Understanding popular German Christmas traditions

By Nadine BowerDecember 21, 2021

WIESBADEN, Germany - A nativity set for children as it can be found in many German households during Christmas time.
WIESBADEN, Germany - A nativity set for children as it can be found in many German households during Christmas time. (Photo Credit: Nadine Bower) VIEW ORIGINAL

Throughout the generations, Germans have formed many popular Christmas traditions and customs, which have become well-known around the globe. Having grown up in Germany, I took those traditions for granted, because they were always part of my life. However, when I started working for the U.S. Army and my American co-workers started asking about German traditions, I took a closer look behind them. Here is what I found and shared with them and hopefully, it will make their and your Christmas time in Germany a bit merrier.

Even though the Christian Christmas event has its origin in the birth of Jesus, some customs go back to older winter traditions, which include elements of fire and light. However, like any custom, Christmas traditions vary from region to region and from country to country and are subject to constant change.

Christmas Markets

Germany is well known for starting its holiday season with Advent Markets and Christmas Markets. Those take place in many cities and towns all over the country, usually between late-November and the end of December. In the late Middle Ages, these markets were mostly one-day sales fairs where people could buy meat and fine products in preparation for the winter. Later, crafts people, such as basket weavers and toy makers, added to the product range. Sweet treats such as roasted chestnuts or other nuts were also offered. Today, the most famous Christmas markets in Germany are the Nürnberger Christkindlesmark and the Dresdener Christkindlmarkt.

Christmas Cookies

In many German families, baking Christmas cookies is a much loved tradition during the Advent time. Even the ancient Celts baked a sacrificial bread of flour and honey, which they hung on strings during the winter solstice in order to protect against demons.

Advent Calendar

Since the time until Christmas can seem very long, the traditional „Adventskalender“ (Advent calendar) has been part of the Christmas customs in the time of Advent ever since the 19th century. The calendar is common in various forms, but usually shows the remaining days until Christmas. In German-speaking countries, children in particular have an Advent calendar. However, there are also those that are designed more for adults. Calendars printed with Christmas symbols and pictures are widely known. Every day, a small door can be opened on the calendar, revealing a new picture, a piece of chocolate or other sweets. Likewise, self-made calendars with small toys or candy are also used.

St. Nikolaus

On Dec. 6, German children get a special treat during the long wait until Christmas. It is said that St. Nikolaus brings small gifts to those who were good and behaved well during the year. Therefore, children put their boots in front of the door in the night between Dec. 5 and Dec. 6. If St. Nikolaus sees that the child behaved well during the year, he puts small gifts, nuts, oranges and candy into the boots. However, if the child did not behave well, he puts a lump of coal into the boot. Contrary to popular belief, St. Nikolaus is not the same person as Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus was a bishop in the third century. He is accompanied by another famous figure by the name of Knecht Ruprecht, who is St. Nikolaus‘ companion in the delivery of gifts.

David Bruce, a teacher of Applied Technology at the Wiesbaden Middle School, and his family have lived in Germany for 16 years now in a small village in the Taunus mountains. Their three sons, Liam, Finnegan and Jack, play St. Nikolaus and his helpers every year for the children of the village.

„It’s a great tradition, which we’re happy to be part of," said Liam, who played Knecht Ruprecht this year. His younger brother Finnegan loves the interaction with the children. „Some are a bit shy and some are very talkative. Others even play a song on an instrument or recount a poem. It’s great to be part of such a tradition. It brings people closer together, especially during corona.“

Advent Wreath

Another way to count down the weekends until Christmas is the use of an „Adventskranz“ (Advent wreath). Such a wreath decorates numerous German homes during Advent. According to the German broadcaster WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), the custom goes back to the 19th century, where a wagon wheel was decorated with 24 candles for each day before Christmas and four larger candles to mark the four Sundays before Christmas. Today, the Advent wreath consists of a thick wreath of fir greens and four candles for decoration. Each Sunday, one more candle is lit.

Christmas Eve

Germans celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24. Typically, on the morning of that day is when the christmas tree is set up in the living room with the whole family helping to decorate it. However, when this day falls on a working day, stores are open until noon or a bit later and are very busy as people buy their last-minute presents or food for the festive meal. In the later afternoon or early evening, the members of the family gather. Some cultivate traditions like going to church, singing or making music together before the gift exchange. Some even keep up the tradition where the children may not enter the living room until they hear a small bell ring. This is the sign that the „Christkind“ has delivered the gifts. Once the children enter the room, they are allowed to open their gifts that they have so patiently waited for the whole year.

An item that can usually be found underneath the Christmas tree is a nativity set. This traditional wooden set of figures symbolizes the birth of Jesus in the small stable in Bethlehem. This tradition even goes back to the Middle Ages.

Many Germans eat a simple meal on Christmas Eve to signify the fasting season, which starts with the day of St. Martin and ends on Dec. 24. After that, some families set out to go to church again to celebrate the „Christmette“, the celebration of the holy night between Dec. 24 and 25.

Christmas Day

The next day, Dec. 25, as well as Dec. 26, is a holiday in Germany. Traditionally, people visit their extended family. On Christmas Day, many people enjoy a lavish feast on a festively decorated table. One traditional Christmas meal is roast goose with potato dumplings and red cabbage.

The twelve days after Christmas

According to the public news outlet Deutsche Welle, the twelve days between Christmas and Jan. 6 end in „Epiphany Eve“, on which it is believed that big hairy demons were roaming the country. A popular superstition suggests that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decoration up beyond that time. To scare off the demons, people use incense which they spread throughout their houses, signifying the cleansing for the new year.

The time around Christmas is full of traditions and the list could go on and on.

Many of the German customs have even been adopted by other countries around the world and they keep changing as they are passed on from generation to generation. Nevertheless, they are a reminder of the things that bring people together in common beliefs and customs to share during this festive time.

Frohe Weihnachten – Merry Christmas.