29 December, 2013

Christmas in Germany

I have successfully survived my first Christmas outside of the United States, and my first Christmas without my family. Not seeing my family for the holidays was strange (thank goodness for Skype!), but fortunately I got to spend Christmas with Maxim and his family. I still got a cozy family Christmas celebration, just with a German twist. Being in a country with a strong Christian tradition, the Christmas season was not drastically different than in the US, but of course Christmas traditions vary from country to country so there were a few noteworthy differences.

Language note: "Christmas" in German is Weihnachten (adjective form: weihnachts).

Black Friday?

Since Germany does not celebrate Thanksgiving, there is no clear date like Black Friday marking the beginning of the "Christmas (shopping) season." Some stores have adopted the consumeristic practice of having Black Friday sales, but there is nowhere near the same craze and hysteria about Black Friday deals as there is in the United States. People in Germany are not foolish enough to wait outside a Best Buy (or the German equivalent, Media Markt) all night in the cold for a slightly better discount on a third TV, and no one dies in shopping-related mobs. Generally, it seemed to me that the lead-up period to Christmas started around the same time as Black Friday, but this was more clear from Christmas decorations and the opening of Christmas markets than from serious shopping or sales.

Christmas Markets

The main attraction in German cities and towns around Christmas time is the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market. This is a staple of German Christmas celebrations, and I got some surprised looks and comments when I informed people that there is really no comparable equivalent in the United States. (I know of some day-long or weekend-long craft fairs and such things in some towns in the US, but nothing anywhere near the scale of the Weihnachtsmarkt tradition in Germany.) The Weihnachtsmärkte (plural of Weinachtsmarkt) begin around the end of November or beginning of December and run until a few days before Christmas. The highlight of the Weihnachtsmarkt, and the part that I took advantage of the most, is drinking Glühwein, a type of spiced red wine that is widely consumed around Christmas time. In addition to the typical red wine, I also tried Glühwein made with white wine and eggnog, and Glühbier, which is made with the same spices but uses beer instead of wine. Maxim warned me before my first visit to the Weihnachtsmarkt to be careful with my Glühwein consumption; with such a warm, comforting beverage on a chilly December evening, it can be tempting to drink more wine than necessary.

This is the top of the very elaborate stall at the Karlsruhe market where Glühwein was sold.

In addition to wine, the stalls at the Weihnachtsmarkt also offer an assortment of food, such as roasted nuts, bratwurst, and Langos. Langos are like fried dough with a wide variety of topping options, ranging from cinnamon sugar to garlic cream with cheese. There are also stalls selling things that might be given as Christmas gifts, such as jewelry, wood carvings, metalwork, and anything you could possibly want for a miniature nativity scene.

The nativity scene at Maxim's parents' house.

Every city and many towns have their own Christmas markets. Karlsruhe alone has two (that I know of), one in the city center and one in Durlach, a neighborhood to the east of downtown. (At least one of Karlsruhe's suburbs, Ettlingen, also has its own Weihnachtsmarkt.) I went to the one in the city center twice, once with a group of au pairs from Karlsruhe and once with a friend from my German class. In addition to all the attractions listed above, the Karlsruhe market also has some animatronic displays for kids, and Santa (the Weihnachtsmann) and his reindeer pass over the market every few hours.

The market in Durlach is smaller and has a medieval theme. I went to the Durlach market once with Maxim, and we took advantage of the wider variety of hot (and cold) alcoholic beverages. I don't remember what all of the options were now, but one of them was mead (Met in German), which I'd never had before. Adding to the medieval feel was a fire show, complete with a "duel" involving flaming swords.

We also went to the Weihnachtsmarkt in Ulm, a city to the east of Karlsruhe. This market was bigger, with more options for shopping. We didn't spend much time at this market, and shockingly didn't drink any Glühwein while we were there, but we did see some adorable baby sheep and ate some sweet chestnuts, which I'd also never had before. Despite looking exactly like the chestnuts that I kick around and step on when they are laying on the ground, they were surprisingly good.


The tradition of Nikolaus seems to be exclusively German, or at least I have never heard of an equivalent in either the United States or Spain. On the evening of the December 5th, children polish their boots and leave them out for Nikolaus, and on the morning of the 6th they wake up to their boots filled with gifts. (For more details on this tradition, click here.) I was informed of this tradition by Clara, the younger girl in my host family. We polished our boots together (although they didn't have any polish for black boots so I just wiped mine with a cloth to get the dirt off), and they she showed me where to leave my boots so that "Nikolaus" would leave me goodies during the night. In the morning I found my boots filled with oranges, Lebkuchen (a type of cookie, similar to gingerbread but softer), and a gift card to a bookstore in downtown Karlsruhe. This seems to be the closest thing to hanging up a Christmas stocking in Germany, since gifts are not left in stockings on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are a part of German christmas celebrations as in the US, but they are typically not brought inside and decorated until Christmas Eve. (When we were in Ulm on the 22nd we saw Christmas trees out on people's balconies, waiting for their chance to shine.) This is a huge contrast to how my family did things when I was growing up: we would get our Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving and leave it up until the needles started falling off. It was sort of hard to get in the Christmas spirit without a Christmas tree brightening up the living room. Instead of having a Christmas tree throughout the month of December, German households have an Adventskranz, or Advent Wreath. This is similar to the wreaths many Americans hang on their front doors around Christmas time, but instead of hanging from a wall or door it lays flat on a table and has four candles. One of these candles is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas, until on the Sunday before Christmas all four candles are lit.

Maxim's family's Adventskranz. I took this picture after Christmas so all the candles are burned down already.
Candles are a theme for Christmas decorations: Maxim's family also puts real live candles on the Christmas tree! I knew that people used to put candles on their Christmas trees before electricity, but I had never seen it before with my own eyes. I was quite determined that this was dangerous, but nothing caught fire so I was reassured. (There were also some electric lights on the tree as well.)

Notice the cute little Santa hanging onto the top branch!

Christmas Day: December 24th, 25th or 26th?

While in the United States we reserve the label of "Christmas" exclusively for December 25th, with perhaps some preliminary celebrations on Christmas Eve, in Germany there are three days that could potentially be called Christmas: the 24th, the 25th and the 26th. The 24th, while not officially Christmas, is when most of what Americans think of as Christmas celebrations occur: going to church (if one is so inclined) and exchanging gifts. In a quite uncharacteristic move, I accompanied Maxim and his family to Catholic mass on Christmas Eve. The mass was, of course, in German, so I ended up tuning most of it out, but when I paid attention I could understand some of what was going on (and it's a Christmas mass, so it's not too hard to figure out). The strangest part of it was hearing familiar Christmas songs but with lyrics in German. I wanted to sing the words that I knew, so I compromised by humming and imagining the English words in my head.

After church, it was time to exchange gifts. In parts of Germany, including where Maxim's parents live, the bringer of gifts on Christmas Eve is not Santa Claus but the Christkind (Christ child). According to tradition, parents put the gifts under the Christmas tree when the children are out of the room and then ring a bell, which signals that the Christkind has just left. In order to get us in the spirit of things, Maxim's parents had Maxim, his sister and me wait upstairs while they put out presents, then rang a bell, and when we came downstairs they told us we had "just missed him." (For more information about the Christkind, click here.)

The following days, the 25th and the 26th, are both officially holidays in Germany, and can be thought of as Christmas Day 1 and Christmas Day 2. Most businesses close early on the 24th and are closed the 25th and the 26th. None of this working-on-Christmas nonsense that many stores in America have adopted; Germany actually likes to give people time off. Speaking of which, students and many professionals get vacation from around December 23rd to January 6th.

Something that was missing from all of the three days, though, was the huge meal with turkey and/or ham, eight different calorie-laden side dishes and three pies for dessert that is characteristic of American Christmas (I may be exaggerating slightly, but only because I so wish this extravagance to be true). We ate good food, don't get me wrong, but it was prepared in reasonable portions and there weren't a weeks worth of leftovers after we had all stuffed ourselves.

Heilige Drei Könige

As I mentioned above, Christmas vacation in Germany goes until January 6th. This is because that day is the day of Heilige Drei Könige, or the Three Kings (the phrase "heilige drei Könige" literally translates to "holy three kings"). This celebrates the day that the Magi (or Three Wise Men) arrived to visit baby Jesus after his birth and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I'm not sure exactly what this day entails, since it hasn't happened yet, but it is considered part of the Christmas season so I felt it should be mentioned. I also realized that when you notice there are twelve days between Christmas Day and January 6th, the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" makes a lot more sense. I imagine this song comes from a region and a time when the day of the Three Kings was recognized and celebrated.

Overall I've had a very enjoyable Christmas season, with good people, good food, and an exploration of new traditions (well, new to me). Now my task is to eat as many Christmas cookies as possible, since Maxim's family received homemade cookies from several of their neighbors. Since this post was mainly about German Christmas traditions in general, I will probably write another post soon with more details about what I've done during Christmas vacation.

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