Like many western nations, Germany is a predominantly Christian nation. In fact, although the German state has committed itself in its constitution to treat religions and world-views neutrally, Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost are protected; everyone has the day off and the shops are closed. Therefore, it comes with little surprise that there are a number of time honored German Christmas traditions that are unique to the country.
Since moving to Germany in 2013, we’ve absolutely fallen in love with the Christmas season in Germany. Whether you find yourself devout in your faith or just want to partake in the season of merriment, you’re sure to find German Christmas traditions that warm your soul, heart and stomach. Here is a short overview of the 10 most uniquely German Christmas traditions.
St. Nicholas Day (Nikolaustag)
In Germany, the “unofficial” start to the holiday season is with St. Nicholas Day (Sankt Nikolaus Tag). For hundreds of years in Austria and some regions of Germany, particularly in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg where there is a higher contraction of Catholics, St. Nicholas was the main character in the Christmas celebration. But he was not Santa Claus, and he arrived earlier – on the 6th of December.
According to this unique German Christmas Tradition, a man dressed as der Heilige Nikolaus (St. Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff) goes from house to house to bring small gifts to the children, often leaving them in boots that the children leave out the night before.
According to the legend, Nikolaus comes in the middle of the night on a donkey or a white horse and leaves little treats – such as coins, chocolate, oranges and toys. That is, for the good children…
Accompanying St. Nicholas on Sankt Nikolaus Tag is his maleficent counterpart, Krampus (called Knecht Ruprecht or Belsnickle in some regions). Krampus’ name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, and is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology.
The name is fitting, since in many Austrian and Southern Germanic regions, the image of Krampus can be downright scary! In contrast to the kindly St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets, folklore says that Krampus will swat “wicked” children with a switch, stuff them in a sack, and take them away to his lair.
However, the German Christmas tradition of today is a little more tame. On the night of December 5th, Krampus shows up in towns across the region – giving it the moniker Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. The next day, on Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when children look outside their door to see if the boot they’d left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a switch (for naughty children).
Ravennaschlucht Christmas Market
German Christmas Markets: Weihnachtsmarkt
Probably one of the most iconic German Christmas Traditions are the famed Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmarkt). In large open plazas or market squares, small wooden huts appear with vendors selling locally made jewelry, crafts, holiday decor, and toys.
The air is alive with the sounds of carolers or holiday musicians and the smells of hot mulled wine (Glühwein), crepes, sausages, and roasted chestnuts (Kastanien, Maronen or Maroni). Twinkling christmas lights illuminate the night sky to the delight of young and old alike.
Simply put: there is nothing quite like the magic of the German Christmas Markets.
There is a bit of debate on the exact start of the German Christmas tradition. However, Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt may have been the first real Christmas Market, dating from 1434. Today, the tradition has spread across Europe (and in a couple of cities in the United States and Canada!) signaling the beginning of advent and lasting through the holiday season.
Glühwein (Mulled Wine) Stand
Black Forest Family Tip
Interested in visiting a German Christmas Market? Although you can warm yourself from the inside out with hot mulled wine (Glühwein) and hot cocoa, it’s best to bundle up while strolling through these outdoor markets. Check out our post on what to wear for winter in Germany.
Christmas Stollen Bread
In the United States, we have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with fruit cake. Thankfully in Germany, they have a much more delectable holiday Christmas tradition: stollen. This enriched bread is studded with candied fruit peel, nuts, spices and raisins soaked in booze. Consider it a sort of fruitcake/hot cross bun hybrid.
The history of stollen, like many German Christmas traditions, is once again linked with Christianity. It is said that the rolled shape of the loaf/cake is to symbolize the Christ child wrapped in a blanket in the manger.
In its original inception, stollen was made with flour, yeast, some oil and water. However, since the stollen was made without butter and sweet ingredients, like raisins, candied orange peel, candied lemon peel and almonds, it wasn’t exactly the sweet treat that we know and love today.
Over the years, bakers were allowed to add butter (thanks to a retraction of a butter prohibition by the Vatican) and other sweet additions which continued to influence the final product which has been around since the 20th century.
German Gingerbread Cookies: Lebkuchen
Speaking of sweet Christmas treats, any German Christmas tradition would not be complete without their variation of gingerbread cookies, called Lebkuchen. I say “variation” here because Lebkuchen is not strictly speaking a gingerbread cookie.
Sure, it is a similar baked good, flavored with spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg and sweetened with honey, molasses or sugar. But unlike the crisp gingerbread man cookie that Americans know and love, lebkuchen is soft, dense, and often nutty. I would probably describe its textures as a kind of hybrid between a cake and a cookie.
The German Christmas tradition of Lebkuchen draws its roots back to the city of Nuremberg. The dense forests around the city were a vast source of honey – a key ingredient in lebkuchen. In addition, Nuremberg was also situated at the crossroads of the ancient spice trade routes, giving their bakers access to the exotic spices needed.
There are a number of recipes for Lebkuchen and variations depending on the amount of nuts and honey used. Moreover, there are even variations for the intended use of Lebkuchen.
Although we aren’t as wild about the texture (these tend to be very dense and hard, and are more for the visual than the taste) giant lebkuchen hearts are a popular staple at German Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmarkt). Written with phrases such as “Ich liebe dich” (I love you), “Frohes Fest” (Happy Holidays), and “Fröhliche Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas) they make for great gifts for loved ones back home.
Mulled Wine: Glühwein
If you ask us, Christmas just isn’t complete with a piping hot cup of Glühwein. This German Christmas traditional hot drink is a spiced wine typically made with red wine and various mulling spices. However, at the majority of Christmas markets you will commonly find white wine varieties and alcohol free versions called “Kinderpunsch”.
In addition, at the Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) you will usually pay a deposit for your themed mug (refundable upon return, although we collect them at our house). We can usually handle a couple of glasses before the stomach ache sets in from all of the sugar.
Craving the taste of Christmas or looking to bring back a piece of German Christmas Tradition to your friends and family back home? You can also buy glühwein at the majority of grocery stores around Germany in glass bottles to reheat at home.
Feeling adventurous? How about a flaming mug of glühwein!
Feuerzangenbowle is a German Christmas traditional alcoholic drink where a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on a small spit, set on fire and then drips into mulled wine. The name translates literally as “fire-tongs punch”.
Advent Calendar or Advent Wreath: Adventskalendar / Adventskranz
Once again calling back to the religious origins of the holiday season advent calendars (Adventskalendar) and advent wreaths (Adventskranz) are a widespread German Christmas tradition. In order to prepare for the arrival or “advent” of the Christ Child (das Christkind) on December 25th, both of these items help families count down the days or weeks leading up to the holiday.
Originally, the advent season was more serious and celebrate, including rituals of “giving up things” like in the catholic season of Lent. Overtime, however, the advent season has become much more celebratory, with treat and chocolate filled advent calendars.
When browsing around shops in Germany, you are sure to find a great variety of advent calendars counting down the 25 days of Christmas and advent wreaths which count the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas with candles. Many advent calendars are targeted towards children, with each day holding a small toy, chocolate, or treat to enjoy.
Christmas Trees (Weihnachtsbaum/Tannenbaum)
Sure, many countries around the world celebrate Christmas time with a traditional Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum/Tannenbaum) – but what makes the German Christmas tradition so special and different?
For starters, lore has it that the first known Christmas tree was set up in 1419 in our home city of Freiburg! This was done by the town bakers, who decorated the tree with fruits, nuts, and baked goods, which the children were allowed to remove and eat on New Year’s Day.
The tradition quickly spread throughout Europe and the English Royalty popularized it among the elite. Eventually, the Christmas tree came to America with the German immigrants and was accepted by the general public by the late 1800s.
Secondly, the German Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum/Tannenbaum) is usually put up and decorated on Christmas Eve, (not weeks or, let’s be honest, months before like in the United States). Traditional German Christmas decorations include tinsel, glass balls or straw ornaments and sweets.
A star or an angel tops the Christmas tree, and beneath the tree, a nativity scene might be set up and the presents next to it. In addition, Germans also usually continue to use real lit candles instead of electric lights on the tree.
As American expats in Germany, we typically have to search high and low for a Christmas tree to put up after our Thanksgiving celebration. But it always brings us joy to pass down the Christmas tree to one of our friends right before we fly back to the States for Christmas, so it gets its proper holiday enjoyment.
Three Kings & Epiphany Day (Das Dreikönigsfest)
Throughout Germany, Christmas merriment continues until January 6th, which is the day of a religious feast known as Epiphany or Das Dreikönigsfest (‘three kings festival’). On this date, the Germans celebrate the three wise men (Heilige Drei Könige).
Today, it is very common to find the initials of the Three Kings — C+M+B (Caspar/Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) — plus the year is inscribed in chalk on or over doorways in Germany to protect the house and home all year long. (Although, as noted by our friends at german-way.com, historically the three letters are supposed to come from the Latin phrase for “Christ bless this house” — “Christus mansionem benedicat” — few of the people practicing this custom are aware of this fact.)
In the southern Black Forest, on January 6th children will also dress as the Magi go from house to house and sing songs (called Sternsinger, or ‘star singer’) requesting donations towards various children’s causes.
Do you have any suggestions for Christmas traditions that you would like included on the list? Let us know in the comments below!