Every country has its own holiday traditions, each of which are unique and wonderful in their own way. If you had to name one place that goes all out on a holiday, though, you’d have a hard time beating German Christmas traditions. There are wreaths, calendars, an old man leaving gifts in your boots, and a companion who brings you coal and potatoes if you don’t behave. Oh, and there’s also a lot — and I mean a lot! — of mulled wine.
Sound enticing? Then we can dive even deeper into some of the ways Germany celebrates Christmas throughout the month of December. Many of these might seem familiar, but you might not know about their German roots.
German Pre-Christmas Traditions
Advent And Adventskranz (Advent And Advent Wreaths)
In Germany, Christmas season gets kicked off on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve. That day is called the first Advent, and we proceed to light the first candle of our Advent wreath. Each following Sunday, we light another candle until the fourth and last one is lit.
While Christians all over the world now use them, the modern Advent wreath was invented by Johann Hinrich Wichern in the 19th century. The lighting of the Advent wreath is often accompanied by the following recitation:
Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt.
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier, dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.
Und wenn das fünfte Lichtlein brennt… dann hast du Weihnachten verpennt.
Advent, Advent, a little light is burning.
First one, then two, then three, then four, then the Christ Child is at the door.
And when the fifth light is lit… then you’ve overslept Christmas.
Adventskalender (Advent Calendar)
The modern Advent wreath wasn’t Wichern’s only holiday invention. He also created the Advent Calendar, which is even more popular around the world. Starting December 1, you open a door each day for a little surprise. The typical ones have chocolate behind each door, but today there’s a version for every interest. If you like beer, perfume, jelly or whatever else, there’s an advent calendar for you. The original calendars were simply chalk drawings that children would put on their doors and erase each day as Christmas approached. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the first print ones arrived.
Weihnachtsplätzchen (Christmas Cookies)
The holidays wouldn’t be complete without Weihnachtsplätzchen. We typically start baking Christmas cookies any time after Advent begins. Some popular kinds are Butterplätzchen, Zimtsterne, Spitzbuben and Vanillekipferl (my personal favorites).
Lebkuchenhäuser (Gingerbread Houses)
If you’re more into building sweets than baking them, how about you build a gingerbread house? The tradition of constructing gingerbread houses began in the early 1800s in Germany. Bakers were inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel:
When they came nearer they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.
Nikolaus (St. Nicholas)
St. Nicholas lived close to what nowadays is Antalya in Turkey, and he helped many people. In one tale he throws gold into the window of three poor sisters. That story helped inspire his gift-giving legacy, which is a major part of the holiday season.
On December 5, German kids clean their boots very well, then put them on their doorstep. When they wake up the next day, they find them filled with little gifts, tangerines and nuts brought by Nikolaus.
Be careful! If you didn’t behave well over the past year, you might encounter Knecht Ruprecht, St. Nicholas’s companion, who will only give you coal and potatoes. If those don’t sound very appealing, you’d better behave and clean your boots.
Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets)
Every city and town in Germany has its own Christmas market, and it’s safe to say that we are obsessed with them. Many of us go several times a week to eat Bratwurst, candied almonds, crepes and, of course, drink some Glühwein, which is what we call our mulled wine.
Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree)
Did you know that the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree originated in Germany, in the 15th century? Germans brought the tradition over to the United States around 1830 when many immigrants settled in Pennsylvania. While Americans now rush to put their tree up shortly after Thanksgiving, in Germany we traditionally don’t put it up until December 24.
Weihnachtsessen (Christmas Food)
A major part of German Christmas Eve celebrations is the food. What someone is eating that day depends on who they are, though. Some families make a whole goose, or duck, accompanied by red cabbage, and bread or potato dumplings. Other families, though, like it a little bit simpler: cold potato salad with sausages. It can’t get more German than that!
Weihnachtslieder (Christmas Carols)
After eating, we Germans like to spend their Christmas Eve nights singing carols. A lot of the most famous songs originated in Germany or Austria, like O Tannenbaum and Silent Night.
Weihnachtsgeschenke (Christmas Presents)
In Germany, we open our gifts on the night of December 24. But who brought them? The answer depends on a family’s religion.
Germany is largely divided between Protestants and Catholics. The South of Germany and Austria are rather Catholic. There, you have das Christkind — literally, the Christ child — flying through the window and leaving gifts for the children. In the other, more Protestant, parts of Germany, the gift-giver is der Weihnachtsmann, who you might know as Santa Claus. He is actually based on St. Nicholas, and where did he get his costume from? Well, a certain red-white soda company was responsible for that…
December 25 and 26
Surprisingly, German Christmas traditions for December 25 and the day after aren’t as complicated as the days leading up to them. December 25 and 26 are bank holidays in Germany, and we go on to see the extended family. What that really means, though, is that we go on to eat, eat and eat.