Christmas in Germany- Customs and Traditions - Global Storybook

Christmas in Germany: Customs and Traditions

Rayka Kobiella

Rayka Kobiella

Rayka Kobiella is the Local Contributing Writer at Global Storybook (Germany).

Rayka was born and raised in Northern Germany, in a small village on the border with Denmark. Growing up rather away from almost everything, she found her excitement in writing and visualizing life in places far away from home. Right after school, where she studied literature and anthropology, she started exploring the world.

Since 2000, Rayka has been living a nomad live, writing about traveling, plays and short stories, making art and theater in Europe, East Africa, South East Asia and North America.

She's a member of Label Gray NYC, the FREE(AK) SHOW and the founder of the Performancekollektiv for New Music and Text in the intercultural context DissOPERAlusion.
Rayka Kobiella

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Christmas starts pretty early in Germany – four Sundays ahead of Jesus’s birthday.  Summer is barely over, and the next thing you know – all the shops are filled with cookies and Christmas decorations.  Of course, it’s never too early for a lovely soft gingerbread or a chocolate Santa Claus!  But there is one thing which makes German children especially excited – in Germany the gift-giving happens on December 24th, right on the Christmas Eve.

With Christmas Markets the Christmas Season is officially open! 🎄

Christmas Market in Frankfurt, Germany - Global Storybook

The beautiful Christmas Market in Frankfurt

Christmas in Germany begins on the fourth Sunday ahead of the Christmas Day.  Traditionally, at this time Christians are looking forward to the arrival of Jesus Christ, and so they start counting days.  We call it “Adventszeit”– the Advent Season in Germany.  But the most important thing about the 1st Advent – is that the wonderful Christmas Markets are now officially open!

Every historic city center is covered with endless rows of fairy lights.  They come in all sorts of shapes – like stars, hearts, or slides.  The celebration of the Advent Season in Germany with the opening of the Christmas Markets goes way back to the 14th century.

Nowadays, you will find numerous wooden open-air stalls with bratwurst, creamy mushrooms, baked potatoes and “Stollen” – a sweet bread with candied fruit (though the best one comes from Dresden!).

Toffee apples, German Christmas Market - Global Storybook

The yummy toffee apples

If you’re visiting one of our Christmas Markets, make sure to grab a hot drink to keep you warm, like the “Apfelwein” the hot apple wine, or the yummy “Glühwein” the mulled red wine.  It’s actually a spicy hot wine with an optional shot of brandy.  If you don’t like mulled wine, try the “Eierpunsch”, another warm alcoholic drink, which is based on eggs.

Mulled wine pot in the Berlin Christmas Market - Global Storybook

A pot of mulled wine in the Berlin’s Christmas Market

In the middle of the market, you will always find a huge decorated Christmas tree, a crib and most likely an oversized Christmas Pyramid.  It’s usually decorated like a living fairytale with colorful lighting, candles, sparkling stalls, delicious smells plus the Christmas carols.  Normally the Christmas Markets are open daily from 5pm until about 11pm, so everyone can stop by right after work, and enjoy the best time of the year together with friends, colleges and some “Glühwein” – for up to four weeks.

The first Christmas Markets opened in Bautzen and Dresden, so these are supposedly the originals.  Also, the one in Nürnberg is quite impressive.  But to be honest – every Christmas Market in every historic city center is simply marvelous.

Best time of the year – the Advent Season 🍫

Besides the beloved Christmas Markets, the Advent Season is the time for various lovely Christmas traditions.  Since Germany is in Northern Europe – December is always dark and cold.  Hence it’s all about feeling and making one look warm and comfortable.  Plus, it’s all about coming together with family and friends.  Germans even have a name for it – “Gemütlichkeit”.  Believe me – if you spend one Advent Season in Germany –  you will know exactly how Gemütlichkeit smells, feels and looks like!

One thing that you will surely find on every German living room’s table, is a wreath with a twig of pines, berries and leafs with four same-sized candles.  We call it the Advent Wreath.  With the 1st Advent (which falls on the 4th Sunday ahead of the Christmas Eve) the family comes together and lights up the first candle.

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Every following Sunday another candle will be lit so that on the Christmas Eve all four of them are burning.  Normally it takes place around afternoon.  Hot drinks, a cake, heart-warming stories and a cheerful Christmas film are also usually present.  In addition, most families will bake some type of Christmas cookies together on that day.

Advent Wreath - Global StorybookThe great childhood’s memories also involve the so-called Advent Calendar.  What a fantastic invention!  It’s a 24-days countdown Christmas calendar – with a hidden small chocolate bar in each new day!  The simple ones are the cardboards with religious or Christmas motifs, with little doors hidden in them.  Beginning on December 1st one would start opening a new door.  The last door on the 24th  will have the biggest piece of chocolate.

In the past, these calendars where plain cards with religious sayings written behind the paper doors, instead of a chocolate.  Today there are all kinds of Advent Calendars.  Some even like to build self-made calendars – with bigger or more personalized gifts.  There are also some naughty ones for the older population.

Advent Calendar - Global StorybookPolish your shoes on December 5th! 👞

St. Nikolaus is coming!  On the evening of December 5th children will start working on their shoes and boots to make them look super shiny.  They would then place the best pair in front of the door, hoping that St. Nikolaus will come by and see their spotless shoes.  He will surely leave a small gift like a chocolate bar or a gingerbread cookie in appreciation of their efforts.

Shoe polish - popular German Christmas traditionSt. Nikolaus was a merciful man, who lived in 340 AD in Myra.  He would give away everything he had to help children.  So he quickly became known as the patron saint of the little ones.  December 6th is his day of death.  It’s also the day of his remembrance in Germany.

Since St. Nikolaus would only hand out gifts to the well-behaved children –  they would work very hard on polishing their shoes.  As to the bad kids – they would get a birch by St. Nikolaus’s dark companion – “Knecht Ruprecht”.  But since parents are behind this scheme – the children would rarely get a birch in their shoe.

Coming together with friends and drinking weird stuff 🍷

In December, friends like to meet up and bake some Christmas cookies together.  The popular ones include the “Vanilla Kipferl” or cinnamon cookies.  They would also prepare the mulled wine or even the beloved but dangerous “Fire Tong” punch.  Known in Germany as: “Feuerzangenbowle”,  it’s actually wine with a high percentage of rum, sugar and… open flames.  It became widely popular due to the 1943’s comedy “Die Feuerzangenbowle”.

Fire Tong PunchIn this iconic film, German actor Heinz Rühmann plays a middle-aged writer Pfeiffer.  In one scene, he stands next to a huge bowl of Feuerzangenbowle.  He gets drunk and then becomes very sad about the fact that he never attended a normal school, since he was privately tutored.  While talking to his friends, he realizes that he missed out on something important.

So he decides to dress up as a high school student and go to a school for the first time in his life.  Together with his new classmates, he starts tricking the teachers, while having lots of fun.  Numerous German theaters still show this cult movie around Christmas time.  And as you can probably see –  the”Fire Tong” punch is still very much popular in Germany.

Wichteln” and “Julklapp” (The Secret Santa Tradition) 👀

During the Advent Season co-workers or even club members, like to play the “Wichteln” and “Julklapp”.  It’s a fun and charming way to start the Christmas party.  So how is it played?  Well ahead of the actual party, every participant has to write down his or her name on a piece of paper, then fold it and put it in a general pile.  The group would then decide how much should be spent on each gift (usually it’s not much) so that everyone could afford it.  Then one by one everyone would pull a name out of the pile and keep it secret.

Secret SantaEvery person has time to buy a gift for the Christmas party.  At the actual party, everyone would secretly place their present on a table, with the name of the person for whom it was meant.  Round after round the dice would then roll.  Whoever gets a six, can pick up his or her present.  Afterwards, of course, everyone would try to find out who bought the gift for whom.

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Christmas Eve’s gift-giving: “Bescherung” 🎁

Finally!  After 23 days of drinking mulled wine, shopping for gifts, eating too many cookies, and attending too many parties – Christmas Eve is here!  Unlike many other countries, the “Christmas Family Event” actually happens on the evening of the 24th, in Germany.  It’s also the time when everyone decorates their Christmas tree, dresses up, swaps gifts and goes to the church.

Funny enough, shops are still open on December 24th, since it’s not the official Christmas Day – the day when Jesus Christ was born, which is on December 25th.  So everyone can still do their last-minute shopping until 2pm.   Although December 24th  is the most important day during the Christmas season in Germany, fancy dinners are usually held only on the 25th and 26th.

Home Christmas treeOn the 24th the family would usually decorate the Christmas tree with fairy lights or even real candles and colorful decorations.  Traditionally the Christmas tree is covered in ornaments, like “Lametta” (tinsel), garlands and various glittering baubles, stars and other shapes and figures made of ceramics, wood, metal or glass.  On top of a tree, you will always find either a star, which represents the Star of Bethlehem or an angel.  Much love goes into the decoration of the Christmas tree!

In countries like Germany, the fir-tree is the only tree which remains green during the Winter.  It’s a symbol of power, fertility and immortality.  Usually, the Christmas tree stays in the living room until the end of the Christmas season.  By the way – the Christmas tree is the most popular German Christmas Tradition, which was exported and adopted overseas!

After the Christmas tree decorations are finished, the kitchen becomes the busiest place.  Usually, a simple meal is served so that the kids won’t have to wait too long to open their Christmas presents.  Germans love to eat sausages and potato salad at this early dinner or even a simple though delicious stew.

After the meal, everyone gathers around the Christmas tree, to listen to the Christmas songs and read or tell stories to each other.  Children will have to stand up and quote a Christmas poem or sing a little song.  After that, the “Bescherung” (the gift-giving) would start and everyone would open their gifts.

Sometimes Santa Claus would attend as well.  Normally, it’s a dressed-up neighbor or a relative with a huge bag full of presents.  Children would usually get very nervous since they know that they have to behave super nice.  Santa would ask if the kid has been good and will tell him or her what to do to become better next year.  Smaller kids would generally be very impressed, wondering: “how does Santa know so much about me?”

Home Santa - Global StorybookIt differs from family to family, but the majority would try to maintain the belief in Santa for their children until they enter school.  That’s when they will normally realize that the gifts come from real people (aka their family).

After the gift-giving, locals would go to their church and watch a “Krippenspiel” – a nativity play.  Numerous churches would open their doors around midnight, with hundreds of candle lights, a chorus singing Christmas carols and perform a short worship.  When it becomes silent at midnight – the chimes of the churches would play a “Glockenspiel”.  It’s a truly special moment!

Lutheran church of Our Lady aka Frauenkirche, Dresden, Saxony, Germany - Global StorybookChristmas on the 25th and 26th 🍲

In most countries, the 25th of December, the birthday of Jesus, is the highlight of Christmas.  In Germany that’s just the next day after the Christmas Eve, where we continue celebrating the holiday.  Without gifts of course – but with extremely good food.

The 25th and 26th are usually reserved for meetings with relatives to eat and drink together.  On those two days, all shops are finally closed.  So you can concentrate on eating hearty and delicious food.  Christmas goose or duck with potato dumplings and red cabbage or the Christmas carp are usually served during this holiday.  In the end, it’s all about “Gemütlichkeit”!

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