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German Christmas Traditions

Updated on December 17, 2012

My German-American Christmas Heritage

This page has some heirloom recipes and stories of how my family celebrates Christmas and where the traditions came from. The components of my German-American Christmas traditions include food, crafts, and decorations. Some of it comes directly from my German ancestors who migrated to the United States in the late 1800s. And some of it comes from when I was a little girl and my family brought in even more folk traditions from Old World Germany.

Christmas Tree Drawing by Gretchen Little. All Rights Reserved.

Peace on Earth by Gretchen Little.  All Rights Reserved
Peace on Earth by Gretchen Little. All Rights Reserved

It All Started

in central Illinois

A few generations back, my family immigrated from Germany to central Illinois, about 50 miles west of St. Louis. There they became dairy farmers who supplied milk to the city of St. Louis. My great-grandfather left Illinois and moved to north St. Louis where he and my great-grandma owned a candy store. My grandpa grew up there and married my grandma who was from the Boot Heel of Missouri. They had my mom and her sister.

I think during all those generations Christmas was not the huge production it is now. It wasn't until I came along in the early 1960's that there was as much access and more money to spend on things. Although grandma was more Irish than German, she really picked up on the German culture from her husband's family and passed it on to me.

My mom went to visit the family in Illinois when she was a girl in the 1930s, and they were still speaking German there. She still talks about Aunt "Rikka" (Fredricka) and Grandma Kaup.

My mom's sister went on to become a German and Russian language teacher. She was very creative and made sure I knew the German folk tales.

We hosted a girl from West German in 1970, when I was ten, so I had a German "big sister" (who thought all our German traditions were quaint and old fashioned).

From all that and more I feel very tied to my German roots.

Great-Great Grandmother Wilhelmina

Great-Great Grandmother Wilhelmina
Great-Great Grandmother Wilhelmina

Traditional German Advent Calender

Grandma always sent me an advent calender. Although I doubt it was a tradition passed down through my grandfather's family, I knew there was some connection between me and my German family. I think in the 1960's most of the printed ones like this came from Germany and since Grandma was in St. Louis she had more access to them than we did here in rural Iowa.

German Advent Candle Holder

We had a brass advent candle holder. Every Sunday of Advent we'd light a candle, then two, then three, then four depending how many Sundays into Advent we were. That made the little fan at the top go faster. This is definitely the deluxe version with six candles - direct from Germany!

German Glass Christmas Ornaments - Intricate and fragile

I know that there is a tradition of putting a glass pickle or a spider in the Christmas tree, but we never did those. Grandma did, however, collect high quality German glass Christmas ornaments. She used to buy a set and then split them between herself and her two daughters. It was one of the big highlights of Christmas to see what the new ornaments would be.

Sauerbraten by Josef Türk Reit im Winkl Chiemgau
Sauerbraten by Josef Türk Reit im Winkl Chiemgau

Sauerbraten

Although we usually have turkey, this pickled beef roast called Sauerbraten would be a logical choice for Christmas dinner. This recipe is from my great-great grandmother Freda who came to America when she was a little girl.

In a crockery bowl place a 3 pound piece of top sirloin, rump, or chuck and cover with a marinade of:

1 cup vinegar

1 cup water

1 bay leaf, crushed

6 cloves

2 or 3 peppercorns

1 medium onion

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 rib of celery

1 tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar

Set bowl in refrigerator for 3 days, turning meat each day. Remove, dry and brown in a little grease [probably bacon fat or lard originally] in an iron Dutch oven. When browned add a little water or a cup of marinade or more. Cover and simmer 3 hours or until tender. Thicken gravy with crushed gingersnap cookies and serve.

It's interesting to note that a lot of other sauerbraten recipes use juniper berries in the marinade. Sauerbraten is often served with a tender little dumpling called spaetzle. I'm lucky enough to live near the Amana Colonies where I can go to a restaurant and get many old world German dishes.

Creamed Spinach by Arnold Gatilao on Flickr
Creamed Spinach by Arnold Gatilao on Flickr

Creamed Spinach Recipe

A Christmas Favorite

This is a grandma Freda recipe, too. It's a family treat, although much easier to make now that you can buy that nice pre-washed spinach. I remember my grandma washing and washing and washing the spinach to get the grit out of it. The other crucial ingredients are Zweibach toast (look in the baby food aisle) and fresh grated nutmeg.

This is the recipe exactly as it's written on the card:

Remove from 2 pounds fresh spinach the large stems. Wash leaves and small stems in several cold waters. Drain and put in a large pan. Cover with boiling water and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain in colander and chop fine. Place chopped spinach in iron skillet. Add a piece of butter the size of a walnut , about 3/4 teaspoon salt, 6 or more pieces of Zweibach toast grated, 1 cup milk (or cream) and 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg. Simmer until heated through, stirring often. Serve with hard boiled egg slices on top.

"just off the turnip truck" by Darwin Bell on Flickr
"just off the turnip truck" by Darwin Bell on Flickr

Mashed Potatoes and Turnips or Rutabaga

Simple but delicious

There is nothing fancy about this recipe but it was a staple in all my German family's house. Peel potatoes and turnips or rutabaga in a ratio of two parts potato to one part turnip/rutabaga. Boil separately in salted water because the turnips/rutabaga takes a little longer to cook. Then you mash them together with salt, pepper, butter, and milk/cream. I like the rutabaga better because it's sweeter.

A Traditional German Christmas - A Baking Book

A Traditional German Christmas
A Traditional German Christmas

Explore a big variety of different recipes for the holidays. Like cookies, breads, the gingerbread house, sweets, candies and alcoholic beverages.

They can be enjoyed throughout the whole year, but especially for the Christmas holidays.

Everything is explained step by step, with hints and tips, so it does not matter if you are a beginner or a pro.

In the introduction of the book it explains how Germans traditionally to this day celebrate the holidays, as well as the different types of cookies and a brief look into the "Cookies History".

Surprise your family and friends this holiday season with something new. Or just bake something for a loved one which will remind them or even yourself of "Good old Germany".

Let you taste buds not only bring back, but also create new Christmas memories.

 
"Stollen" by whitneyinchicago on Flickr
"Stollen" by whitneyinchicago on Flickr

Stollen

Yeast based citron and raisin coffee cake

Stollen is something that Great-Great-Grandma Kaup made, and then my grandmother did. I don't have the original recipe for it, so I've gathered some here. I wasn't a big fan of citron so I'm not sure they made it that much any more by the time I came on the scene. I've made it once or twice.

Martha Stewart's Christmas Morning Stollen

This recipe doesn't have citron in it so it's not what I would consider a stollen, but it looks easy enough.

Stollen recipe from Sara's Secrets on the Food Network

This one has rum, candied fruit, raisins, honey, lemon, and almonds.

Stollen recipe from The Fresh Loaf blog

Another variation of the one above with great pictures.

Lebkuchen - A honey and citron gingerbread cookie

I was sure that lebkuchen, a kind of ginger cookie with citron in it, had been passed down through the generations. But apparently it wasn't when I asked my mom about it. My mom's sister married into another family with a strong German history and I think maybe it came from them because my aunt loved to cook. She was also a German language teacher, though, so she may have found it and introduced it to us. I think the recipe we used came straight of the Betty Crocker cookbook, though.

I haven't made them in a long time because they aren't easy to make. The dough gets sticky in a hurry because of the honey. We used to roll out the dough and cut them in rectangles like the picture here. I think sometimes we put a lemon glaze on them.

Here is a recipe I found that looks like the one we used.

Fruitcake by Matthew Bietz
Fruitcake by Matthew Bietz

The Elusive "Pot Kuchen"

A cake baked in a coffee can

My German great-great-grandmother used to bake something called pot kuchen. I think it was some kind of coffee cake, atlhough I don't know if it was cake based or yeast based. My mom doesn't seem to really remember, either.

I have searched more than once online for a suitable recipe. I found this fruitcake baked in a coffee can. The ingredients actually sound like something found in other German recipes: raisins, currents, citron, dates with coffee, orange juice, lemon juice, molasses, and what I call gingerbread spices. It sounds really delicious, and I think my great-great-grandmother would approve.

How to Bake Fruitcake in a Coffee Can

Steiff Puppets and Stuffed Animals

Almost every Christmas when I was a little girl Grandma gave me a Steiff hand puppet. I imagine they are VERY collectible now. I played and played with them but they are still in pretty good shape somewhere in my parents attic. Now I am the president of the board of an internationally known puppet theater. It's based here in the little Iowa town I live in but occasionally travels to Germany. It's weird how things work out sometimes, isn't it?

I couldn't find any Steiff puppets on Amazon, but I did find this handsome owl that I like very much.

Steiff Wittie Owl 6.25"
Steiff Wittie Owl 6.25"

Realistic features

Made of the finest mohair

Made in Germany

Part of the Forest and Meadow Animals Collection

Includes the famous "button in the ear" Steiff trademark tag

 

The Christmas Rose

I didn't have this book but I'm sure I would have if it had been in print in the 1960s and 70s. It was originally written and illustrated in the 1920s.

The Christmas Rose
The Christmas Rose

Fritz and Gretl's father is very ill and can only be cured by a magical Christmas rose from the Winter King. With the help of some forest animals and a snow giant, Fritz and Gretl bravely make the difficult journey to the Winter King's fortress. There they learn that they must get the blessing of the Christ Child, a Christmas angel, in order for the rose to bloom and cure their father. This rediscovered German story is full of classic Christmas charm. In mini-chapters, readers share the advent of Christmas from December 6th, Saint Nikolaus Day, to December 24th, when Germans celebrate Christmas.

 

Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History - I would love a copy of this for myself

Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History
Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History

For poets, priests, and politicians--and especially ordinary Germans--in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the image of the loving nuclear family gathered around the Christmas tree symbolized the unity of the nation at large. German Christmas was supposedly organic, a product of the winter solstice rituals of pagan "Teutonic" tribes, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the age-old customs that defined German character. Yet, as Joe Perry argues, Germans also used these annual celebrations to contest the deepest values that held the German community together: faith, family, and love, certainly, but also civic responsibility, material prosperity, and national belonging. This richly illustrated volume explores the invention, evolution, and politicization of Germany's favorite national holiday. By unpacking the intimate links between domestic celebration, popular piety, consumer desires, and political ideology, Perry concludes that family festivity was central in the making and remaking of public national identities.

 

What are your Christmas traditions? - And any other comments

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      We are doing Christmas around the world in my 1st grade class. I will explore German traditions with the 1st graders. I'm really excited about it and this site has given me some good ideas. I'd love to make the porcupine ornaments, but probably a bit much for 1st graders. Any suggestions on which ornament or food to make would be appreciated. I'll also have them make an advent calendar.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Anyone hear of Mockley soup?

    • Tamara14 profile image

      Tamara Kajari 5 years ago from Zagreb, Croatia, Europe

      Sauerbraten is often served in Croatia too and side dishes are mainly the same as in Germany and Austria. Sauerkraut is common "winter dish" and those cookies and cakes you're showing here are so good. We are too close to forget all the influence that happened throughout the history. And why should we when it tastes divine :) Great lens!

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 5 years ago from Vermont

      Some of our family traditions are from my German grandparents. We have a collection of nutcrackers and old German ornaments, a 3-foot tall wooden candle pyramid, advent calendars and of course the pickle ornament!

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 5 years ago from Australia

      Wonderful. Thanks for sharing all these traditions with us.

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      celeBritys4africA 5 years ago

      I am keen to learn about the German Christmas tradition.

    • puerdycat lm profile image

      puerdycat lm 6 years ago

      Thanksgiving day, turkey in the oven and here I am. And what a great lens you have. Umm. I can just enhale this stuff! Thank you so much.

    • Sensitive Fern profile image
      Author

      Sensitive Fern 6 years ago

      @ohcaroline: Wow! Mine were/are in and around Shattuc, Illinois near Lake Carlyle. If yours are, too, I'm sure they did know each other.

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      ohcaroline 6 years ago

      Very nice to share your German heritage with us and the traditions. Your earlier family settled in about the same location as mine did. Mine were cattle ranchers. They may have known each other.

    • Sensitive Fern profile image
      Author

      Sensitive Fern 6 years ago

      @jptanabe: Isn't he adorable? One of my hand puppets is an owl. But my favorite is the black cat because we had a black cat about the time I got the puppet.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 6 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Thanks for the introduction to your family's German Christmas traditions! I think your tradition of getting a puppet is lovely - I want that owl!