Christmas in Germany
Each year Christmas Markets spring up around Germany in the weeks before the Christmas holidays, signalling the beginning of Advent.
The centuries-old tradition reaches back to a time when regular seasonal markets took place throughout the year. Christmas Markets were a welcome occurrence during cold-weather months. They were joyful occasions for weary villagers and added a bit of light to long winter nights.
The first Christmas Markets were little more than winter markets that lasted a couple of days. Instead of the cosy stands that line Christmas Market alleys today, traders in some cities laid their goods out in the streets.
Through the years, each Christmas Market has stayed true to its own particularities, with each specializing on local delicacies and traditional products. In the past, only local tradesmen were allowed to sell their wares at the city’s market, which led to the distinctive regional character of today’s markets.
Today, German Christmas Markets serve much the same function that they have for centuries — as a festive meeting place for locals and a market for homemade Christmas ornaments and decorations.
Some of the most traditional German handicrafts can be found here in the weeks before Christmas — from nutcrackers, wooden figurines, straw stars and smokers, to cookie tins, glass balls, toys, and tin tree ornaments.
Despite the widespread belief that Christmas has only recently developed into a feast of commercialism, it may be shocking to find out that, as early as the 17th century, gift-buying at Christmas Markets had already become a main pre-holiday activity.
Usually, the Christmas Markets were held around the city’s main church to attract church-goers. But they were so enticing that a priest in Nürnberg in 1616 complained that he could not hold the afternoon service on Christmas Eve because no one attended.
It is likely that the Christmas Markets drew more visitors when religious reformer Martin Luther instituted new customs for Christmas. Before Luther, the exchanging of presents took place on the saint days of St. Nicholas, December 6, or of St. Martin, on November 11.
It was Luther who suggested that children receive presents from “the Christ child,” hence the name “Christkindlsmarkt,” a popular name for many Christmas Markets especially in the south of Germany.
The German Pre-Christmas Season
Advent marks the beginning of the build-up to Christmas, starting on the Sunday after 26th of November. It begins with quiet contemplative days in November, but excitement and activity increase as Christmas approaches, accompanied by the usual shopping, preparation of special food and Advent celebrations. The Advent Wreath (Adventskranz) is a very popular decoration in German homes. It consists of a circular wreath of pine-branches with four candles on it. On the first Sunday in Advent, the first candle on the wreath is lit, two candles are lit on the second, three on the third and all four on the fourth Sunday, immediately prior to Christmas.
German Father Christmas Day
For children the highlight of Advent is St. Nicholas’ Day (Nikolaustag) on 6th of December. Originally children left hay and straw for St. Nicholas’ horses but now they simply put a shoe or boot outside their bedroom door, window or by the fireplace on the evening of 5th of December, hoping to find it full of sweets, biscuits, nuts and fruit the next morning.
In appearance St. Nicholas is similar to Father Christmas or Santa Claus, dressed in a red gown, with a white beard, boots and a sack.
Christmas Eve (der Heilige Abend, literally means the "Holy Evening") is the most important day of Christmas in Germany.
Shops and offices close at mid-day or 1pm, and most people spend the afternoon at home in preparation for the later celebrations.
The tree is decorated with straw stars, foil and glass decorations, apples, gilded nuts, ring biscuits, Lebkuchen (spicy biscuits), chocolate or marzipan decorations, wooden angels, pine cones, tinsel, and wax candles or electric lights. Presents are placed either under the tree, with the crib if there is one, or else on the "present table" (der Gabentisch).
When everything is prepared, normally just after dark, a little bell is rung as a signal that the children may come in to see the lighted tree and receive their presents (die Bescherung). Before the exchange of gifts takes place, the Christmas story is often read by the light of the candles and favourite Christmas carols are sung.
Since the Middle Ages carp has been a traditional food for the evening meal on Christmas Eve. However, all kinds of food are eaten nowadays on Christmas Eve evening. But the traditional Christmas foods mentioned in the St. Nicholas rhyme, apples and nuts and almonds (in the form of marzipan) still remain favourite Christmas nibbles.
Depending on whether the family is Roman Catholic or Protestant they will probably go to church at midnight or in the late afternoon. The rest of the evening is enjoyed as a family get-together, with the children playing with new toys, and all partaking of the Christmas goodies.
First Day of Christmas
December 25th is known as the "First Day of Christmas" (der erste Weihnachtstag) and, in comparison with the 24th of December, it is a quiet day, often spent either visiting relatives or else being visited by them.
Goose is still widely eaten for the main meal, but is by no means as obligatory a Christmas dinner as turkey is in Britain.
December 26th, the "Second Day of Christmas" (der zweite Weihnachtstag) is also known as St. Stephen’s Day and has much the same function as the day before, being another public holiday and a day of family reunions or outings.