Traditions, customs help define German Christmas season

By Ms. Bianca Sowders (IMCOM)November 26, 2014

Ansbach Christmas Market
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Christkindlesmarkt Nuernberg
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[For a list of Christmas markets, scroll down the page]

ANSBACH, Germany (Nov. 24, 2014) -- Christmas time in Germany holds a certain magic, be it in the romantic historical markets, the tasteful decorations of the cities with their garlands, lights and magnificent Christmas trees, or the typical German seasonal customs that make the darkest time of the year shine bright.

Almost every town or village in Germany hosts an Advent or Christmas market. The larger Christmas markets in the big cities are usually open daily during the whole advent season, but some of the small and special ones are only open one or two weekends, depending on the size of the town.

Historically, the Christmas markets in the German-speaking part of Europe date back to the late Middle Ages. One of the oldest markets, the "Strietzelmarkt" in Dresden, dates back to 1434; the best-known markets in southern Germany are the popular Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt or the Reiterlesmarkt in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. (For more details on local Christmas markets also see "Was ist los in Franken?" (in the "Related Links" section above.)

The markets in southern Germany often feature a nativity scene, a crèche or crib with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, ox, donkey and sheep. The stands offer items like "Nussknacker" (carved nutcracker soldiers), Zwetschgamännla (figures made of decorated dried plums and nuts, specific to Nürnberg), and traditional decorations, holiday trinkets and tree ornaments, hand-crafted from wood, tin or straw. The smaller markets are often run by the residents, the members of the local sports clubs, fire department or Kindergartens, and serve as a fundraising opportunity while fostering the community spirit.

Anyone who has strolled through a German Christmas market will likely remember the experience of tantalizing aromas and fragrances wafting through the air. The scent of "Gebrannte Mandeln" (roasted candied almonds), the fresh-baked "Lebkuchen" and "Magenbrot" (traditional gingerbread-type cookies), or "Christstollen," a sweet yeast bread filled with candied fruit and raisins, mixes with the savory aroma of grilled Bratwurst served in a bun. Visitors often warm up with hot chocolate, Glühwein or Eierpunsch. Glühwein is a hot mulled red or white wine, while Eierpunsch is an eggnog-style warm alcoholic drink. The children's version of Glühwein is a sweet, warm fruit juice drink called Kinderpunsch and contains no alcohol.

The official start of the holiday season for Germans is on the first of four Advent Sundays. Families gather around a decorated wreath with four candles, called "Adventskranz," and light a new candle every Sunday until all four are burning. The afternoons are an opportunity to enjoy an "Adventskaffee" (coffee) with cake or home-baked "Weihnachtsplätzchen" (Christmas cookies). The children have Advent calendars that are filled with sweets or small gifts to open each day until December 24 to make the waiting period seem shorter.

People decorate their homes with lights inside and out, and enjoy social time with family and friends. As the weather turns cold, parents spend time with their children indoors baking cookies or creating decorations for windows and trees; co-workers sometimes visit a local Christmas market together after work to enjoy a cup of "Glühwein" or hot chocolate.

An old and almost forgotten tradition is cutting a few branches of fruit and nut trees, like apple, cherry or chestnut trees on December 4 and putting them in a vase filled with water. Dec. 4 is Barbaratag, named after the martyr St. Barbara, who died in the third century. If all goes right, the branches will bloom by Christmas Eve, not only bringing color and fragrance into the house, but also serving as a good-luck charm for the coming year.

The children look forward to a visit by St. Nikolaus in early December. He stops by the homes of children on the eve of Dec. 6 and places oranges, nuts, candy and sometimes even small presents into the boots they have placed outside. Sometimes Nikolaus comes into the homes or Kindergartens to talk to the children and listen to their recitals of songs and poems; often he is accompanied by his assistant, Knecht Rupprecht, a mean-looking fellow who threatens to punish naughty children by taking them away in his potato sack.

A Christmas tree is an important decoration detail for most homes in Germany; the trees are sold on the street corners or supermarket parking lots and carried home on the top of the cars. Families often pick out trees together. The tradition of the Christmas tree dates back to the 15th century. At first the tree was decorated only with apples, nuts and sweets; the wax candles were added later. Many German families still decorate their tree in the "altdeutsche Tradition," or the old German way, with real candles and wood and straw ornaments. The tree stays up usually until after New Years or even until Jan. 6, Three Kings Day.

Christmas Eve is usually spent with close family and includes attending a festive church service together; each family has their own traditions, which sometimes include the joint singing of Christmas songs or children performing on their musical instruments. Some families prepare a special meal, the recipe handed down through the generations, some keep it very simple with "Würstchen und Kartoffelsalat" (wieners and potato salad), others serve fish or poultry. The highlight of the evening is, especially for the children, of course, the opening of the presents. The delivery person for the presents varies by region; in the south of Germany, as well as Austria and Switzerland, the packages are often brought by the "Christkind" (Christ Child) and assistant angels. In the north the job usually keeps the Weihnachtsmann busy, a guy in a red suit who looks a lot like the American Santa Claus. To make sure the children can't watch when the packages are put under the tree, the parents lock the room with the Christmas tree until a little bell rings and the children are allowed inside.

Christmas Day is reserved for a large festive meal and time spent with the extended family. The day after Christmas, Stefanstag, is also an official holiday, often used as an opportunity for more visits with family and friends, or long walks in the crisp winter air.

The holiday season comes to an end on January 6, another German holiday known as "Dreikönigstag" (Three Kings Day or Epiphany). Around this time, the "Sternsinger" (star singers), members of the local church communities, walk from door to door to collect money for charity projects. The group is usually composed of four children or teenagers, dressed up as the three wise men and a star bearer. After singing a song or reciting a poem or prayer, they write the annual blessing on the front door with a piece of chalk: 20 C+M+B 15 - "Christus mansionem benedicat," wishing you the best for 2015 and "May Christ Bless this House."

To learn more about German winter holiday traditions, visit the links above.

Advent & Christmas Market Highlights 2014

Ansbach (Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Platz): Nov. 26 -- Dec. 23;

Aschaffenburg (Schlossplatz): Nov. 27 -- Dec .22;

Bamberg (Maxplatz) : Nov. 27 -- Dec .23;

Bad Kissingen : Nov. 28 -- Dec. 24;

Bayreuth: Nov. 28 -- Dec 23;

Bernkastel-Kues: Nov. 22 -- Dec. 21;

Coburg: Nov. 28 -- Dec. 23;

Dinkelsbühl (Spitalhof): Nov. 27 -- Dec .21;

Erlangen (Schlossplatz): Nov. 26 -- Dec. 24;

Fürth (Freiheit): Nov. 27 -- Dec .23;

Forchheim : Nov. 29 - Dec. 24;

Garmisch : Nov. 29 - Dec. 24;

München (Marienplatz): Nov. 27 -- Dec. 24;

Nürnberg : Nov. 28-- Dec. 24;

Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Nov. 28 -- Dec. 23;

Schweinfurt: Nov. 27 -- Dec .23;

Würzburg: Nov. 28 -- Dec. 23;

Weekend Christmas Markets 2014

Arberg: Nov. 29 & 30;

Bad Windsheim : Nov. 28 -- 30, Dec. 4-7, 11 -- 14, 18 -- 21;

Bad Windsheim Freilandmuseum: Nov. 30, Dec. 7, 14;

Bruckberg: Dec. 6, 13, 20;

Burgoberbach: Nov. 28 -- 30;

Colmberg: Nov. 30;

Flachslanden: Dec. 13;

Geslau: Dec. 13 & 14;

Gunzenhausen (Hofgarten): Dec. 11-14;

Heilsbronn : Dec. 5 -- 7;

Herrieden: Dec . 19 & 20;

Herrieden-Hohenberg: Dec. 5;

Hilpoltstein: Nov. 30;

Lehrberg: Dec. 7;

Leutershausen: Dec. 12-14;

Lichtenau: Dec. 6 & 7;

Merkendorf: Dec. 7,

Neuendettelsau: Dec. 13 & 14;

Neustadt an der Aisch: Dec 5 -- 7;

Oberdachstetten: Dec. 20;

Ornbau: Nov. 29;

Petersaurach: Nov. 29 & 30;

Roth: Nov. 29 -- Dec. 7;

Rügland: Dec. 7;

Sachsen bei Ansbach: Nov. 30;

Schloss Schillingsfürst: Nov. 29 & 30;

Schwabach: Dec 5 -- 7, Dec 11-- 14;

Stein (Mecklenburger Platz): Nov. 28 -- 30;

Weihenzell: Nov. 29 & 30;

Weikersheim Castle: Dec 12 -- 14;

Windelsbach: Dec. 6 & 7;

Windsbach: Nov. 29 & 30 ;

Wolframs-Eschenbach: Dec 13 -- 14;

Related Links:

Ansbach Community Relations - Events and activities off-post

USAG Ansbach homepage

Was ist los in Franken?

Advent, Christmas season in Germany makes memories for lifetime

USAG Ansbach Facebook page