Seasonal Holliday Attire: Christmas in Germany


Figure 1.--This German family are gathered arroind the Christmas tree. The image is undated, but we would guess that it was taken in the 1930s. The boy wears a while sailor suit, more common in the summer, with long stockings. I am not sure what is on the table, I think it might be theater stage. A German reader, however, tells us that it is meant to replicate a toy store.

Germany has many Christmas traditions. Many if which have become part of the standard English and American Christmas celebration. Prince Albert, Queen's Victoria's German husband, played an important role in bringing German traditions to England. Millions of German immigrants helped bring German traditions to America. As in many other European countries, on the eve of December 6th children place a shoe or boot by the fireplace. During the night, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, hops from house to house carrying a book of sins in which all of the misdeeds of the children are written. If they have been good, he fills the shoe or boot with delicious holiday edibles. If they have not been good, their shoe is filled with twigs. December 21st, supposedly the shortest day (longest night) of the year, is dubbed St. Thomas Day. In parts of the Sauerland, whoever wakes up late or arrives late to work on that day is issued the title "Thomas Donkey." They are given a cardboard donkey and are the subject of numerous jokes throughout the day. But this gentle abuse ends deliciously with round, iced currant buns called "Thomasplitzchen." This is all preliminary to the excitement of Christmas Eve. Prior to the evening feast, is the presentation of the tree. The Christmas tree, as we know it, originated in Germany. It has a mysterious magic for the young because they are not allowed to see it until Christmas Eve. While the children are occupied with another room (usually by Father) Mother brings out the Christmas tree and decorates it with apples, candy, nuts, cookies, cars, trains, angels, tinsel, family treasures and candles or lights. The presents are placed under the tree. Somewhere, close to the bright display are laid brilliantly decorated plates for each family member, loaded with fruits, nuts, marzipan, chocolate and biscuits. When all is ready a bell is rung as a signal for the children to enter this Christmas fantasy room. Carols are sung, sometimes sparklers are lit, the Christmas story is read and gifts are opened. Dickbauch" means "fat stomach" and is a name given to the Christmas Eve because of the tradition that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. So the opportunity is given to enjoy dishes such as suckling pig, "reisbrei" (a sweet cinnamon), white sausage, macaroni salad, and many regional dishes. Christmas Day brings with it a banquet of plump roast goose, "Christstollen" (long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), "Lebkuchen" (spice bars), marzipan, and "Dresden Stollen" ( a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit). The custom of trimming and lighting a Christmas tree had its origin in pre-Christian Germany, the tree symbolizing the Garden of Eden. It was called the "Paradise Baum," or tree of Paradise. Gradually, the custom of decorating the tree with cookies, fruit and eventually candles evolved. Other countries soon adapted the custom. Charles Dickens called it "The Pretty German Toy." The German Christmas is a very important time to each person and family. Preparations are made for weeks. Advent wreaths, candles and calendars set the mood. St. Nicholas' Day, December 6 marks the beginning of the season. Although the crib is often found in German homes, the tree is the center of attention. The custom began in Germany and every home must have one. Usually it is the mother who decorates the tree and no one is allowed in until it is finished. It is the Christkind who brings the presents, accompanied by one of its many devilish companions, Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Ru-Klas, or one of the other monstrous playmates created by this nation, which is known for its fairy tales. The highlight of the Christmas food is the cookies. There are dozens of different Cookies, shaped like figures of Christmas or stamped with familiar designs. Edible trees and tiny baked brown gnomes fill the warm kitchens for a week before the festivities.

Importance

The German Christmas is a very important time to each person and family. Preparations are made for weeks. Decorations such as advent wreaths, candles and calendars set the mood. St. Nicholas' Day, December 6 marks the beginning of the season.

Terminology

There are a lot of German terms addociated with Christmas. 'Weihnachten' is the most common term for Christmas. 'Froehliche Weihnachten' means Merry Christmas. I never understood why Christmas was called Weihnachten in German. The word Nacht is Night in English. The plural of Nacht is Nächte, never Nachten. But Christmas surely is 'Weihnachten'. 'Weih' could mean solemn or dedicated and 'Weihe' consecration. Religion tries to tell people that it was a beautiful calm night when Christ was born. Some German terms are familiar to Americans because several importantant Christmas carols were written in Germany. 'Tannenbaum' is of course Christmas tree.

International Impact

Germany has many Christmas traditions. Many if whuch have become part of the standard English and American Christmas celebration. Prince Albert, Queen's Victoria's German husband (Saxe Coburg), played an important role in bringing German traditions to England. Millions of German immigrants also helped bring German traditions to America. Perhaps the most important of these traditions is of course the Christmas tree.

German Customs

German readers tell us about many popular holiday traditions in their country. English and American readers will recognize many of them. Christmas as well as other traditions such as weddings in America and Britain were largely set in the Victorian era. And many of them were influenced by the German traditions Prince Albert brought from Germany to the delight of the royal family. These were gradually adopted by families all over Britain and then America. The custom of trimming and lighting a Christmas tree had its origin in pre-Christian Germany, the tree symbolizing the Garden of Eden. It was called the "Paradise Baum," or tree of Paradise. Gradually, the custom of decorating the tree with cookies, fruit and eventually candles evolved. Another German custom to await Christmas by lighting a candle every weekend. Those candles are bound within a round piece of wire, to that are leaves and green needle trees brances are attached. These Adventskränze called pieces were first produced in about 1910. One charming German Christmas tradition is the Adventskalnder. This custom from around 1900 is to buy calendars with stories and pictures, that are hidden behind small doors. Each day you can open one of these doors to read a story and when the last 24th day is over, Christmas Eve is there. The highlight of the Christmas food is the cookies. There are dozens of different cookies, shaped like figures of Christmas or stamped with familiar designs. Edible trees and tiny baked brown gnomes fill the warm kitchens for a week before the festivities.

St. Nicholas Night

As in many other European countries, on the eve of December 6th children place a shoe or boot by the fireplace. During the night, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, hops from house to house carrying a book of sins in which all of the misdeeds of the children are written. If they have been good, he fills the shoe or boot with delicious holiday edibles. If they have not been good, their shoe is filled with twigs. This is especially important in Catholic areas of Germany as it is in southern, Catholic areas of Europe.

St. Thomas Day

St. Thomas Day is December 21st, supposedly the shortest day (longest night) of the year. In parts of the Sauerland, whoever wakes up late or arrives late to work on that day is issued the title "Thomas Donkey." They are given a cardboard donkey and are the subject of numerous jokes throughout the day. But this gentle abuse ends deliciously with round, iced currant buns called "Thomasplitzchen." This is all preliminary to the excitement of Christmas Eve. Prior to the St. Thomas evening feast, is the presentation of the tree. The Christmas tree has a mysterious magic for the young because they are not allowed to see it until Christmas Eve. While the children are occupied with another room (usually by Father) Mother brings out the Christmas tree and decorates it with apples, candy, nuts, cookies, cars, trains, angels, tinsel, family treasures and candles or lights. The presents are placed under the tree. Somewhere, close to the bright display are laid brilliantly decorated plates for each family member, loaded with fruits, nuts, marzipan, chocolate and biscuits. When all is ready a bell is rung as a signal for the children to enter this Christmas fantasy room. Carols are sung, sometimes sparklers are lit, the Christmas story is read and gifts are opened. Traditionally it is the Christkind who brings the presents, accompanied by one of its many devilish companions, Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Ru-Klas, or one of the other monstrous playmates created by this nation, which is known for its fairy tales.

Christmas Eve

Dickbauch" means "fat stomach" and is a name given to the Christmas Eve because of the tradition that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. So the opportunity is given to enjoy dishes such as suckling pig, "reisbrei" (a sweet cinnamon), white sausage, macaroni salad, and many regional dishes. Christmas Day brings with it a banquet of plump roast goose, "Christstollen" (long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), "Lebkuchen" (spice bars), marzipan, and "Dresden Stollen" (a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit).

Christmas Poem

Here we have an interesting hristmas poem. A German reader writes, "Here is a funny Christmas poem. It is a mixture of English and German words. When you read it as a German it sounds really funny. I had a good laugh!" It is a charming poem and a good exercize for English speakers beginning to learn German and German speakers beginning to learn English.

Christmas Day

Germany was where the Reformation began and in Germany Protesantism means Luthernism. Luther had a great deal to say about Christmas. He wanted to demphasized Catholic saints and one of thse saints was St. Nicholas. Thus Luthern families began to give more attention to December 25, meaning Christ's birthday rather than St. Nicholas Day. The Christmas Kind became the focus of the Lutheran Christmas. Lutheran families tend to exchge gifts on December 25. (This is in large measure why December 25 is so important in America--even with Catholics.) Now even for children it did not make much sence for the Baby Jesus to dispense Christmas gifts. So over time a new Christmas character appeared--the beautiful Christmas angel. As a result, the Christmas angel has become a major part of Christmas in Germany. There used to be major differences between Catholic and Protestant families. I am not sure what has happened in Germany during recent years with the declining importance of religion.

Reader Comments

Christmas in Germany surely differs from family to family. December 24th (Heiligabend = holy evening): In the afternoon or early evening people are going to church. When people are in church normally Father Christmas "comes" for when people come back there are presents under the tree and everyone is enjoying them. After that all have a nice supper together. December 25th (Erster Weihnachtstag = first Chritmas Day): for lunch relatives come and they bring and get presents. For lunch there is a big turkey bird, potatoes and red cabbage. In the afternoon there are cakes and coffee. December 26th (Zweiter Weihnachtstag = second Christmas Day): visiting relatives.

Chronology

We have found a number of images which give us insights on German Christmas celebrations over time. We are not always able to tell if they are Catholic or Protestant fmilies. Perhaps our readers will be able to offer an insight here. Most of the images we have found center on the family Christmas tree, often when the children and their presents. While much has changed over time, the one constant seems to be the Christmas tree.

Secularization

Germany today is a much more secular country than eas the case before workd War II. This surely has affected the celebration of Christmas, but we are not sure just how the declining influence of religion has affected the celebration of Christmas. There have always been secular elements associated with the holidays. Another facgtor here is the DDR (East Germany). We are unsure just how the regime's atheist campaign affected Christmas celebrations. We note the Storre family celebrating Christmas at home in East Germany during 1958.

Christmas Loot

Christmas for children meant not only lots of goodies, cakes and candies, but also toys--all kind of toys. And no country made better toys than the Germans. The Germans not only made toys for Grman children, but exported them all over the world. We see all kinds of toys in the photographic record. Teddy bears and other stuffed animals were popular and Steiff teddies became the standard on which all bears were subsequently judged. We see blocks, toy vehickes (cars, trucks, boats, and plans) pull animals, toy soldiers, toy guns, puppets, trains and much more. In particular we note doll houses for the girls and castles for the boys toy soldiers. Of course boys also got clothes for Christmas, but it was the toys that were the real prizes. It is fascinting to see the period toys revealed over time in the photographic record.








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Created: December 27, 1998
Last updated: 4:03 AM 10/12/2011