Greetings: “Frohe Weihnachten” for Merry Christmas and “Frohe Fesstage” for Happy Holidays!
More than any other country, Germany is credited with giving the world many of its modern Christmas traditions. Not only is this country credited with giving the world the Christmas tree, but the first image of the modern Santa Claus inspired by St. Nicholas. Germans decorated evergreen trees during winter solstice celebrations for centuries and were the first to hang glass ornaments from a tree.
The Christmas tree or tannenbaum, named for the Christian holiday, began to show up in Strasbourg in Alsace in the 17th century and progressively after 1771 when it was included in the German Novel, The Suffering of Young Werther. It wasn’t long before this tradition spread beyond the borders of Germany to other parts of Europe and to the US in the 1820’s. The first American newspaper carried a picture of a Christmas tree in 1848 and it quickly became a custom in homes over the next few years.
One famous legend of how the Christmas tree came to be tells that Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Reformation, was walking through a snowy forest while working on a sermon. He was so overcome by the beauty of stars reflecting through a fir tree that he wanted to share it with his family. He cut down the tree, brought it home and placed candles on it to mimic the starlight. This is said to have been the birth of the Christmas tree.
Germany is also known the world over for its annual Christmas markets. These markets are known as Christkindlmarkts, which means Christ Child markets. The markets are so named because Martin Luther suggested gifts be given to children from the Christ Child. Prior to this, gifts were exchanged on the Saint Days of St. Nicholas on December 6th or St. Martin on November 11th. Christkindlmarkts spring up in the winter months before the holidays signaling the beginning of Advent. They have been around for centuries and can be traced to a time when local villagers came to show off local delicacies and traditional products.
In Germany shopping for gifts as a holiday activity dates back to the Christmas markets held during the 17th century. Products found early on included nutcrackers, glass balls, toys and tin tree ornaments to name a few. These early markets and local specialties led to the distinctive regional characteristics seen today. Dresden is said to be home to the oldest Christmas market in Germany, but each market is as spectacular and unique as the next.
Today in Germany, Weihnachten (Christmas) preparations are made with great enthusiasm. Homes and businesses are festively decorated and shopping commences with gifts being bought and children writing letters to Christkindle (The Christ Child) in Himelstadt where they believe he lives.
Germany’s Christmas season begins on the 1st of December with the beginning of the 24 days of Advent. It ends on the Day of the Epiphany, commemorating the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. On December 5th and 6th, families observe St. Nicholas Feast Day in honor of the patron saint known for his kindness and generosity. Before going to bed on December 5th, children put their cleaned shoes outside their bedroom door where St. Nicholas will fill them with sweets and other special treats if they have been good. Saint Nicholas does not have reindeer; however, he has a white pony helping him carry two bags, one for good boys and girls and the other for naughty. Naughty girls and boys get twigs or coal if they have misbehaved.
Advent arrives on December 24th; the Day Christmas is celebrated in Germany. Children have anticipated this day with joy, opening each door of the Advent calendar since December 1st to a small toy or sweet treat. On this day, parents decorate the tree so Christkind (Christ Child, an angelic figure) can bring gifts while the family is at church. In some regions parents prepare a room that is locked until a bell rings. The bell signals that children can enter the room where they find a beautifully decorated tree with presents for them underneath. Traditionally families attended midnight Mass, but today an early evening Mass allows time to return home to open presents and have a festive dinner.
When Christmas Day arrives on December 25th, it’s a time to be spent with family and friends. December 26th is officially known as Second Christmas Day. By tradition, this day was for giving gifts to the poor, but today is a public holiday and a day of relaxation. The Christmas season ends on January 6th with the Feast of the Epiphany.
A traditional Christmas dinner in Germany might include baked goose, turkey or carp as a main dish. Side dishes vary by region but can include potatoes, macaroni salad and red cabbage. Germans are known the world over for their exceptional baked goods. Stollen, gingerbread and marzipan are just a few items you might find on the dessert menu.