroma throughout December.
Sankt Nikolaus Tag (St. Nicholas Day)
The night of the December 5th is special one. Children will 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, usually a little chocolate, a few nuts or fruits, or a bag of gummy bears, in the boot. In the morning of December 6th, parents will have no trouble getting their children out of bed. They will already have sneaked out the bedroom to take a peak 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 comes dressed 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 face to face with Nikolaus, his golden book and his helper Knecht Ruprecht. The impressive Saint (most likely friends of the family) ask the children whether they have been naughty or nice. Lying is pointless because they know everything, carrying around records of each and every child’s good deeds and bad behavior. While St. Nicholas’ side-kick Knecht Ruprecht is a menacing figure whose role it 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. 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.
Originally it was Sankt Nikolaus who was in charge of gift giving on the night before his saint’s day December 6. 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 or “Christ Child” (from which Kris Kringle derived his name) and are usually opened on Christmas Night, December 24, not on Christmas Day, December 25th , 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 wearing in demonic costumes, devilish masks and furry coats march from house to house, banging against doors and, when invited in by expecting parents, will frighten kids into good behavior. Occasionally, an incalcitrant teenage male may be dragged by hand and feet out into the open and dunked several time into 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 holiday decorations and 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 (Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt in German) dates back to the 15th century. Today over 2500 Christmas markets all over Germany invite visitors to get into the festive mood. The market is usually located on the city’s central square and commonly features 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 filets 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. Once finished, this gives you the option of either returning the mug 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 for a spectacular drink involving hot mulled wine, high percentage alcohol rum and open flames, which 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 has 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, usually in combination with 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 get together for their traditional 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 schooled and missed out on that formative experience. The movie goes on to chronicle the mischievous deeds and tricks Pfeiffer and his young classmates come up with. 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.
At merely 400 years of age, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree is a comparatively young custom originating in Germany. Historically, families decorated their living rooms with evergreen branches at Christmas time, a habit which eventually evolved into bringing in whole trees. In the 17th century people started putting up a tree and decorating it with ripe red apples, scrumptious gingerbread and silk flowers, creating the illusion of a tree blossoming 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, with firs, spruces and pines as the preferred choices. 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 used to decorate the tree.
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 rituals of the holiday season is the festive Christmas dinner. The traditional German holiday meal consists of duck, goose, rabbit or a roast, accompanied by German delicacies such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage, and potato dumplings. Even the American fruitcake was adapted from one of the most famous German delicacies, Stollen. Since 1329, this unique “fruitcake” has been considered one of the most precious Christmas pastries in the world. The most famous kind of Stollen, which can be found at many local 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, in which it was customary to wrap newly born children. 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!