Advent traditions, Christmas markets, traditional German Christmas food, Christmas trees, stars and nativity scenes, Christmas Eve celebrations … and the cold! These are the things I remember most about Weihnachten, Christmas in Germany.
At Christmastime in 2015 my husband Tony and I visited our family in Germany. We arrived in late November 2015, just before Advent, and stayed until late January 2016. Our visit, which spanned the entire Christmas-New Year period, was our first Christmas in Germany. As the following account reveals, ours was a truly rich and varied experience of German Christmas traditions, food and hospitality.
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In Germany, the official Christmas period starts at the beginning of Advent, the first season of the Church Year in the Western Christian tradition. The word Advent (der Advent in German) means “coming”. It is a period when Christians prepare for Christmas, the celebration of the first coming of Jesus Christ, born of a woman in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, the Sunday nearest to November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve (December 24).
One tradition in Advent is making an Advent wreath (der Adventskranz). Our family made a traditional Advent wreath, a decorated ring of fir branches with four candles on it. They lit one candle on each Sunday in Advent. These pretty dark green wreathes serve both religious and decorative purposes.
Baking special Christmas biscuits (called Plätzchen in southern Germany) is another popular Advent tradition. My son’s German mother-in-law makes hundreds of these intricate festive biscuits, of many varieties. For her, Advent is a much-anticipated but frantic time of the year. She bakes these biscuits for weeks. They are amazingly beautiful in appearance as well as delicious to eat. Many are given away as gifts.
My German daughter-in-law showed me how to make Zimtsterne, Cinnamon Stars, one example of these biscuits. A colleague came over after work one evening and together they made two batches of Zimtsterne, while I watched (and took photographs). It was a fun and rewarding thing for them to do.
Germany’s Christmas markets
I love Germany’s Christmas markets. They are a feast for the senses. I remember the splendid sights, the merry chatter and laughter of children, the buzz of the crowds, the live music, the distinctive aroma of mulled wine, the food, and the many Christmas decorations I saw and handled. Germany’s annual Christmas markets are a magnet for locals and visitors, wide-eyed sightseers and wily customers alike. People young and old flock to the Christmas markets.
Vendors sell Christmas decorations, candles, handcrafted items made of wood, leather, clay or glass, winter clothing (scarves, beanies, gloves, mittens and socks), plants, flowers, locally grown produce, traditional German foods, Christmas biscuits, sweets, take-away food and beverages. And much more.
You’ll find a Christmas market (Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt) in every German community, large or small. In big cities such as Munich, there are several. Typically a Christmas market is located in the town or city square, alongside the Town Hall or main church or cathedral of the town or city. These church buildings and others nearby are beautifully decorated for Christmas and are an adjunct to the Christmas markets. They are open daily to the public for sight-seeing or private prayers. We explored many remarkable centuries-old church buildings during our visits to Christmas markets in Germany in 2015. The beautiful Marienkapelle in Würzburg (shown below) is one example.
We visited Christmas markets in a number of German towns and cities. Some were in smaller municipalities such as Speyer, Worms and Würzburg. Others were in large cities like Munich, Stuttgart and Mannheim. Regardless of their size, each one of the markets we explored was unique and memorable.
Nuremberg Christmas Market
I had often heard about the Nuremberg Christmas Market, arguably the most famous Christmas market in all of Germany. So while in Germany at Christmastime in 2015, Tony and I planned a two-day stopover in Nuremberg to spend time exploring its Christmas market. It was not our first visit to Nuremberg, a city of about 500,000 in the southern German state of Bavaria. We stayed there for a couple of days in April 2012 (read Easter in Germany: Bavaria). But this was our first visit in December, in winter, during the Christmas season.
The Nuremberg Christmas Market (Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt) is one of Germany’s oldest. It dates from the 16th century. With over 200 stalls, it is also one of Germany’s largest. Its stalls, with their famous red-and-white striped roofs, are erected in the central market square (Hauptmarkt) in the Old Town. The main stage is erected in front of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), a huge Gothic building which dominates the square. Its magnificent façade forms a stunning backdrop to the program of activities on stage.
The name Christkindlesmarkt literally means “Christ child market”. You might think “Christkind” refers to the infant Jesus. I did. But it is not so. According to local folklore, the Christkind is the one who brings presents to children at Christmastime. The Nuremberg Christmas Market has adopted the fictitious Christkind as its symbol. Each year a local resident, a little girl with long blond hair, is chosen as the “Christkind”. She wears a long white and gold dress, a gold crown and wings like an angel and plays the role for the duration of Advent.
I purchased many Christmas decorations at the Christmas Market in Nuremberg. Some were for myself, but most were gifts for family and friends. I have a friend (read Judy Same, November 8, 2015) who loves everything to do with Christmas. So I bought lots of beautiful Christmas tree decorations especially for her.
I bought about a dozen nutcracker men. These little wooden carved figures of soldiers, knights or kings (for example) were first made in Germany over 500 years ago. They are traditional symbols of Christmas in Germany and popular as Christmas decorations not only in Germany but also in other parts of the world. One of the more expensive items I bought for myself is a quaint handmade German ceramic candle house. A lit candle placed inside the house provides light and burns scented oil placed in the chimney reservoir.
There were so many Christmas decorations to choose from. Many objects were handmade locally, from paper, cardboard, fabric, wood, leather, glass or clay. I bought several stars, for example, made by local schoolchildren in aid of a children’s charity. Others, like the metal angels I purchased, were commercially-made and imported.
The Nuremberg Christmas Market is famous for its “prune men” (Zwetschgenmännle). These strange yet adorable little figures are made of prunes and range in height from 9 to 22 centimetres. Apparently, there are more than 350 different figures (of both men and women). We looked at them and took photographs, but didn’t buy any. I didn’t think we would get them through Australian Customs!
Traditional German Christmas food
Traditional German Christmas food and beverages are on sale at the Christmas markets during Advent and in the shops throughout the Christmas period. Some food items, such as Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen, are specific to a particular geographical location. Others are sold at every Christmas market and every shop in Germany. For example, you can buy mulled wine at every market during Christmas in Germany.
Mulled wine (Glühwein) is served hot or warm and may be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. It is a traditional warm drink popular in many parts of Europe during winter and especially at Christmastime. Mulled wine is usually made from red (grape) wine to which various spices and fruit are added. It has a tantalizing aroma of cinnamon, cloves and citrus fruit. At Nuremberg, the mulled wine was a spiced blueberry (Heidelbeere) wine. At Christmas markets we visited in Speyer and Nuremberg, the mulled wine was sold in reusable ceramic mugs. You could return the mug and get a refund, or keep it as a souvenir. We kept ours.
At every Christmas market we visited you could buy crepes with a choice of fillings, savoury or sweet. At the Christmas market in Worms, we watched as the vendor prepared the one I chose, with a filling of Nutella and ground hazelnuts. It was as nutty and flavoursome as I had hoped!
At the Nuremberg Christmas Market we sampled the city’s famous pork sausages, the Nuremberg Bratwurst. You can’t buy these tasty, finger-thick sausages anywhere else. At a number of stalls throughout the market, they are grilled on open beech wood fires and sold with mustard on a bun or with sauerkraut on a cardboard tray. We tried both, and were not disappointed.
Nuremberg is also renowned for its gingerbread (Lebkuchen). You can buy these sweet and spicy biscuits chocolate-coated, sugar-coated or decorated with almonds. We bought some of each. The recipe is a tightly guarded secret. Nuremberg Lebkucken have been baked there for more than 600 years and they are trademarked under European law.
Stollen is another traditional German Christmas food. It’s a sweet fruit bread, made by combining yeast, flour and water (the dough) with dried fruit, citrus peel, nuts and spices. Dresden, capital city of the German state of Saxony, is famous for its Stollen. There it’s called Dresdner Stollen or Dresdner Christstollen. The latter name, literally, is “Christ Stollen”. Dresdner Stollen is distinguished by a special seal depicting a former Saxon King (Augustus II) and by law it can be made only by 150 Dresden bakers. It has been baked there since the 15th century. We bought one when we visited Dresden on 3-5 January.
When we visited Cottbus a couple of days later, by chance we met a family of bakers there. I wrote about them and our meeting with them in Snow Angels in Cottbus (February 6, 2016). They generously gave us one of their unique Christmas Stollen in a specially made environmentally-friendly cotton bag.
Christmas trees, stars and nativity scenes
The Christmas tree (der Tannenbaum) is a German invention. The tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmastime, first with edible items, then candles and other symbolic objects, dates from the 15th century. For centuries, German folk have brought evergreen plants into their homes during winter, including a real fir or spruce tree at Christmastime. Today, trees are on sale at Christmas markets throughout Advent. Traditionally, families decorate their Christmas trees and put presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. It is common to have a small nativity scene under the tree as well.
As well as Christmas trees, we saw several amazing Christmas pyramids. Apparently these timber constructions predate the Christmas tree! The largest one we saw was built on top of a food stall at a Christmas market in Mannheim. It comprised four levels with a nativity scene on Level 2, nutcracker men as the wise men on Level 3 and angels on Level 4. We saw another example at the Wendish Museum in Cottbus. This one, with its many shelves, would have been used instead of a Christmas tree in a Wendish family home at Christmastime in days gone by. The Wends are my ancestors on the Proposch side of my family. They came to Australia from this part of Germany in the 1850s.
During our travels, we saw hundreds of over-sized stars used as Christmas decorations in streets, town squares and homes. Clearly, these stars are very popular in Germany. Our daughter-in-law hung one above a window in the lounge room of her home. Once the light inside was turned on, the star was visible from the street below.
Nativity scenes are common in public spaces during Christmas in Germany. Sadly, we seldom see such displays at Christmastime in Australia today. One outstanding example was a nativity scene at the central railway station in Stuttgart. The lifesize wooden figures, which included three contemporary Christians, were carved in the style of renowned Polish sculptor Antoni Kenar (1906-1959), who established Poland’s Zakopane Art School.
Christmas Eve celebrations
Without doubt, Christmas Eve (December 24) was the highlight of our Christmas in Germany. In Germany Christmas Eve is called Heiligabend, which translates literally as “Holy Evening”. It signals the end of Advent and the coming of our Lord Jesus as a baby at Christmas. We spent the evening with our extended family and participated in their traditional celebrations of our Saviour’s birth. We joined three generations of our German family in Munich.
When everyone was present, we began by singing traditional German Christmas carols around the piano. Our family even provided books of Christmas carols, which they lovingly bring out on Christmas Eve each year. After carol-singing, we opened our gifts. It’s a tradition centuries old in Germany. Martin Luther, in the 16th century, introduced the practice of gift-giving on Christmas Eve in honour of Christ’s birth. It replaced the earlier practice of giving gifts on St Nikolaus’ Day, December 6, although this tradition is still maintained in some parts of Germany.
The dinner table looked fantastic, set and ready for our meal. The meal comprised traditional Bavarian food. As an appetiser, we had homemade savoury puff-pastry scrolls (Schnecken in German, which translated, is “snails”). The main course consisted of grilled German sausages (Bratwurst) served with mustard, grated horseradish, sauerkraut and bread. For dessert we had Bavarian Cream (Bayrisch Creme), a milk-based set pudding with a raspberry sauce topping. It was a special treat.
After dinner, all of us, except Oma (“Grandma”) and her carer, attended the late-night service at the local Catholic church. The service began at 11.00 pm and finished around 12.30 am. The church, which is huge, was packed. Many Germans, even those who do not attend regularly, go to church on Christmas Eve. Everyone present was given a lit candle in a holder with the words “Licht von Bethlehem”, which translated is “Light of Bethlehem”. I kept mine, as a memento of our Christmas in Germany and this wonderful evening.
Given the celebrations of the night before and the hour we went to bed, we slept in on Christmas Day (der erste Weihnachtstag). Unlike Christmas Day in Australia, it was a quiet, restful day for the whole family. We had a light lunch and went out for a walk by the River Isar in the afternoon. It was a public holiday in Germany, so there were lots of people outside that day, enjoying Munich’s mild winter weather.
The cold weather
It’s cold, very cold, in Germany at Christmastime. It’s wintertime. This is one of the main differences between Christmas in Germany and Christmas in Australia. Everywhere I went I wore my one-and-only red wool coat. I’m wearing it in almost all the photographs! I wore many layers underneath, jeans and woollen tights, a couple of pairs of wool socks, leather boots, scarf, hat and gloves. Both Tony and I found it hard to get used to wearing so many clothes. But we certainly needed them. And I know why the locals like to drink hot mulled wine at this time of year!
The first snow we encountered in Germany was in Dresden on January 5. The temperature there the previous day, as we explored the city, was 3 degrees below zero. I didn’t cope well with the cold that day. I recall complaining a lot. But the snowfall overnight and the next day lifted my spirits. Everywhere we had been the previous day was covered in a sparkling white blanket. The scene was spectacular. I don’t think I complained about the cold that day!
Later that day, when we arrived in Cottbus, a city in the north-eastern German state of Brandenburg, the temperature was 6 degrees below zero! It was snowing quite heavily by then. I took the following photograph of Tony at the Cottbus railway station, all rugged up in his winter gear, before we ventured outside into the snow.
The following day, January 6, was Three Kings’ Day (Dreikönigstag), which commemorates the wise men’s visit to Jesus shortly after he was born, Matthew 2:1-12. It was another very cold day in Cottbus. The snowfall of the last couple of days had turned the city landscape into a winter wonderland. It was a sight to behold. Tony and I were taking photographs in the main city square (Altmarkt) when a group of schoolchildren appeared. They were in costume, and several were dressed as the wise men. One child carried a star on a stick.
Three Kings’ Day signals the end of the Christmas season in Germany. It is an annual public holiday in three German states: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt, but not in Brandenburg. Public holiday or not, on January 6, if not before, people remove their Christmas trees and pack away their Christmas decorations. The celebrations are over for another year.
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Updated December 12, 2020.
This year Tony and I were looking forward to spending Christmas with our son and daughter-in-law and extended family in Germany. Sadly, this is not to be. Like many other families scattered throughout the world, we wait in hope for a time when we can travel freely and be together again.
Christmas celebrations in Germany will not be the same in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of Germany’s traditional Christmas markets have been cancelled. In December 2020, Germany’s restaurants, bars, theatres, concert halls and cinemas remain closed. Stores are open. People are required to wear masks when shopping and travelling on public transport. Unnecessary travel in and out of Germany is discouraged, including visits to relatives. People can meet privately with members of their own household and members from another household, for a maximum of 5 people (children under 14 not included). Between 23 December and 1 January, this number is 10. Schools and churches remain open. Church services can continue, as long as the 1.5 metre distance rule is applied. Click here for more information about Germany’s current COVID-19 rules.