Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s or some other popular winter celebration, most people celebrate some version of the holidays between the months of November and January.
But if you think Americans are the only people who know how to light a yule log, think again. Germans practically invented Christmas. This country pulls out stops even Kris Kringle doesn’t have time for. From the extravagant Christmas markets to the steaming Glühwein, there is enough festive cheer to warm even the scroogiest heart. For Americans abroad interested in reading up on the local celebrations, here are a few German traditions that are worth delving into this holiday season.
If you love the smell of cookies during the month of December, you have come to the right place. Many Germans set aside multiple evenings throughout the month to bake traditional fruitcakes, called “Stollen,” and gingerbread cookies, called “Lebkuchen.” If you would like to incorporate something different into your holiday feast this year, consider goose instead of turkey and “Kartoffelsalat” (potato salad) in place of mashed potatoes. And remember, sausages are welcome at every holiday meal.
From cardboard pop outs to traditional Advent wreaths with 24 little gifts attached, the month of December in Germany is all about the countdown. Many Germans put a fresh holly wreath with four red candles out at the beginning of the month — sometimes decorated with baubles and sweets — to mark the time until Christmas Eve. Each Sunday in December before Christmas, families gather to light a new candle on the wreath; the last candle is lit on Dec. 24. You can find Advent calendars for children at the local supermarkets, and keep an eye out for those wreaths!
Germans were the first people to introduce the “tree of life” into their holiday traditions. Many Americans have trees up and running by Dec. 1, but Germans usually put their trees up on Christmas Eve. The adults banish the children from the room while they decorate the “Baum” (tree) with bells, candy, crafts and homemade ornaments made from “Christbaumgebäck,” a white dough molded into tree decorations.
Instead of spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s undoing their decor, the Germans enjoy their trees until Jan. 1 or even Jan. 6, also known as King’s Day in Germany. Remember to set your trees outside for the council tree pick-up, which arrives sometime after Jan. 6 to dipose of your old tree.
Gifts are spread throughout the month of December like a sweet layer of marzipan. The holiday really takes off on Dec. 6, on Nikolaustag. On the eve of Dec. 5, children put a shoe or boot outside the door (or shoes and socks on the window sill) with letters and hopeful hearts. St. Nikolaus comes that night, bringing with him a big book of sins. He does the math and leaves treats for those who are good and twigs for those who are naughty. In some areas, he is accompanied by “Knecht Ruprecht” or “Krampus,” a big, horned monster that punishes naughty children.
In other areas, he brings “Der schwarze Peter” (Black Peter), who carries a small whip. Children in this country better watch out because they will get more than coal for being naughty. Santa isn’t the only one who brings presents. Sometime during the evening of Dec. 24 after the tree is decorated, a bell jingles, signaling that the Christkind — a gorgeous girl or boy or big man, depending on what part of Germany you’re in — has successfully delivered the gifts (some say it’s Santa).
Instead of the nail-biting 12-hour wait for Santa Claus, children in Germany open their main course of gifts that night. Christmas Day is reserved for religious services and quiet family time instead of stockings and wrapping paper.
Dec. 26 is St. Stephen’s Day, when friends visit each other’s homes and declare “Ein schöner Baum!” or, “Nice tree!” before moving on to the next house. While Christmas Day is for family, Dec. 26 is for friends and is considered an equally important part of the holiday celebration. Some Germans use this day as a time to help those in need.
Sometimes in Germany, secret gifts are exchanged between classmates or co-workers. During school or work parties, a door is cracked open and all the gifts are thrown into the room and passed around until each finds it’s respective owner. It is considered bad luck to find out who sent you your present.
Sometime between Dec. 27 and Jan. 6 (King’s Day) boys and girls take a day to dress up as kings and move through the village caroling. There are traditionally four children, three dressed as Magi and one carrying a star on a stick. They collect money and mark the houses they visit with white chalk. If you’ve seen the initials “C, M and H” or “B” plus a set of numbers inscribed over your door frame, now you know why — they are the initials of the three kings plus a record of the year. It is considered bad luck to wash the chalk away.
Whether your holiday includes trips to Globus or brown paper packages tied up by Amazon, don’t forget to dig into the rich local heritage Germany offers during this Christmas season and celebrate with your friends — American and German style!