Christmas Customs in Germany
When I was a little girl, we celebrated a memorable German Christmas at my Grandma and Grandpa's house every year. They were the second generation that immigrated from Germany to live in America, so they brought many of the customs and celebrations with them.
Like all children, we were excited this time of year and their house was a special place. Filled with good smells and mystery, we couldn't help being eager to go. Our favorite part though was the love our Grandparents showed.
Most of the Christmas traditions we celebrate in the US have their roots from Germany.These include the Christmas tree, Advent Season, the Nativity set, using candles and even the Christmas carol "Silent Night." In Germany the season is called Weihnachten.
In Germany the Christmas season begins with the first day of Advent. The family has an advent calendar and a window is opened for each day of the season. Advent usually covers 4 Sundays, so it can begin anywhere from the end of November to December 3rd. It is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child on Christmas.
"Stolen" a traditional Christmas treat is baked during this time and so are Christmas cookies and candies. The Advent season is over on December 24th and then the Christmas season begins.
In the evenings in that country, the little towns are lit with lights. All sorts of good foods are available to purchase. These include cotton candy, cookies, and all sorts of baked goods. A band often plays and beer can be purchased.
I've never been able to attend a Christmas market, but it sounds like the festivals we have in small towns here in the US. Of course we don't celebrate with beer. The markets sound like great fun.
Yes, they have a Santa Claus in Germany too, but he is known by a different name then we use. One of them is Father Christmas and another is Saint Nicholas. Some areas don't celebrate Santa at all, but celebrate Saint Nicholas Day only.
My parents celebrated the American Santa at home. We received clothing we needed, a book and some years something big that we shared.
Gingerbread houses are put out along with wood carved nutcrackers. Little lighted houses are placed in the home along with the Nativity set. Not all homes have all of these decorations. For instance we never had the nutcrackers or the little lighted houses, but always had the Nativity set.
Grandma always placed the same fake snow under the set every year. Placing the same pine cones near Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus was an important part of the tradition. The shepherds and sheep were placed near the creche, but the wise men were placed far off since they didn't arrive until later. An angel was placed at the top.
Some families have an evergreen wreath with 4 candles around it. The candles are burned on each Sunday before Christmas. This was a tradition that I can't remember doing except one year, we sang Christmas carols while the candle was lit.
It was a special year when we were able to help her. Grandma and Grandpa had almost 50 grandchildren, so if you were chosen, it was a treat.
Saint Nicholas Day
One of the early events of Christmas is St Nicks Day, celebrated on December 6th. We kids would put out a Christmas stocking in the morning and then leave for school. Most families probably do it at night, but we did it in the morning, so we wouldn't eat candy before we left for school. We might get a little chocolate Santa, an orange or tangerine, sometimes hard candy that we didn't care for.
It wasn't the big event like we celebrated at Christmas. In Germany they often put out their shoe or boot. The claim is that St. Nick keeps a book filled with all of the deeds of the child. If they committed too many sins that year their boot would be filled with sticks or coal instead of treats. This even it also observed in many other European countries.
St Thomas Day
On December 21, St Thomas Day is observed which is the shortest day of the year. If you are late for work that day you are called “Thomas Donkey”. They are given a cardboard donkey that they carry with them all day. The day ends with a treat called “Thomasplizchen”.
Because my Grandpa was a farmer and worked for himself, we never saw this day celebrated, I'm sure it is still part of the Christmas season and sounds like great fun. The day would be one that you would never want to be late for work!
German Christmas Traditions
The Christmas Tree
Early on Christmas Eve the Christmas tree is brought out. The idea of using a pine tree started in Germany. There are two stories that go along with the tree. One says that St Boniface started the tradition in the 16th century when he saw pagans worshipping their god around a tree. This made him so angry that he used his fist and pounded down the tree and in its place sprung up a small evergreen tree. St Boniface saw this as a sign and from that day Christmas was celebrated with a Christmas tree.
The other story tells that Martin Luther was out one night and noticed the beautiful stars shining through the limbs of a pine tree and then put a tree in his own home. Back then they used candles to make the tree shine.
The Mother of the house usually decorates the tree and no children are allowed to see it until Christmas Eve evening. She usually places apples, nuts, lights, tiny toys and family treasures on the tree. The Christmas gifts are then placed under the tree. Later in the evening the children are told they can see the tree and the family opens the presents.
German Christmas Food
In Germany, they don't go as overboard on gifts as we do here in the US. My Mother likes to tell about the mittens she received, an orange and pajamas and that was Christmas for them. In Germany to this day, gifts aren't the focus of Christmas. It is more of a time to celebrate the birth of the Christ child and a time for family. It would be good if we could return to that time.
I can remember receiving a dollar bill from my Grandparents each year. Remember that they had almost 50 grandchildren and in the 50's that was a lot of money. We were thrilled to get the money. We could still buy a candy bar for a nickle and a small coke for the same amount, so the dollar went a long way.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass
The Christmas celebrations weren't complete without attending Midnight Mass. This was awe inspiring to a child. The church was dark except for the manger with Mary and Joseph and the baby. The shepherds were standing outside along with their sheep. Of course the angel was fastened to the top announcing the birth of the Christ child.
All of these figures were life size. I don't think I celebrated a Christmas as a child without attending this service. It was an important part of Christmas.
Christmas day meant a large meal. The aunts, uncles and all 50 of the cousins arrived. Years later, I wonder how Grandma liked cleaning up after all of us. The meal was similar to what we have in the US for Christmas dinner. Special candies and cookies were made. We kids all enjoyed that.
The Three Wise Men
The nativity set is left out until January 6th. On this day they celebrate the 3 wise men coming to give gifts to Jesus. Many people think that this happened on Christmas Day, but it was after Jesus' birth.
I can still remember my Mother carefully putting the set away after that day. Each piece was lovingly wrapped and placed in a box. The nativity set was more important than the tree.