8 Christmas traditions you didn't realise were German
‘Tis the season to be jolly, that special time of year when people around the world start to put up their Christmas trees, decorating them with colourful lights and glass baubles. While some put up their Advent wreaths and purchase Advent calendars, others hang up stockings by the fireplace in preparation for the arrival of good old Saint Nick.
Christmas time is chock-full of lovely customs, but did you know that many of these traditions have German roots?
Christmas customs with German roots
In the run-up to the most wonderful holiday of the year, we take a closer look at eight Christmas traditions that are actually German.
1. Advent wreath - Adventskranz
Many families in Germany will put an Advent wreath on their coffee table on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the first day of Advent. The wreath, usually made from evergreen or pine, features four large candles and is decorated with berries, dried fruits and pinecones. A candle is lit during each week on Sunday until all four candles are lit by Christmas Eve.
With roots going as far back as the 16th century, the modern-day Advent wreath tradition has been linked to Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who lived in Hamburg in the 19th century. After the children at Wichern's mission school began asking every day if Christmas had arrived, he built a big wooden ring and placed 20 small red candles and four large white candles around it. A small red candle was lit every weekday and a white one every Sunday, until it was Christmas. The custom gained popularity among Protestant churches in Germany, and the rest is history.
2. Christmas markets - Weihnachtsmärkte
Traditional wooden huts decked out in lights and the scent of Glühwein and grilled sausages in the air can only mean one thing - Christmas markets! Although the magical glow of Weihnachstmärkte may have spread across numerous countries and continents, most people know that the origins of this winter market can be traced back to Germany in the Middle Ages.
Towns and cities across Europe traditionally held open-air winter markets before the cold hit, so people could stock up on dried meat, flour and other essential goods which would last through the winter. In Germany, these markets slowly began to offer more seasonal goods, such as baked cakes, cookies and wooden toys, and thus the Christmas market was born. Dresden claims to host the oldest Christmas market in Germany, which first took place in 1434.
3. Christmas tree - Tannenbaum
The Christmas tree is a rather young German tradition (only 400 years old!) compared to others. While in pre-Christian times families often decorated their homes with evergreen branches or a yule log (not a chocolate cake but an actual log) during the holidays to keep away ghosts and evil spirits, the tradition of setting up a tree indoors has been linked to Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer.
He was reportedly inspired by the glistening stars after walking home one winter evening and set up a tree, complete with lit candles, in his living to recreate the scene for his family. By the 19th century, the Christmas tree had become a staple in households across Germany, more popular even than the nativity scene.
4. Advent calendar - Adventskalendar
The modern-day Advent calendar counts down the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve and is a favourite among children. Usually made from cardboard and festively decorated, the Advent calendar has a new "door" for each day that is opened to reveal a small present, usually of the chocolate variety (although some modern calendars include things like mini bottles of alcohol or even lingerie!)
The Advent calendar has roots going as far back as the early 19th century, when Protestant families in Germany made chalk marks on walls or lit candles to count down the days until Christmas, in much the same manner as the Advent wreath. The first printed Advent calendars began to appear around the turn of the 20th century. In 1904, one was inserted into the "Neues Tagblatt" newspaper in Stuttgart as a gift for readers.
Most people, however, credit Gerhard Lang with the invention of the Advent calendar as we know it today. His inspiration was his mother, who used to make him an "Advent calendar" every year from 24 little sweets stuck to a piece of cardboard. Around 1908, Lang's first calendar appeared, a collection of 24 little pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard each day in December. A few years later, Lang produced his "Christmas Calendar", the first Advent calendar with little doors to open.
5. Santa Claus - Weihnachtsmann
Some may think that the modern-day image of Santa Claus, a kindly man dressed in red, with a white beard, is based on Nikolaus - which is true to a certain extent. Although both sneak into people’s houses to leave presents for good children, the modern-day concept of Santa Claus is actually the brainchild of German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast.
The story goes that, while working for Harper's Weekly magazine during the US civil war in the mid-19th century, Nast felt that the public needed something to cheer them up at Christmas time. He drew photos of a fat man in a suit bringing armfuls of presents to the soldiers, and things sort of snowballed from there. Santa was changed for good in popular imagination - a transformation that Coca Cola is often (wrongly) credited with.
6. Gift giving on December 24th versus December 6th
Most families in Germany open their presents on Christmas Eve. But if Saint Nicholas was part of the original inspiration behind Santa Claus, then why doesn’t everyone open their gifts on the saint’s feast day, December 6th, you may ask? Well, this is due to a certain Protestant reformer meddling with the dates.
Martin Luther is said to have been wary of saints and their link to the Catholic Church, so in 1535 he began reshaping the Christian gift-giving day from December 6th to December 24th / 25th - the birth date of Christ. To support this change, Luther also created a new figure, das Christkind (Christ Child). This angel-like Jesus figure was credited with bringing good children presents on Christmas Eve, instead of Nikolaus.
7. Christmas bauble - Weihnachtskugel
What is a Christmas tree without decorations? Made from glass, plastic, or metal, Christmas baubles come in various colours, shapes and sizes and are used to decorate trees throughout the world. The first Christmas trees were decorated with dried fruits, sweets and pastries. But by the mid-16th century, glass baubles started to become popular. Hans Greiner in Lauscha is said to have started making garlands of glass beads and tin figurines which could be hung on trees.
Demand for these decorations skyrocketed, although some of the earlier Christmas baubles were coated with lead. As luck would have it, it was a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, who developed a new silver nitrate solution to coat the baubles before hand-painting them, making the glittering decorations safe for all to enjoy.
8. Tinsel - Lametta
Before you get ready to head on down to tinsel town this Christmas and cover everything from your tree to your office in tinsel, did you know that this Christmas staple was actually invented in Nuremberg in 1610? Designed to mimic the look of ice, it was originally made from shredded silver, which had been hammered paper-thin and cut into strips, to reflect the candlelight from the trees.
Of course, this meant that only the wealthy and affluent could afford it. Later on, people tried experimenting with other materials like tin, lead and copper, but these materials were costly and even poisonous. Today tinsel is made from a material known as polyvinyl chloride - or PVC for short.
Celebrate Christmas with these German traditions!
For many people are the world, Christmas is not Christmas without these customs. Which of these Christmas traditions do you and your family follow? Let us know in the comments below!