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German Christmas Traditions

Froches Fest means "Happy Holidays" in German.

German Christmas traditions are the foundation for many of the modern Christmas holiday practices we all enjoy.

Popular German Christmas Traditions

Christmas is a month-long celebration in Germany. It is a quiet, reflective time. Exterior decorations for most homes and businesses include candles, evergreen boughs, and window dressings. Bakeries are well-stocked with holiday cookies and marzipan sweets, while outdoor markets tempt people with a variety of gifts and toys.

In Germany, you'll hear celebrants wish each other "Fröhliche Weihnachten" or "Merry Christmas". Frohe Festtage means "Happy Holidays". Children write letters to the Christ Child, or the Christkindl and either leave them on a windowsill or mail them to Himmelstadt, where he lives.

Advent season, or Adventszeit, is a popular custom throughout much of Germany. This marks the beginning of the holiday festivities. Once a strictly religious observance similar to Lent, it is no longer quite as somber.

Children anticipate the arrival of the holiday by revealing a new Christmas picture on each day of the Advent calendar. Families also decorate an Advent holly table wreath and insert four red candles into it. Four Sundays prior to Christmas, the children light a candle, eat treats and sing holiday songs. They continue the practice each Sunday before the holiday and again on Christmas.

Notable Days in the German Christmas Season

Many German Christmas traditions are celebrated on these dates.

  • December 6: Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Feast's Day. Children leave a shoe or boot outside their bedroom door the night before. If they've been good, they'll have gifts the next morning. If they've been bad, St. Nicholas's servant, Knecht Ruprecht, will leave them a switch!
  • December 24: Christmas Eve. This is the big celebration. Families reveal the Christmas tree and more presents are exchanged. In northern Germany, the Christmas Man, or Weihnachstmann, is much like Santa and leaves gifts for children. In southern Germany, the Christkindl is the gift-bearer. Christmas Eve is also the time for big feasts, also called Dickbauch, which means, appropriately, fat stomach! Many celebrants follow the evening festivities with a midnight mass service.
  • December 25: Christmas Day. A quiet day spent with family and in religious observance.
  • December 26: St. Stephen's Day. Known as the Second Christmas Day, or Zweite Weihnachtstag, it's an additional public holiday for the country. Traditionally, it was spent serving those in need, and in many situations, still is. It's also a day of enjoying the company of friends and family.
  • January 6: The Feast of Epiphany. This day is also called Heilige Drei Könige, which means Three Wise Men. The three kings who visited the Christ child were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. A German Christmas tradition is to write the initials of the three kings in chalk the night before the Feast to protect the home and family.

The Famous German Christmas Tree

The most popular German Christmas tradition is the Christmas tree. For centuries, Germans decorated evergreens around the time of winter solstice. These trees held a special significance because they stayed green through the cold, dark winter. Thus, they were the "trees of life". In the 17th century, more people put up evergreens in honor of Christ's birth, and the trees became known as Christmas trees. The practice went mainstream throughout the country when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe featured a Christmas tree in his book, The Suffering of Young Werther. As Germans immigrated to other lands, they spread the custom of Christmas trees. A picture of a tree first appeared in an American newspaper in the mid-1800s.

Long ago, German Christmas trees were decorated with fruit, nuts, and wax candles. Today, many people use electric lights, although some traditionalists prefer candles. It's customary not to reveal the decorated tree until Christmas Eve - even if the tree has to be kept in a locked room! After dark, someone rings a bell, and children and adults rush to see the tree in all its splendor. Often there is a nativity scene at the base of the tree and gifts. The tree stays up until January 6th.

Another popular German Christmas tradition is to honor a family's Christmas tree, known as Christbaumloben. This is a lot of fun for adults. On St. Stephen's Day, December 26th, friends visit each other and announce upon arrival, "Ein schoener Baum!" or "A nice tree!" Their reward is a bit of alcohol, and they'll stay and chat for a while before moving on to the next house to make the same proclamation and, naturally, receive the same treat.

Lebkuchen is a popular cookie enjoyed during Christmas.

Planning a German Christmas Feast

No Christmas holiday would be complete without the special tastes of the season. If you'd like to try German food for your holiday celebration, here are some ideas:

  • Lebkuchen - spicy cookies similar to gingerbread
  • Christstollen - long loaves of bread stuffed with citrus, dried fruit, and nuts
  • Stollen - a moist, fruit-filled dense bread
  • Marzipankartoffeln - a circular treat of marzipan, one of many dishes with this ingredient
  • Glühwein - mulled wine
  • Kinderpunsch - a non-alcoholic beverage made with tea, apple juice, and honey
  • Roasted Goose - the protein of choice for many Christmas feasts
  • Sauerkraut with Apples - one of many popular sauerkraut dishes
  • Potato Dumplings - a favorite accompaniment for German Christmas traditional meals

Use this recipe for roasted goose breast with potato dumplings, chestnuts, and red cabbage. Also try baking lebkuchen.

German Christmas Traditions