This article is part of the series “Put down your life’s story in 52 weeks” in which I accepted the challenge of writing down snippets of my own life’s story in 52 weeks.
- What are the names of your brothers and sisters? Describe things that stand out in your mind about each of your siblings.
- What were some of your family traditions that you remember?
- Did your family have special ways of celebrating specific holidays?
- Share some memories of your grandparents.
- Did your grandparents live close by? If so, describe how they were involved in your life. If they lived far away share some memories of visiting them or of them traveling to visit you.
Christmas traditions in Germany are as manifold as the people. Some of the traditions you’ll find all over Germany. Other traditions are specific to some areas or to the two major confessions in Germany (Catholic and Protestant). And as is with all traditions, many German families have developed their own family traditions. But there are typical German Christmas traditions the most families are keeping up.
The “Adventszeit” (Advent period) stands for Jesus’ arrival on earth and starts on the fourth Sunday before December 24th. People buy or make an “Adventskranz” (Advent wreath) with four candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas. Each Sunday one additional candle is lit until on the last Sunday all four candles are lit.
The traditional colour of candles and small decorations is red but nowadays people love other colours too. The Adventskranz at my parents’ home always was in red and green and had its place on the table in the living room.
During the Adventszeit you’ll find a lot of Christmas markets in Germany, selling Christmas decorations and small gifts, cookies and pastries with typical spices, candied nuts and treats or hot chocolate for the children and hot mulled wine for the adults.
In the evenings around the “Nikolaustag” on December 6th, often a Father Christmas will visit the market and hand out special yeast pastry, depending on the area called “Stutenkerl” or “Weckmann“. There weren’t many of those Christmas markets when I was a child, unfortunately, but I enjoyed visiting such a markets as a teenager together with my friends.
And of course there’s a lot of baking going on during the Adventszeit. Even people who aren’t too keen on baking during the year will try their hand at cookies. Often friends will get together at their homes and have a nice afternoon or evening, baking, chatting and enjoying their time together.
Children look forward to December 1st because on that day they get their “Adventskalender”. That’s a special chocolate-filled calendar with 24 doors to open, one for each day, kind of countdown to Christmas. Behind every door (and the chocolate of course) there usually are colourful (and sometimes kitschy) pictures. Nowadays you can buy calenders with small toys, brand specific toys or sweets or even adult content too.
On December 6th Germans celebrate the “Nikolaustag” in rememberance of the historic Greek Bishop of Myra. Children clean their shoes and put them in front of the fire or the door the night before. On “Nikolausmorgen”, the morning of December 6th, they’ll find it filled up with apples, nuts and sweets.
If Nikolaus appears in person, he’s often accompanied by his helper “Knecht Ruprecht” or “Krampus”, each of whom is coming to get the naughty children. That was probably the only time of the year I cleaned my shoes myself when I was a child.
Christmas tree and nativity scenes
Most German families set up and decorate the Christmas tree only a few days before December 24th like my parents did. But often they’ll also decorate with sprigs of pine and fir during the Adventszeit already. Some families also set up a nativity scene at the beginning of Advent already. Each morning one or more protagonists enter the scene as Christmas gets nearer.
When my children were smaller, we had a big wooden DIY stable with handmade textile crib figurines. That way the children were able to re-enact the nativity scene if they wanted. Nowadays my nativity scene consists of clay figurines. Those are always in danger of being toppled over by my cats…
After the Christmas days Germans tend to keep tree and decorations until January 6th, “Heilige Drei Könige”. Some families even keep it until beginning of February, the official end of Christmas time in Catholic areas.
German children hope for the “Christkind” or “Weihnachtsmann” to bring their presents on “Heiligabend”, the evening before the two Christmas days. Typically German families will spend time together on the 24th and attend church or have a walk. After that they’ll have a simple meal together and prepare for the “Bescherung” – the much-longed-for giving and receiving of Christmas presents.
Some families even lock up the living room with the “Weihnachtsbaum” to let the “Christkind” or “Weihnachtsmann” work indisturbed. If that is not possible, it’s often Dad’s task to go on a walk with the children to get them out of the way.
At my parents’ home we’d always have “Kartoffelsalat und Würstchen” (potato salad with sausages) as a simple meal, easy to prepare in advance. That way my mother had time to “help the Christkind” bring the presents and light the candles on the tree. During that time my father would take my brother and me for a walk and a short visit at grandma’s.
When my children were little, this was always the time to visit the churches in our neighbourhood to have a look at the nativity scenes there. Nowadays we use this time to prepare the meal together as a family. I always enjoy this since it’s rare that all of my children are back home at the same time.
Did your Christmas traditions change over time? Maybe some traditions were impractical and weren’t continued, or the children liked something and it was turned into a new family tradition?