German Christmas Traditions 101
Germany and Christmas go hand in hand – or hand in glove shall we say. As far as geography is concerned, the country looks as if it were carved out by the Christmas Gods: forests full of picture perfect Tannenbaumen (pine trees) and winter weather almost guaranteed to provide a white Christmas. Plus there’s enough beer to distract anyone from the family arguments. In fact the Germans do Christmas so well that most of the Western World have appropriated their customs. Here are some of our favourite Weihnachten traditions, some more familiar than others:
One of the less gaudified German traditions is St.Nikolaus Day, which is celebrated on December the 6th. On the eve of the 5th, German children place their clean little shoes by the front door. If they have been good then St. Nikolaus will swing by and fill their shoes with tasty treats of chocolate, nuts and sweets. If they have been naughty they will wake up to a stick in their boots – pretty brutal St.Nic!
In Bavarian folklore, St. Nicholas is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht who beats children with a stick or shakes a bag of ash at them if they have not been dutifully saying their prayers. Over in Austria they have Krampus instead of Ruprecht, who is next-level on the Terror Scale. This beast-like demon captures misbehaving children in his sack and hauls them back to his lair.
The real St. Nicholas lived during the 4th Century and was a bishop in present-day Turkey. He was known as a protector of children and had a penchant for anonymously giving gifts. On the 6th of December he was anointed as a saint. Thus were the origins of the shoe-filling tradition.
It was the German Martin Luther who sought to disassociate ties between St. Nic and his gift-giving, glorification of saints being a terrible sin to the head honcho of Protestantism. Luther replaced Nicholas with the Christ Child, so now baby Jesus was to bring the kids gifts on Christmas Eve. Depending on the region in Germany, it’s either the Christkindl (Christ Child) or the Weihnachtsmann (classic Santa Claus) who brings the gifts at Christmas.
As the advent season begins so too do the Christmas Markets. Not only do they pop up in almost every city across Germany, but ‘German Christmas Markets’ have also become a common yuletide feature in many countries across the world. Small wooden stalls are set up serving hot Glühwein, sugar-roasted almonds and roasted pork. Locals also sell their artisanal Christmas wares; tree decorations, warm winter accessories and seasonal gifts.
The Weihnachtsmärkte date back to the 14th Century, where townspeople would buy everything they needed for the Christmas celebration including cake moulds and candles. Christmas markets in different areas tend to offer special goods specific to their region. Aachen is famous for it's Gingerbread Man, whilst Nuremberg is well known for Stollen – a stodgy fruitcake with a marzipan centre, all of which is doused in liberal amounts of icing sugar. Not for the faint hearted.
The advent calendar was first used by German Lutherans in the 19th Century, but it is now common for many Christian denominations. The calendar tends to start on the 1st of December, it’s used to count and celebrate the days running up to Christmas Day. Most advent calendars take the form of a rectangle card with windows. Each day leading up to the 25th has one little window to open, behind which lies either a religious verse, chocolate or a toy. Many Germans prefer the less commercial version of the advent calendar, instead taking time to individually wrap small gifts and edibles for their loved ones to open daily.
Glühwein is a boozy treat with many monikers: Mulled Wine, Vin Chaud, Glög or maybe just straight up spiced wine. By whatever name it is wine, usually red, that is combined with spices (sugar, cinnamon, grated nutmeg, cloves and oranges) and is heated to just before boiling point before being consumed by the bucket load. Glühwein translated literally means ‘glow-wine’ – a reference to the hot irons that were once used in the mulling process.
Wine drunk in this way dates back to 2nd Century Rome. As the Romans moved across Europe, so did the recipe. Many European countries have their own twist on Glühwein. The Dutch prefer lemons to oranges, whilst in Moldova they add black pepper and honey. Further afield in Quebec they pour in maple syrup. Whichever way you do it, drinking Glühwein is basically like drinking Christmas. If you haven’t endured the sugary crash of a Glühwein hangover, you haven’t lived.
Christmas Markets in Germany have their own specially made mug for the wine. An extra deposit of a few euros is charged when the drink is bought and visitors can either return it to get their money back or take it home as a keepsake.