Favourite Christmas traditions in Germany include a visit to one of the
various Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt), baking yummy cookies, and
decorating the home with candle arches, twigs and wooden pyramids.
But there are many more traditional customs that make Advent and Christmas a very special time of the year.
Although Christmas (Weihnachten) has become very commercialised since I was a child 60 years ago, the magic of Christmas is hard to deny if you grew up with all the wonderful traditions. Weihnachten has still a deep meaning for us Germans and especially for families with children. As soon as the kids open the first window on their Adventskalender, they are held in joyful anticipation.
For the Western Christian Churches Advent is the time to wait and
prepare for Jesus' birth at Christmas. The first Advent Sunday is also
the beginning of the Western Christian Year. Advent in the Eastern and
Orthodox Churches is slightly longer, and begins already on 15th
The first Advent Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day (25th December). An Adventskranz (advent wreath), usually made of fir twigs, decorated with small stars, ribbons, fir cones and four candles, can be found in nearly every home. In the first week only one candle is lit, the second follows on the second Advent Sunday, and so on.
Advent is the time when houses smell of freshly baked cookies, Stollen and candles. The kids do handicraft Christmas decorations or small presents for the parents.
Of course the kids love to help with baking traditional German Christmas cookies, and pinch a few of the fresh goodies.
It is also common that children write a letter to the Christkind or the Weihnachtsmann with their wishes for the gifts they hope to see under the Christmas tree.
An Adventskalender (advent calendar) also belongs to German
Christmas traditions. In former days it was a simple painted cardboard
with 24 windows, or doors, to open. Behind each window was a Christmas
These days, Advent calendars often contain a piece of chocolate, or a small toy, when you open the window. It is also very common to create an individual advent calendar with 24 small packets or stockings containing a little gift.
Another old Advent custom is to cut a cherry branch and put it in vase inside the home on December 4th (St. Barbara's Day). The Barbarazweig will usually bloom at Christmas and brings luck for the following year, and a scent of spring in the dark season.
Saint Nicholas of Myra (today Turkey) was a bishop in the 4th
century. Very little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas.
However, lots of legends and folklore surround the bishop, who is the
saint patron of Russia, Croatia, Serbia, children and sailors. He was
known as a generous man, a secret gift giver, who put coins in shoes of
those who were in need, and he had a great fondness for children.
No surprise, he became the model of Santa Claus.
Before the Reformation, Saint Nicholas Day was the day children received their Christmas gifts. Reformer Martin Luther didn't approve the veneration of saints like Saint Nicholas. He "invented" the Christ child, a spirit-like figure with blonde hair and wings like an angel.
It took about 200 years until the Christ child was adopted by Catholic families in southern Germany and Austria. At the same time the Christ child was more and more replaced by the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in the Protestant regions of Germany.
Finally, Christmas Eve (Heilig Abend), the day that has held the family in eagerly anticipation for weeks, has arrived.
When I was a child, it was very common that the kids didn't see the Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum) before Heilig Abend.
This has changed slightly. Some families decorate the tree together with the kids a day (or even longer) before the holidays to reduce the stress from the working parents.
Although most people don't have to work (except those working at stores and public services), shops are usually open on Heiligabend (24th) until the early afternoon. Then public life in Germany falls quiet. It is a widespread custom to visit the graves of family members in the afternoon, before the Christmas celebrations begin.
When it gets dark, families gather around the Christmas tree, singing Christmas carols (Weihnachtslieder) and share their joy with the gifts that everyone unwraps. Finally, they join for a simple meal around the nicely decorated table.
Later on Christmas Eve many people go to the Midnight Mass or Christmette.
Christmas Day is called 1. Weihnachtsfeiertag and Boxing Day is the 2. Weihnachtsfeiertag. These days are reserved to visit, or invite, grandparents and other family members for a festive meal, or just to stay at home and relax after all the festivities.
Both days are public holidays and shops are closed.
I hope you enjoyed to read about the Christmas traditions in Germany. Frohe Weihnachten.