How to Celebrate a German Christmas
Weihnachten, or Christmas, in Germany is a time of quiet celebration. Decorations are used, but they are not overwhelmingly ornate. Red and green accents grace storefronts and homes, but simplicity is the greater goal. Try out some new ways to celebrate Christmas by learning about how German people participate in this joyful holiday.
Waiting for Christmas
Many of the traditions Germans follow in Advent are found all over the world since Christmas is such a popular and well-celebrated holiday. Chances are that if you do something for Advent, whether it's a wreath or calendar, it's something the Germans do too.
Adventszeit is the time before Christmas Eve. Children usually have Advent calendars as gifts from their parents. These make the wait for the holiday easier and more interesting—the calendars customarily have candies hidden in them as well as meditations or facts about the Christmas season. Germans also use Advent wreaths, Adventskranz, beginning on the first Sunday in Advent four weeks before Christmas. Traditionally, families gather around the wreath on each Sunday in Advent to light a new candle on the wreath. In the past when Christmas trees weren't put up in homes until Christmas Eve, the Advent wreath was the recognized symbol for the beginning of the celebratory season—the smell and sight of the evergreen branches served as a daily reminder of what was to come.
Traditions for Celebration
Once Christmas Eve or Heiligabend arrives, the celebrations begin for Germans. The afternoon starts the holiday, which continues into December 25th and 26th. Those two days are designated for visiting with friends and family. On the 24th is when gifts are exchanged within families. Children wait for Father Christmas or Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) to arrive and once all the gifts are unwrapped there is a late meal. Many families conclude the night with a midnight mass called Christmette. If you're looking to change your family's schedule of events for the holiday, try the German order of opening presents on Christmas Eve (which is sure to please your young ones!) or try to make both the 25th and 26th of December quiet relaxing days spent celebrating with family.
The first public use of the Christmas tree, Tannenbaum, is in 1605 in Strasburg, but songs about the tannenbaum stem back to the middle of the 16th century. Claims over the first Christmas tree have been debated for years, but the tradition most likely started with the Germans. The accepted story is that one night Martin Luther, the German-born Protestant reformer, was inspired by the glory of the stars in the sky in the landscape of evergreens and so he decided to try to replicate that look by carefully wiring candles to a tree. According to other European histories, royal Germans helped spread this tradition and it swiftly became known worldwide. So really, just by having a Christmas tree in your house you're celebrating a German Christmas!
A truly original German practice that revolves around the tannenbaum, however, is to visit friends' houses on December 26th to praise their Christmas trees. Tradition says that visitors enter the home they say, "Ein schoener Baum!" ("A nice tree!"). Hosts then give the guests something to drink, usually something alcoholic, and after visiting awhile visitors move on to other homes to repeat the ritual and praise other Christmas trees.
Not Truly German Traditions: the Christmas Pickle
For some reason this tradition has been attributed to the Germans, but no one in Germany claims to know its origination. Made-up stories try to locate the tradition's origination, but its beginnings remain a mystery despite it all.
What is the Christmas pickle? It's not a pickle at all—it's an ornament that looks like a pickle. Why would anyone want a pickle on a Christmas tree? Well, according to the tradition, the pickle is the last ornament hung on the Christmas tree. When children awake to find their gifts they also begin searching for the Christmas pickle ornament. The child who finds the pickle gets an extra gift (or, in some versions of the story, this child gets to be the first to open gifts).
It's somewhat bizarre that the tradition has been linked to the Germans since none of them—past or present—have any real recollection of the practice. Regardless, it can be a fun family tradition. There are pickle ornaments you can buy, if you like, or you could have the children in your family make a pickle ornament together for the occasion.