German Christmas Traditions

A brief guide to what makes Chrismtas unique in Germany

GERMAN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS: You may not believe it until you get here, but few countries do Christmas quite as well as the Germans. Sure, the locals complain that it’s getting more commercial year by year, just as they do everywhere. And that’s understandable, after all, German supermarkets start stocking Christmas food and decorations in early October!
But on the whole I’d say Germans also treasure their Christmas customs far more than people in the UK, America or Australia. Let’s take a look at what makes a German Weihnachten (Christmas).

Christmas markets and advent

christmas-market-germanyThis was at the market in Augsburg, Bavaria. In my opinion the markets are one of the best German Christmas traditions!

It begins to feel a lot like Christmas when the Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlesmarkt) open in the last week of November. Practically every town and village has one and major cities like Munich and Nuremberg have several.
They consist of stands selling gifts and decorations, food, sweets and warm drinks including delicious mulled wine (Glühwein). The markets are set up in the main town square and really become a focus of German life in December. The Adventzeit (Advent) starts the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Families and offices decorate tables with an Adventskranz (Advents wreath) which has four candles. One candle is burnt every Sunday leading up to Christmas. The word "Advent" comes from the Latin word for "coming", i.e., the coming of baby Jesus.

kaufbeuren-christmasThis is the main street of Kaufbeuren, a small city in Bavaria. You see the big, fury, green thing behind the guys? That's an especially large Adventskranz (Advents wreath).

St Nick and his (not so nice) little helpers

st-nick-krampusSt Nicholas and a couple of Krampus devils at a Christmas market Pic:  NiceBastard

On the 5th of December children leave a boot or shoe (Nikolausstiefel) outside their doors for St Nicholas. If they’ve been good, they’ll find some chocolates or sweets inside in the morning, if they’ve been bad they might just get a few useless twigs.
In many Bavarian towns young men dress up as a hairy devil called Krampus on the evening of the 5th and run around clanking bells and chains scaring children. The 6th of December is called Nikolaustag (St Nicholas’ Day) which commemorates the 4th century Greek bishop with a perchance for gift giving. Men dress up as St Nikolaus on the 6th and give out more sweets to kids at Christmas markets. He looks a lot like Santa Claus, but with a bishop's hat and sceptre. He’s often seen with either a Krampus or another figure called Knecht Ruprecht, who dresses in black and carries a bag of sticks. This offsider is there to scare the kids a little bit into being good.

The big day

german-christmas-dinnerMy first German christmas - with the family of a friend in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria.

Christmas trees are put up on town squares and in family homes, but as opposed to the plastic ones we prefer in Australia, here they use real trees! Whereas we don’t celebrate Christmas until the 25th of December the main event takes place a day earlier in Germany.
On the 24th businesses usually close at midday and there might be time for one last visit to the Christmas market for a cup of Glühwein before going home to prepare for that evening the Heiligabend (holy evening).
Even though church attendance is dropping in Germany, many families make the effort to go on Heiligabend, either in the afternoon before dinner or for a midnight service.
Usually the Bescherung (exchange of gifts) happens after dinner if there are only adults in the family. If there are kids the gifts often come out straight after the family (most of the members anyway) have come back from church. Somebody has stayed at home, placing the gifts in the living room. In Bavaria children think this is done by the Christkind (baby Jesus), but in northern Germany it’s the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) who comes.
While Heiligabend is a time for the close family, the 25th and 26th (known as the First Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day respectively) are also spent with extended family and friends.

I hope you've enjoyed this look at German Christmas traditions and if you're lucky enough to be over here for Christmas this year, let me wish you a Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas)!

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