Legend has it that in Germany on Christmas Eve the rivers turn to wine, the animals speak, mountains split open to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea.
Unfortunately, only the pure of heart can see these magical happenings. For the less than saintly however there is still some chance of magic enlivening the winter season. Christmas, or Weihnachten as the Germans call it, is the country’s most enchanting celebration, a joyous mix of ancient traditions and modern exuberance, in a country that has given the world many of its modern Christmas traditions.
Preparations for Christmas
Weihnachten is a quiet time in Germany, especially when compared to the more strident exuberance seen in the United States or other countries. There aren’t many screaming neon decorations or an endless blaring of overplayed carols. Town streets and business offices, if they are decorated at all, are draped in Christmas lights and branches of pine and fir. The houses too are restrained in their decorations, perhaps with a few lit candles or electric lights strung along the porch. The sombre appearance is misleading however for behind the walls, the family prepares for Christmas with much excitement.
In many German-speaking countries, the time from the first of December to the twenty-fourth is known as the Adventszeit or Advent season. Traditionally, the period before Christmas was marked by solemnity and religious thought, with many engaged in fasting or prayers, much like Lent. Today, the time for silent reflection and soul searching tends to be much shorter, what with the demands of modern life and the temptations of commercialism.
Even among the endless preparations and gift buying however, many people still take the time to observeancient traditions. Adults may attend service or perform some other religious duty. The children will write letters to the Christkindl or the Christ Child, addressing them to Himmelstadt, where they believe he resides. The whole family might build nativity scenes and go to the Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas Markets, that spring up in every city, to enjoy the enchanting atmosphere and buy their presents. There are many other customs observed and often the Advent season is a time when parents give religious instruction and pass on their family traditions to their children.
Of course, piety aside, many children are beside themselves with excitement as they wait for their presents. German children are luckier than others, because they have more than one day of gift giving! On 6th of December, families observe St. Nicholas’s Feast Day, in honour of the generous saint who was known for giving to the needy. Children will put their shoes outside their bedroom door the night before and in the morning, if they had been good children during the year, they would find gifts in the shoe (in other countries, it would be a stocking in which the presents were placed).
St Nicholas is often said to travel with a servant known as Knecht Ruprecht, who carried a bundle of switches. In days past, this mischievous servant would whip the really naughty children, or leave coal or twigs in the shoes of mildly misbehaving ones. The thought of having Knecht Ruprecht waiting with his whip or bagful of coals was often enough to keep the children well behaved, at least during the month of December!
The long wait and decorating the Tree
The long wait can difficult for the children and to make the season easier for them, parents will give their children Advent calendars. These beautiful calendars have rows of doors, one for each day of the season. As each day passes, the child can open a door to find a pretty picture and perhaps a piece of candy. The Advent wreath (pictured right) is also bought, or made from evergreen branches and decorated with red-green tapes and pinecones. The wreath holds five candles, one for each week of Advent and one for Christmas. Traditional families still gather around the wreath on each Advent Sunday to light the one candle and sing Christmas carols and on Christmas day, the last candle is lit. Each Advent Sunday is often marked with a religious event, which the family will celebrate in its own way.
The tradition of putting up a live fir or pine as the Christmas tree has ancient roots and many trace it to the pagan adoration of the evergreen tree, which keeps its leaves even in the most bitter winter. Others trace the tree to the medieval religious mystery plays, which would feature a pine tree to signify the tree of Paradise. Whatever the true origins, Germany has always had a tradition of displaying Christmas trees and it was German emigrants to other countries which spread the tradition around the world.
Known as the Weihnachtsbaum to the Germans, the Christmas tree was originally decorated with real fruits and cookies, tinsel, beautiful hand blown glass ornaments and real lighted candles held in special holders. Many families now use electric lights to decorate their tree, but some traditional families still prefer the look of real wax candles. Tradition says that children are not allowed to see the tree until the Christmas bell has rung at midday of Christmas Eve, which is a bit problematic. Families make life a little easier for themselves by bringing the tree in earlier and keeping it in locked room; families without a lockable room still wait to Christmas Eve to get a tree and decorate in feverish haste.
Christmas Day and the Days That Follow
And finally, there comes the feast of Christmas, the last day of the Advent season and for the children, the day they finally get their presents. They are allowed to see the Christmas tree, sing carols around it and open the presents piled high underneath its branches. In other countries, St. Nicholas or Santa Claus is the one to give presents on Christmas day (or so the parents say), but things are a little different in Germany. In the north of the country, it is the Weihnachstmann or Christmas Man who comes bearing presents, much like the American Santa Claus; in the south, it is the Christkindl who distributes the gifts.
Also, contrary to the tradition in English-speaking countries, most German-speaking countries will have their gift-exchange on Christmas Eve. The reason for this is often held to be the old way of counting the days. Before modern calendars were used, days were considered to begin at sunset. In the past, Christmas Day would have begun on the evening of the 24th of December and many families still follow this ancient custom. Today, since days are taken to begin at midnight, Christmas Day is pushed to the following day and other families do their gift giving on the 25th of December. Whichever way the Christmas day is reckoned, the Christmas Mass is still held at midnight on Christmas Eve and is usually attended even by those who never step into a church during the rest of the year.
Depending on the family, the Christmas dinner can take place before or after the gift giving, or even after the Christmas Mass. Normally, the dinner is a private family affair. Luckily for German celebrants, there is a very pleasant tradition associated with Christmas Eve, which is also known as Dickbauch. The word means “fat stomach” and tradition states that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. This of course calls for a hearty meal!
The main dish is typically a roasted goose or carp, accompanied by trimmings that vary from region to region. Some of the typical dishes are Christstollen(long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), Lebkuchen (gingerbread), marzipan, and Stollen (a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit), as well as suckling pig, jellies, white sausages, macaroni salads and plenty of other delicious dishes. Of course, with all this feasting, many Germans complain about all the weight they put on during the Christmas season!
Christmas Day itself is spent with family and friends and often includes religious activites. The day after Christmas, the 26th of December, is also very welcome to German children and adults alike. Known as St. Stephen’s Day orzweite Weihnachtstag (“second Christmas Day”), it was traditionally celebrated as the day when the poorer members of society received gifts from the more affluent members. Sometimes this comes in the form of money and other times as material gifts and children are often the happy recipients of these. Unlike the custom in other countries, Germans have a public holiday for the day after Christmas, when they can relax after all the eating and celebrating of the previous days!
Though a German Christmas mainly involves family gatherings, friendship and the fellowship of the community is also celebrated, often with a little light-hearted fun. In some parts of Germany, the Christbaumloben tradition brings friends to the doorstep on the 26th of December to praise the family Christmas tree. Upon entering, the friend will look at the tree and say “Ein schoener Baum!” (“A nice tree!”). For their reward, the friend is given a little glass of alcoholic drink, mostly some sort of brandy. After they get their drink, the visitors normally sit down for a little while, talking and eating some cookies, perhaps praising the tree a little more. Then it is on to the next house, and the next until perhaps ten or fifteen houses are visited. By this time, the friend will most likely be drunk, the families will be pleased, visit in their turn and everyone will have their fun.
In Germany, The Christmas season doesn’t really end until the 6th of January. Until the implementation of the Roman calendar, this was the day for celebrating the birth of the Christ Child and today it is still celebrated as the day of the Feast of Epiphany or Heilige Drei Könige (“Three Wise Men”). To this day, the initials of the Three Kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) and the year are inscribed in chalk over doorways in German-speaking countries on the eve of the feast to protect the home and family. Once the day is over, the celebrations come to an end and children and adult alike look forward to the coming year, and the next Christmas season.