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The festivities in Germany are an elaborate affair with many Christmas rituals and folklore for people with or without German ancestry to be excited about! The Christmas traditions and festivals are designed to bring about a feeling of “Gemutlichkeit” which means warmth, friendliness and good cheer.
Amazingly, we have Germany to thank for many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate in Australia today. So even those of us without any known German ancestry have been unknowingly practicing German Christmas celebrations for generations.
The most iconic ritual is the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) with is ceremoniously erected at Christmas time, around the world. We also have to commend the German’s for the invention of the Advent calendar, Christmas stockings and many more. Keep reading to find out the origins of these well-known traditions.
German and European Christmas festivities are highly praised and adored by visitors from all over the world. A well-loved favourite is the German Christmas markets. Christkindl markets make numerous appearances around the world mimicking the iconic German markets. Nuremberg in Germany has a Christmas market that has been celebrated annually for more than 400 years, it has withstood the test of time and continues to thrive.
Christianity has had a large influence on the items found at these old markets. The German Lutherans often included decorations, sweets, handmade wooden toys, baked goods, candy canes and mistletoe or holly. Most market stalls bear the traditional Fachwerkhauser design and are decorated with branches of fir and lit by lanterns. Remembering that the days are very short in European winters and often people experience the Christmas markets in the dark. Nowadays most markets use the picturesque light from hundreds of thousands of fairy lights, which only enhances the feeling of Christmas. Or as the Germans call it; “Weihnnachten”.
No German Christmas tradition would be complete without St Nicholas. A similar figure to the renowned Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Traditionally children would receive their gifts from St. Nicholas on December the 6th, placed in their shoes kept by the bedroom door or in stockings hanging from the fireplace.
And what folklore is without an antagonist? Krampus takes this famous role in traditional German Christmas stories. Krampus is everything you would imagine from your childhood nightmares. A long horned, shaggy black goat like, monster! Krampus has an angry face, forked tongue and as the story goes, likes to punish bad children. According to folklore, Krampus shows up in villages the night before the 6th of December, known as “Krampusnacht” (Krampus night). The same night that St Nicholas is supposed to visit and reward the good children with gifts and sweets. Of course if the children have been bad, Krampus might put something unpleasant (like a lump of coal) in their shoes instead.
The story of Krampus originated in Bavaria (Southern Germany) before being spread to other provinces and was widely adopted by all German states.
In Germany they like to double up on the fun and in more modern times they also celebrate Santa Claus or Father Christmas (der Weihnactsmann) who still brings presents on December 24th.
We also have German Christmas traditions to thank for the Christmas stocking! Traditionally the empty sock or sock-shaped bag was hung on Saint Nicholas Day so that Saint Nicholas (or related figures such as Santa Claus/Father Christmas) could fill it with small toys, candy and coins. The origin of the Christmas stocking began with St Nicholas. Legend says St Nicholas was a devote follower of Jesus and was very generous, it was his generosity that led to the tradition of the Christmas stocking. St Nicholas apparently wanted to help a widowed father and his three daughters, but knowing the father wouldn’t accept charity, St Nicholas ended up throwing bags of coins though their window at night. It is said that one of the bags landed in a stocking, which led to the custom of children hanging up stockings, socks or putting out shoes to eagerly await gifts from St Nicholas.
One of the most famous icons of Christmas is the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree or at least the establishment of a plant based decorations at Christmas can be traced back to as far as the 8th century, when Germans are thought to have be illustrated cutting down trees to use for pagan worship.
By the 15th century there was a closer resemblance to the decorated Christmas tree that we know today. The German Christmas tree (Tannenbaum) was recorded to be used as a central décor for Christmas by the Southern German Lutherans. It was custom to visit other houses and comment on the others tree saying “Ein schooner Baum!” which means “a nice tree!”.
Interestingly, this very same group of Southern German’s later came to settle in Hahndorf South Australia where our German Christmas Shop is located.
It is believed that the UK adopted the Christmas Tree tradition when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (a German prince) created a craze for Christmas trees in the 1840’s. A newspaper report describing the Windsor Castle Christmas trees and the German tradition gift giving led to the Christmas tree becoming widespread in the homes of Britain.
Another Christmas tradition we have Germans to thank for is the Advent calendar. From December 1st to December 24this called “Adventszeit” which means the time before Christmas eve. It is traditional for the children to count down the days before Christmas with advent calendars which have a different treat to open up on each day. If you want to uphold the German traditions, you can set up the most original form of the advent calendar called Adventskranz (Advent wreath) which consists of a decorated wreath holding four candles, which are lit on each Sunday in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The well-known Christmas Carol singers may also have stemmed from German Christmas traditions as well. Sternsinger (star singers) would go from house to house, sing a song and collect money or charity. They often dressed up as the Wise Men from the Christian religion. When they finish singing they would sign an inscription above the door and it would be considered back luck to wash it off, left to fade naturally.
Christmas eve is also steeped with German Christmas traditions. “Helinger abend” (Christmas eve) is filled with Christmas tree decorating, attending church services, eating traditional dishes and in old traditions, opening Christmas presents! In the evening families would sing Christmas songs such as “O Tannenbaum” (Oh Christmas tree), “Ihr Kinderlein Kommet”(Oh, come, little children) and Stille Nacht (Silent night).
What are German Christmas traditions without food and feasting? Christmas markets are a treasure trove of all the best baked German goods that Christmas time has to offer. The smell of Stollen (baked fruit bread), Bratwurst, roasted almonds, Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Spekulatius (spiced biscuits) fill the air with a delightful aroma! Another favourite at Christmas time is Gluehwein which is a heated red wine with added spice, similar to a mulled wine and enjoyed on a cold winters evening.
At home Christmas dinners consist of a variety tasty traditional meals and treats. The German household would smell of freshly baked Stollen, a recipe that has been around for nearly 700 years in Germany. Filled with nuts raisins and candied fruit, it takes place of the English Christmas Cake. Lebkuchen (gingerbread) is a family favourite and dates back to the 13th century in Germany and Switzerland. Apfelkuchen (German apple cake) is a classic and often served with pure cream, a perfect treat to enjoy sitting by the fire after a roast dinner. Weihnactsgans (German Christmas goose) is a typical festive meal at Christmas. Goose is the preferred fowl choice but duck is also seen on German tables at Christmas time. Krautstrudel (cabbage roll) also often accompanies the main meal.
(Weihnachtpyramide) The Germany pyramid or “candle carousel” may have originated in nativity plays when Christmas pine trees were scarce. This is why traditionally you find wooden nativity scene carvings at the base of the pyramids, however more modern designs also include snowmen or presents. These handmade Christmas decorations have their origins Erzgebirge in the Ore Mountain region of Germany (the Eastern most mountain range that boarders Germany and the Czech republic).
It was custom to hang the Pyramid from the ceilings of German homes at Christmas time. However, these wooden pyramids were not just restricted to Christmas celebrations but also used by the people in Erzgebirge to celebrate the summer solstice!
The Christmas Windmill or wooden candle carousel, works by the heat from the candles at its base rising and subsequently spinning the propeller attached to the top of the pyramid structure.
The decorative candle holder (Schwibbogen) also originated in the Erzgebirge area. The creation of this ornament is closely related to the mining traditions of the Ore mountains. A special Christmas celebration was held by the miners who worked the day shift on Christmas day (Mettenschiht). A special lunch was procured for the miners, the mining foreman and the blacksmith workers who were responsible for making the mining tools. A decorative centrepiece would be placed upon the table, usually a candle holder made from metal. The light would symbolise the longing of the miners, who sometimes didn’t see the daylight in winter for weeks sometimes due to their working hours. The villages in the Ore Mountains would also typically place a candle lit arch in their windows during the season.
More modern designs of these arches and candle holders are typically made out of wood and depict nativity or artistic scenes.
A more recognisable German decoration are the Nutcracker figurines. Commonly made to resemble a toy solider, their original purpose in German folk lore and were to serve as protectors of a house. Nearly all nutcrackers made before the 20th century were functional and able to crack nut shells to eat (hence the name Nutcracker). The modern day nutcracker is primarily decorative and not able to crack nuts. Like a lot of the ornate ornaments made in Germany their origins come from the Ore Mountains. Believed to have initially been designed in the late 17th century and gained in popularity until in the 19th century, when they then spread to nearby European countries. Worldwide popularisation began after the Second World War when numerous American soldiers stationed in Germany came home to the US with German nutcrackers as souvenirs. The Nutcracker ballet production by Tchaikovsky adapted from the E.T.A Hoffman’s tory The Nutcraker and the Mouse King also contributed to the world wide appreciation of this unique Christmas ornament.
German smokers (Rauchermann) are traditional and ornate incense burners. This iconic ornament originated in 1850 In the town of Seiffen which is located in (guess where) the district of Erzgebirgskreis, in the Ore mountains.
An invention of the local toy makers, the hollowed out body of a wooden figurine holds an incense cone, known as Raucherkerzchen. Which once lit, sends of a trail of scented smoke through a usually well placed hole in the smoker figurine. Thousands of different figurine designs exist, but traditionally represent different craftsmen of the region. Figurines representing foresters, clock or Christmas decoration peddlers, chimney sweepers, miners, bakers and soldiers are common. The smoke usually trailing from their open mouth, with a pipe in hand, or through a chimney of their wood smoke-house.
Carved wooden ornaments in Germany are a very popular Christmas decoration, not only for tourists but also for locals. Many talented wood carvers have chance to demonstrate their craftsmanship and produce amazing pieces of work. A family’s wealth could be shown to seasonal visitors and neighbours by the ornaments hung in their home, the more elaborately carved their decorations, the higher their wealth. The Ore Mountain region in east Germany is known for its wooden carving craftsmanship and still produce high quality wooden ornaments and decorations to this day.
Glass ornaments were also one of the original decorations placed on Christmas trees in Germany. Glassblowers in Germany have been making ornate Christmas decorations since the 16th century. Glass ornaments were and still are skilfully blown from a long tube and while the glass is held, moulded to shape. These are often finished with ornate hand paintings.
Read more about the origins of these famous Christmas decorations!
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