10 German Christmas traditions and their origins
Who invented Christmas markets and Christmas trees? Why do Germans eat sausages and potato salad on Christmas Eve?
The Advent wreath
An Advent wreath usually has four candles, one for each Sunday in the month before Christmas. Originally, the wreath consisted of 24 candles and was made of wood. It was invented by Protestant theologian and educator Hinrich Wichern. In 1839, he set up his wreath to help children count down the days until Christmas.
The Christmas market
In the late Middle Ages, people flocked to Christmas markets during the Advent season. Back then, they didn't drink mulled wine but bought food to last over the winter. Later on, craftsmen, toy makers and confectioners joined the markets. Today Christmas markets can be found in many parts of the world.
Attitudes towards the winter changed during the 19th century. It used to be seen as just a harsh season but turned into something joyful, even romantic. That change of attitude was also reflected in snowmen. A grim expression gave way to a friendly smile. Wooden snowmen now decorate Christmas trees.
The Christmas tree
The Christmas tree is probably the country’s most successful seasonal export. Germans also made the first glass Christmas tree baubles and the first tinsel. At first, the Christmas tree was a privilege of the rich — until large fir and spruce plantations made it affordable for the general population in the 19th century. This is one original German tradition that has spread around the world.
The German word for giving out gifts is "Bescherung," which comes from the ancient German word, "beschern," or bestowed by God. Many children, particularly in southern Germany, are taught that their gifts are brought by baby Jesus, known here as the "Christkind." In Germany, gifts are given out on the evening or afternoon of December 24.
In the Middle Ages, German children received their gifts from St. Nicholas on December 6. However, Protestants in Germany disliked what they perceived as the veneration of saints by Catholics. It's likely that reformer Martin Luther changed the gift-giving date to December 24. From then on, Jesus Christ was seen as the gift giver, and became known in Germany as the "Christkind," or Christ child.
The midnight Mass
Midnight Mass draws large crowds to German churches, including people who only rarely attend during the rest of the year. The Christmas liturgy is traditionally held at midnight on Christmas Eve in Germany. Until the early 18th century, the mass took place in the early morning hours of December 25. The ceremony itself, however, has hardly changed.
For centuries, amateur actors have been depicting the story of Christmas. Previously performances included additional Bible scenes, such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. Over time, the performances came to focus on the birth of Jesus.
The Christmas meal
While some German families cannot do without their Christmas goose, others go for a simple potato salad with sausages. Early winter was once a time of fasting, so the meals were suppposed to be simple. Today, potato salad and a tasty sausage are still classic fare for many on Christmas Eve with a larger meal often eaten on Christmas Day.
The Twelfth Night
In large parts of Europe, the 12 days between Christmas and January 6, known as the Twelfth Day, tend to be particularly cold. In former times, people were scared of demons clad in fur who were believed to be roaming around during these 12 nights. The demons had to be kept at bay with the help of frankincense.