German Christmas Traditions

CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE

Weihnachten is the German word for Christmas, and Germany has been celebrating Christmas for longer than the United States has existed. Many German Christmas traditions are very familiar to Americans. In fact, many of our traditions started in Germany. Some, however, didn’t make it to America and are new and different to us.

Wanna play a game? Let’s see how many German Christmas traditions you can mark of our German bingo card! Explanations of the traditions are below:

Christmas Bingo; Germany Christmas Traditions; germanyja.com

German Names for the Holidays:

December 24, Christmas Eve: Heiliger Abend (Holy Night): The morning may start at work, but often after church comes small meal and gifts under the tree.

December 25, erste Weihnachtstag (First Christmas): A bigger festive day with a large meal.

December 26, zweite Weihnachtstag (Second Christmas): A quieter day for families.

31 January, New Year’s Eve: Silvester Tag: New Year’s Eve is often refered to by the associated saint’s day. Traditions include fireworks, a prank doughnut with mustard, and watching a British comedy “Dinner for One.”

6 January, Epiphany: Dreikönigs Tag (Three Kings): Celebrates the time when the wise men or magi visited the baby Christ-child and brought gifts. On that day, you may see carolers, sometime following a wooden star, coming to houses. In some traditions, they also collect gifts for charity and may bless the house with the initials of the traditional three kings: C, B, M.

Brendio Flicker 68052161; Adventskranz; German Christmas Traditions; germanyja.com

Advent Wreath - Der Adventskranz:

Advent means “coming” and advent wreaths with candles were a way to keep track of the coming festival. The four candles were for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. A new one was lit each Sunday, until the fourth was lit on the week of Christmas. Originally some also had a smaller candle for each day of the week also.

Bernkastel-Kues Adventskalender; German Christmas Traditions; germanyja.com

Advent Calendar - Der Adventskalender:

Similar to the wreath, an advent calendar marks the days in December leading to Christmas. Usually each day of the calendar is a little door that opens, revealing a a hidden picture or small gift. These days there are all kinds of calendars: candy, lego, ornaments, and even beer! This picture was taken in Berkastel-Kues where an entire building is made into the calendar. 

Weihnachtsmarkt; Christmas Market; German Christmas Traditions; germanyja.com

Christmas Market -Weihnachtsmärkte or Christkindlesmarkt:

The first Christmas markets started over 700 years ago as a way for the town’s people to stock up on supplies for the upcoming holiday. Today you can still buy holiday items as well as many gifts and traditional crafts. Different markets have different specialties, but hot beverages, gingerbread hearts lebkuchenherz, roasted nuts, and grilled foods seem to be a staple at every market.

Gluwein:

This warm mulled wine is often served at Christmas markets, but made at home too. Other special, warm-your-heart (or at least your liver) drinks available especially around Christmas are Feuerzangenbowle  and Eierpunsch. Kinderpunsch is the non-alchohol based alternative.

Weihnachtsmann; Christmas Market; German Christmas Traditions; germanyja.com

Santa - Sankt Nikolaus, plus Christkindl and the Weihnachtsmann:

Saint Nicholas was a real man who lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey. He was known for giving gifts, especially to children. As early as the Middle Ages, people began giving gifts to children in his honor on December 6th.  Traditionally, the gifts were placed in the children’s shoes which were left by the door on the night of the 5th.

With the Reformation in the 1500s, less emphasis was put on the saints and a new tradition was born. The Christ-Child or Christkindl was the bearer of gifts and the gift-giving day moved to Christmas.

Both traditions blended into a non-secular figure of Santa Claus or the Weihnachtsmann. The traditional German Weihnachtsmann is less plump than the American Santa, but still brings gifts. He prefers the door to the chimney and usually leave the gifts on December 24th, Heiliger Abend.

Christmas Tree -Tannenbaum:

It originally was a tree outside decorated with edible decorations. Slowly the tree was brought inside, but not set up until Christmas Eve. Candles were the first lights, and were replaced with safer electric lights, but some Germans still prefer candles. The trees traditionally had a short life in the lime-light and were taken down on January 6th, Dreikönigs Tag. Then children could take all those edible items off to eat!

Weihnachtspiramide; Christmas pyramid; German Christmas Traditions; germanyja.com

Christmas pyramid - Weihnachtspyramide:

In places where trees were not as plentiful, the Christmas pyramid took the tree’s place. Here the candles’ heat turned the blades of the fan which turned the inner workings of the pyramid. Today, you can buy table-top versions for your house and many Christmas markets have a larger-than life version with a market vendor in the bottom floor.

12 Days of Christmas:

This is not strictly German, but a tradition that is mainly lost in America. The 12 days refers to the time between Christmas and Epiphany on 6 January. In America the holiday season seems to run from Thanksgiving until Christmas or maybe New Year’s, but in many countries the emphasis is later.

Christmas Songs:

Some familiar Christmas songs were first sung in German: “Silent Night” was first “Stille Nacht.” “Der Kleine Trommler” was translated into “Little Drummer Boy.” And “O Tannenbaum” is, of course, “O Christmas Tree.”

Christmas Pickle – Weihnachtsgurke:

We’ll finish with a “tradition” that seems to be more of a “ledged.” I grew up with a glass pickle ornament on my tree. The story was, that it was a German Christmas tradition and the first person to find the hidden pickle ornament on the tree got an extra present, or good luck for the upcoming year.

Meanwhile in Germany, no one had heard of “their” Christmas tradition. The tradition may have started by German imigrants to America, but the only place you’ll find to buy a German pickle ornament is a one that caters to Americans. I’ll still keep my pickle. Some traditional stories may not be true, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a tradition!

So how did you do in our German Christmas Bingo? Have you seen these German Christmas traditions? Have you drank Gluwein at the Weihnachtsmärkte? Do you have a Tannenbaum or Weihnachtspyramide in your house? Have you heard “Stille Nacht” being played? Do you count down to  Weihnachtstag with a Adventskranz or Adventskalendar? Do you celebrate Silvester’s or Dreikönigs Tag?



5 Responses to “German Christmas Traditions”

  1. Army Amy* says:

    We have a pickle! I didn’t know that it was a supposedly German tradition. When I was younger, my best friend (who was from New York) always had one on her tree. When I got married, my mom bought one for me and my husband, remembering how much I loved my friend’s and encouraging me to keep the tradition with my newly formed family. When we PCSed, not all of our ornaments made the voyage from Texas to Germany, but I was overjoyed to see that my pickle did.*

  2. Amanda P says:

    I did not know there was a smaller version of the Christmas pyramid. I had only seen the large ones at markets. Maybe I’ll have to look for one. We used to have an advent calendar, but haven’t had one in Germany. Didn’t put up the Tannenbaum this year either. It’s cool that whole building was turned into a calendar though. I had Glühwein our first Christmas in Germany. It was interesting for an experience but not something I needed to repeat this year.

  3. Sarah says:

    Amy, I hope that your other ornaments are safely back in storage and not lost for good. I grew up with a pickle too and still carry on the tradition!
    Amanda, you should be able to find the table-top versions at the Christmas markets or at many Germany stores, even past Christmas.

  4. Liz says:

    A pickle?? I love it. I’ll have to start a new tradition :D

  5. cookie says:

    Hi, just stumbled upon this (I know, I’m a bit late). I am German, and I have to say, I have never heard about a Christmas Pickle either ;).

    Heilige Drei Könige is more common in the south of Germany, in the north Christmas is basically over after the 26th.

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