Different ways of celebrating Christmas in Germany
Prologue: So, this post was originally going to highlight the differences between German Christmas traditions and ones in the United States.
I had a long explanation about how, in Germany, children's gifts are brought by St. Nicholas on December 6, and how no one knows anything at all about Santa Claus and his eight flying reindeer. (St. Nicholas is depicted here wearing vestments like a priest and traveling by horseback.)
Then, on Monday, I was shopping in Kaufland and ran smack into a display full of KitKat brand chocolates in the shape of the Weihnachtsmann (literally, 'Christmas man'). And this guy looked just like Santa Claus. Next to this, I found wrapping paper featuring a cartoon reindeer with a big red nose!
So, just like his Wikipedia article says, it seems Santa Claus has truly gone international.
I will say German Christmas is a lot less Santa-centric than in the U.S. The Weihnachtsmann is more of a secondary figure, from what I can tell. The first signs of the holiday season are the shelves filling up in November with Advent calendars and wreaths. And people look forward to going to the different holiday festivals and Christmas markets.
For anyone reading this who might be considering a move to Germany, a visit during the holidays, or is just curious, here are the main differences I've noticed between Christmas traditions in the U.S. and here.
Adventzeit and Nikolaustag
The holiday season begins with the beginning of Advent in early December. Store shelves are filled with Advent calendars, Advent wreaths, brightly decorated and packaged chocolates, and - at least in Berlin - lots and lots of bottles of gluhwein.
St. Nicholas' Day (Nikolaustag) on Dec. 6 is the day that German children traditionally receive gifts from the saint.
They are supposed to place their cleaned winter boots in front of the door to their room. The night of the fifth, the saint comes through town to deliver sweets and some money to children who have been good.
Some parts of Germany also have gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve by the aforementioned Weihnachtsmann. In other areas, it is the Christkind or Christkindl (Christ child) who delivers the presents.
These traditions are not as widespread and have a somewhat more controversial reputation throughout Germany.
The Christkind tradition was actually started in the 15th century by Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who wanted to move Lutherans (Protestants) away from venerating a Catholic saint.
He moved gift-giving in his household from Nikolaustag to Christmas Eve and told his children than the gifts were from "the Holy Christ."
Over time, this tradition has evolved into the Christkind - sometimes depicted as an infant, but more often as a feminine-looking angel - as the gift bringer. Ironically, the tradition has been mostly embraced in Catholic areas of Germany, because it focuses (somewhat) on the figure of Christ as the center of the holiday.
Some regions in Germany hold that St. Nicholas has a companion, known as Knecht Ruprecht, who may bring punishments for children who have been bad. In some areas, both St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht are accompanied by scary, horned creatures called the Krampus, but that is mostly a folklore tradition from the Alpine regions.
The Weihnachtsmann appears to be more of a generic, Father Christmas-like figure that can be celebrated by families of other faiths, or those who don't follow a religion, because he is more secular and not really associated with St. Nicholas at all.
Most people think he was imported from the States. The European version of the American Santa Claus - who was originally the American interpretation of different European Christmas figures.
German Christmas markets are a tradition that is pretty unique to the German-speaking world. Vienna, Austria is famous for its holiday markets.
The German term for Christmas is Weihnachten, and it is a three-day holiday, comprised of Christmas Eve (Heligabend, Holy Evening), Christmas Day (Erster Feiertag, First Day of Celebration) and the day after Christmas, Dec. 26 (Zweiten Feiertag, Second Day of Celebration).
Most towns and villages in Germany have their own Christmas market at the center of town. And cities like Berlin have several, often with different themes, like the medieval Christmas market (Mittelalterliche Weihnachtsmarkt) at the Britz Schloss near Berlin or the Friedenaur Engelmarkt (Friedenau Angel Market).
The Weihnachtsmarkts begin during the last week of November and continue until Christmas Eve, though some reopen after Christmas Day and stay open until New Year's Eve.
The markets begain in the Middle Ages, where they were originally a place where townspeople could go to stock up on the needed food and goods needed for the long winter.
After the industrial revolution and wider availability of daily needs, the markets evolved into selling Christmas decorations, foods, handcrafts and other holiday items.
Christmas trees (Weihnachtsbaum or Tannenbaum)
The German tradition of decorating trees with lights and ornaments originated in Germany and spread to the United States. However, traditionally, the tree is not decorated until Heligabend, Christmas Eve.
In the Middle Ages, when the practice became popular, this was the responsibility of the mother of the household.
Now, many families save decorating the tree for Christmas Eve, though some do decorate them before. We put up our tree with the rest of our decorations at the beginning of Advent.
Presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve
My kids were quick to inform me that their friends got to open all of their presents on Christmas Eve and didn't have to wait until Christmas morning at all.
That is because here, traditionally, families exhcange presents on Christmas Eve, with Christmas morning reserved for going to church.
Not as many families attend church on Christmas anymore, but the tradition of exchanging presents on the night before stands.
So, with that, you are all set for knowing what's going on for your first German Christmas. For all who celebrate, I wish you a merry one. As they say here: Frohe Weihnachten!