Unlike most British tabloid newspapers would lead you to believe, I’m proudly British and I love Germany. Why? Because I also love Christmas.
I studied German at university, mostly based on its year abroad programme. Some chose to learn French in Martinique, others Spanish in Colombia, but I yearned after a winter in Bavaria. If anyone knows how to do Christmas, it’s the Germans.
Anyone who’s experienced advent in Germany will tell you that it’s much less commercialised than in other countries, and much more about spending time together as a family and among close friends. It’s about celebrating life, not bank accounts. OK, so the high streets get as chaotic as anywhere else, but the religious side to Christmas seems much more central.
I’ve unashamedly culturally appropriated lots of their traditions and this year I got in touch with the people from one of my favourite Christmas decoration shops, Käthe Wohlfahrt for some more ideas. Here are ten German Christmas traditions to add a little festive cheer, wherever you may be in the world:
1. Christmas markets. In days gone by, Christmas markets were not for toasting mugs of mulled wine with friends, but for stocking up on food to last all winter, including festive treats. As the snow fell it made it harder for villagers to get to markets further afield so local markets grew in importance over the season. As the years went by, the markets expanded to include toys, crafts and of course my beloved Glühwein. Yes, the larger city markets can get a little crowded, but the smaller markets are well worth a visit.
2. Figurines. In the Erzgebirge part of Germany figurines are placed by candlelight in windows. Every child will be gifted a figurine at some stage in their life – girls are given angels, while boys receives miners. Walking down a street, every house will showcase its own family makeup, for example two angels and one miner for two girls and a boy.
3. Biscuits (or cookies if you’re American). In the olden days, the Church decreed that families should fast before the Christmas feast, like before Easter. All the eggs, butter and other goodies should be used up and a simple way to do this was to bake biscuits. From cinnamon stars, to vanilla crescents and Pfeffernüsse (pepper nuts) spiced with honey, cloves and cinnamon, these are such a festive treat. Germany raised blogger The Daring Gourmet has some great recipes.
4. Decorations. You won’t see a traditionalist in Germany with a house full of decorations before 24th December. While this day is traditionally set aside for decorating, nowadays most people do prefer to get things started during advent. However, unlike the rest of Europe, the lights often won’t be switched on until Christmas eve.
Every family has its own tradition about how to decorate the tree, but most will include at least one hand me down from their parents. This way decorations are passed from one generation to the next and the spirit of the family shines through.
5. Advent calendars. My kids don’t really like chocolate but wow, they barely sleep in anticipation of the next window on their calendar. I’ve always loved the advent countdown and we’ve got the Germans to thank for this tradition too, one which dates back to the 19th century. Across Germany miniature sacks or boxes with sweets inside often take the place of the cardboard and chocolate versions from the high street.
6. Schwibbogen. These decorative candle holders originate from the German region of Saxony. The tradition dates back to the days when miners would meet for Christmas prayers on the 24th. They would place their lamps round the entrance to their tunnel, forming a semi circle of light among the darkness. Today these decorations are now popular worldwide to show light and warmth in a time of darkness and cold.
7. Advent wreath. Today, a wreath has four candles, one for each Sunday in the month before Christmas. Originally, the wreath was made of wood and held 24 candles. Like an advent calendar, it was invented by a German theologian in the 19th century to help children count down the days before Christmas.
8. St Nikolaus. Not to be confused with Father Christmas or Santa Claus, Saint Nikolaus was ordained as a saint for saving children’s lives. In Germany, children put a boot out in front of their door on the night of 5th December, and if they have been good will wake up on the 6th, St Nikolaus day, to find them filled with sweets, nuts and fruits.
Nowadays, he may also visit children at their Kindergarten or school and will come wearing a long white or purple and gold coat and Bishop’s mitre and carrying a golden staff and book. In this gold book he keeps a list of well behaved and naughty children. Well behaved children will receive a small gift, whereas others will receive a gentle punishment (followed by a gingerbread cookie to soften any tears). This is the last chance for badly behaved children to correct their behaviour before the Christkindl arrives on Christmas day.
The tradition is also a popular event among adults, where someone dressed as St Nikolaus will read rhymes telling the good and naughty deeds of the other guests and toasting the beginning of advent with a glass of Champagne.
9. Christkind or Weihnachtsmann (the Christ Child or the Christmas man). Both characters are well known throughout, but traditionally the Christkind would bring gifts to children in the southern parts of Germany, while the Weihnachtsmann would visit children in the north. Neither had reindeer to pull a sleigh, but had to rely on horses, deer, donkeys or sheep, or more commonly his own two feet to drag the gifts through the snow.
10. Christmas day. Most families in Germany will go to Church in the early evening of December 24th and then dine together as a family at home. The traditional meal here will be sausages with a simple potato salad, or fish. Afterwards everyone will move to the living room to see the Christmas tree lit, sing carols and share gifts. December 25th and 26th are reserved for visiting family, eating and drinking together and celebrating as one. It’s less about presents, more about family time.
Käthe Wohlfahrt is a family run Christmas decoration company specialising in traditional wooden and glass ornaments, including nutcrackers, baubles, music boxes and other figurines. With stores across Germany and also in York in the UK, Bruges in Belgium, Riquewihr in France and Stillwater in the US, its famous Christmas village is located at its company headquarters in Rothenburg Od Der Tauber, Germany.