By Max Matting
The birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated by Christians all over the world. From a religious point of view Easter has a greater importance than Christmas. However, most Germans would probably say that Christmas has a more special meaning to them.
Unlike one might suppose, Christmas celebrations already start on the fourth Sunday before December 25, which is either the last Sunday of November or the first of December. The keeping of an Adventskranz (Advent wreath) with four candles is common practice in German homes and it begins at the first Sunday of Advent. An additional candle is lit during each week until, by the last Sunday before Christmas, all four candles are lit. With the beginning of the Advent season countless Christmas markets open in Germany. The Dresdner Striezelmarkt is one of the oldest and dates back to 1434, whereas five million visitors each year make the Christmas market in Cologne the biggest in Germany. The markets sell food, drink (Glühwein – of course), and seasonal items from open-air stalls, usually accompanied by traditional singing and dancing.
Likewise early does another Christmas tradition start that is favored especially by the children: the Adventskalender (Advent calendar). It begins on December 1 and consists of 24 ‘windows’: one for each day of December leading up to Christmas Eve. The calendar windows sometimes reveal an image or poem but usually it is a piece of chocolate. A significant part of the Christmas celebrations occurs on December 6, when it is Nikolaustag, a day commemorating Saint Nicholas. And it is all about candy again. On the evening of December 5 children in Germany place a Nikolausstiefel (a boot or a shoe) in front of the street door. Overnight, the Nikolaus, a figure similar to Santa Claus in the USA, visits the house and fills the boots with sweets and sometimes even smaller presents if the children were good; otherwise they are left with only a Rute (a cane composed of twigs). However, this is a very traditional way and every family celebrates differently. But: there is always candy and especially chocolate involved when it comes to Nikolaustag.
A couple of days before Christmas Eve it is time to put up the Christmas tree. It is a tradition that developed in early modern Germany and became popular beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century. On Christmas Eve the festivity hits its peak. The 24th of December is eagerly anticipated as it is the day of Bescherung (handing out of the presents). In some parts of the country, it’s believed the Christ Child, das Christkind sends a messenger on Christmas Eve, an angel in a white robe and crown, bearing gifts. This magical event, for many families, takes place on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, before attending mass in the afternoon, returning home to eat, read the Christmas story and then open their presents. Nevertheless, the “true” Christmas days are the 25th and 26th of December as it is official holiday in Germany. Usually the entire family gathers and eats suckling pig or roasted goose. Famous are also the Christstollen, long loaves of bread with nuts, raisins, lemon and dried fruit, and the Lebkuchen, ginger spice cookies. The described traditions are – surprise, surprise – in fact very traditional and many families do not attach importance to them any longer. Although every family has its own way of celebrating, at least some of them are still part of the German Christmas festivities.