Christmas in Germany: Traditions, Myths, and Peculiarities
Having moved to Germany from the United States toward the end of 2017, one of the first cultural differences that struck me was how differently Christmas is celebrated here in the Bundesrepublik. No presents on Christmas morning? An evil demon who stalks naughty children? Why are those people’s drinks on fire? And what is this delicious cake that resembles a big, snow-covered log? (It’s called Stollen, and we’ll be devoting an entire blog post to it and other traditional German holiday treats next year.)
December in Germany is a time of glistening lights, enchanting aromas, and scenes of storybook wonder. Here are some of the traditions, myths, and peculiarities that make Christmas in Germany such a unique and frohes Fest.
Christmas Eve is the Big Day
For Germans, December 24th (Heiliger Abend or Heiligabend in German) is the main event of the holiday season. Traditionally, families wait until the morning of Christmas Eve to put up their trees. The day is then spent trimming the boughs with lights and ornaments, cooking dinner, and preparing the house for the evening ahead. Come nightfall, the children are escorted out of eyeshot of the tree, presents are laid out at its base, and a bell is rung to announce that the Christkind (Christ-child) has come, deposited gifts under the tree, and gone on his holy way. Carols are sung, presents are opened, bread is broken.
And Christmas Day? Here it is referred to as Erster Feiertag, or First Celebration Day. The hustle is over, the anticipation has vanished, now it’s time to eat and relax. Typical dishes served on Christmas Day include goose, duck, fondue, raclette, and game such as Wildschwein (wild boar), Reh, and Hirsch (two types of venison).
Sankt Nikolaus Tag (Saint Nicholas Day)
Whereas for much of the world St. Nick makes his rounds in the wee hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, in Germany he appears on December 6th. On the night of December 5th, children polish their boots and leave them outside their bedroom door before going to bed. In the morning, they awake to find their shoes filled with nuts, candies, and little gifts from Saint Nicholas. During the day, the jolly old white-bearded man can be found greeting good little boys and girls at shopping malls and children’s centers throughout the German-speaking world.
Krampus Nacht (Krampus Night)
Not all boys and girls have been good, however. Enter Krampus. By some accounts, this horned and hoofed devil accompanies Saint Nicholas on his rounds during the night of December 5th, beating the naughty children with birch branches before eating their bodies and taking their souls to hell, while by other accounts he performs these services for exasperated parents all on his own. In many German towns, a spectacle called the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run) is put on by young men dressed up as Krampus who attempt to scare onlookers with their beastly antics.
Weihnachtsmärkte or Christkindlmärkte (Christmas Markets)
Often imitated but never equaled, the tradition of the German Christmas Market dates back to Christmas Eve in Dresden in the year 1434. This market, called the Striezelmarkt, now attracts more than 2.5 million visitors every year. Over 150 cities and towns in Germany boast long traditions of Christmas markets, many of them hosting more than one – or, in the case of Berlin, more than 70. And yet, even with so many of them out there, no two Christmas markets are quite alike. Some even adopt specific themes which further distinguish them from the pack. Two of the most beloved Christmas markets in Munich, for example, could not be more different: the Mittelaltermarkt (Middle Ages Market) near Odeonsplatz, with its immersive medieval spectacle, and the Pink Christmas Market in Glockenbachviertel, Munich’s famous gay quarter, with its pervasive fuchsia glow and sassy, crossdressing DJ.
Glühwein (Mulled Wine)
Translating literally as glow-wine, German Glühwein is no ordinary mulled wine – think of it more as the lifeblood of the holiday season. The drink of choice at all Christmas markets, Glühwein has become a streetside staple during the Covid-19 pandemic, with restaurants and cafés offering paper cups of the cherished beverage to go – with or without a Schuß (shot) of amaretto or rum. Though red wine is the standard base for Glühwein, a white wine variation can be found at some markets.
Feuerzangenbowle (Flaming Punch)
If Glühwein is the darling of Weihnachtsgetränke (Christmas beverages), then Feuerzangenbowle is its mischievous older brother. Grab a lump of sugar with a pair of Zangen (tongs), soak it in rum, set it ablaze, leave it to melt into the flaming surface of an oversized goblet of rum-spiked Glühwein, and bitte sehr! (voila!) – you’ve got Feuerzangenbowle. Just don’t let it burn too long, or you’ll lose some of that boozy kick.
Adventskalendar (Advent Calendar)
Remember, as a child, counting the days until Christmas with an almost unbearable feeling of impatience? Well, leave it to the Germans to engineer a device that manages the anticipation while measuring its progress toward the goal. True, like the Christmas market, the simple genius of the Advent calendar has spread around the world, but nowhere is it so prominent a part of the Christmas holiday as in Germany. Every day for four weeks leading up to Christmas, a window in the Advent calendar is opened to reveal a small surprise, such as candy, poetry, or any number of nick-nacks that will fit inside the tiny frames. Pre-filled Advent calendars can be bought at any grocery store or neighborhood shop, but many Germans prefer to make their own.
Adventskranz (Advent Wreath)
The tradition of the Advent wreath dates back to the early Lutheran communities of the 16th Century. A focal point of the Christmas dining table, the Advent wreath consists of four candles in a bed of evergreen sprigs strewn with pine cones, berries, dried flowers, and ornaments. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent in the liturgical calendar of the western church. Traditionally, three of the candles are red or purple, and one is white. Each Sunday during the Advent, one of the colored candles is lit, until finally, on Christmas Day, the white candle becomes angezündet (lit).
Kevin Alleine zu Hause (Home Alone)
This is a personal one for me. Having grown up with the classic American movie Home Alone as a cinematic staple of the holiday season, and, like the film’s main character, being named Kevin, I had mixed feelings when I learned that the movie’s German title is Kevin Alleine zu Hause (Kevin Alone at Home). Why not simply Alleine zu Hause – or, better yet, Alleine Daheim? German publishing houses tend to take great and inexplicable liberties with the titles of books and films composed in other languages, often both to the detriment of the title and when a literal translation of the original would have been perfectly acceptable. Perhaps this topic would make for an interesting blog post in the future. In any event, by the time it became apparent that I would be spending my first Christmas in Germany entirely alone in the big house where I rented a room, I was secretly grateful for the stupid German title of that beloved 90s Christmas classic. Because of it, I could take my loneliness and turn it into a joke that everyone would understand: that Christmas I was, to the delight of my colleagues and coworkers, quite literally Kevin Alleine zu Hause.
With that, I wish you all a very merry Christmas – or, as Kevin McCallister says in the German dub of Home Alone:
“Frohe Weihnachten, du widerliches Stinktier!”
(“Merry Christmas, you filthy animal!”).
See you next week.