by Paul Hughes
USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs
The holidays are a wonderful time of year in your host nation. Small twinkly lights illuminate the postcard-perfect Christmas Markets, the smell of Gluhwein, spices and food waft through the air, and the local brass band plays music at your town square.
It’s not just the Christmas markets – mimicked, but never bettered anywhere in the world – that make the holidays unique in the land of the Tannenbaum.
1. Christmas markets
While the magic of German Christmas markets has spread all around the world, it’s a tradition which was first derived from Germany. It’s thought the origins of Christmas markets can be traced back to the German-speaking part of Europe in the Middle Ages, and nowadays, nearly every small town and village will have one alongside the much larger cities. There really is nothing better than ice skating, followed by glühwein (mulled wine) and a bratwurst at one of Germany’s best markets, like Stuttgart, Tübingen or Munich.
2. Only 78% of the people in Germany celebrate Christmas, compared to 93% of Americans.
Germany is a largely Christian country, while the Holiday spirit is alive and well, the season identifies less-and-less with it’s church-going traditions. A year-on-year decline in people identifying as Christian and declining church numbers means only 10% of those identifying as Christian actually attend church, compared to 41% in the US.
3. “Stockings” are opened on 6th December
Children in Germany don’t have to wait until Christmas morning to begin enjoying the fruits of their hung-up stockings or more accurately – laid out shoes.
On the night of December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, children clean and polish their boots, and leave them outside the door before going to sleep. The next morning they’ll find their shoes full of candy, gifts and other goodies from St. Nicholas – yes, that St. Nick!
4. The Christmas tree (Tannenbaum) is German
Over 400 years ago, in pre-Christian times families often decorated their homes with evergreen branches during the Winter Solstice.
Thought to keep away ghosts and evil spirits, the tradition of a decorated indoor tree has been linked to Martin Luther. The 16th-century Protestant reformer was inspired by the glistening stars after walking home one winter evening. To recreate the scene for his family, he set up a tree, complete with lit candles, in his living room.
To this date, some German households still use candles in place of Christmas lights. While alcohol + candles + flammable trees is a surefire way to spice up the danger on Christmas Day, we recommend you leave the fireworks at the dinner table with your out-of-town uncle.
5. The Christmas tree only goes up Christmas Eve
One of the largest departures from other countries’ tree traditions is that the tree is around for a lot less time. In Germany trees are put up on December 24th. While this varies more nowadays, it is still tradition in many homes. Meanwhile, the rest of the home is decorated well beforehand — it’s just the centerpiece which is saved until last.
6. Christmas is actually celebrated on Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is the day when it ALL happens in Germany. Called Heiliger Abend (Holy Night), it is a day full of celebrations for Germans. As with US traditions, households spend the day decorating the tree (which only goes up on Christmas Eve), preparing food for the family, and sprucing up the home. As soon as the night draws in, households will gather around the tree and sing traditional Christmas hymns, like O’Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree) or Stille Nacht (Silent Night).
In the evening it is time to exchange gifts. Children must leave the room while the ‘Christkind’ (Christ Child) delivers the presents. After delivery, a bell will be rung, signalling to the children the Chirstkind’s departure, and the time to open gifts. No groggy 5 a.m. Christmas mornings in Germany!
7. Krampus Night (Krampus Nacht)
Germans love scaring kids as much as the next country, and why should the children get all the fun? Someone in the 17th century decided to pair Krampus – a horned, tailed, fanged devil, with jolly old St. Nick.
Krampus – popularised by Hollywood movies in the 2000’s – is believed to accompany St. Nicholas to teach naughty children a hard lesson.
In Southern Bavaria, for example, men in incredible Krampus costumes walk the streets on St. Nicholas Night, and are sometimes invited into homes by parents of particularly naughty children.
8. Christmas is time for mulled everything
As much as Americans like to add Pumpkin to everything during the holidays, Germans love to mull every conceivable drink. Mulled red wine, mulled white wine, mulled cider, even mulled Tequila.
You will see it popularly and prominently at Christmas markets and festivals by the name Glühwein – literally “glow wine.” Nothing will warm you up quicker than these hot spiced cups of wine, which, since you will pay a deposit for the mug it is served in, make nice souvenirs as they are often personalised for that market. For added warmth ask for yours “Mit Schuss” for an extra shot of amaretto, or brandy.
9. A post office in Germany will physically respond to letters to Santa
For the last 20 years in the town of Engelskirchen, thousands of letters have been opened from children around the world at Christmas time.
It started in 1985 when post offices began wondering what to do with letters addressed to the Christkind – the person in Germany responsible for delivering Christmas presents. Deutsche Post settled on sending them to Engelskirchen – literally “The Angels Church.” During the holidays, they are so inundated with letters, they even rent an office for their team of up to 12 people, who physically answer EVERY letter sent to them.
10. The Advent calendar is another German invention
Like many other things in our list, the Advent calendar was also invented here in Germany. It can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, when German Protestants began marking the days of Advent by burning a candle for the day or marking walls and doors with a line of chalk. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s when the paper advent calendar as we know it was created. Today many Advent calendars contain chocolate treats behind the paper panels.
And there you have it, ten things you (probably) didn’t know about Christmas in Germany. Why not grab one of the ideas above and add it to your holiday traditions as a way to remember your time in Germany.