Embracing host-nation holiday traditions
Frohe Weihnachten, or Merry Christmas, appeared to be etched into the sky over our heads, written in loopy holiday twinkling lights. We were surrounded by the traditional, glowing wooden German Christmas market stalls my husband had done his best to describe from his childhood memories, and I could feel the heat of my steaming cup of Glühwein through my mittens. In that moment, it felt as though we were standing on the cover of a vintage holiday postcard. Overcome with the warmth of Yuletide joy and nostalgia, I looked over at my husband with a childish grin on my face, and his eyebrows rose in a way that said, “I told you so.”
The holiday season is a magical time in Deutschland. Many of the modern American Christmas traditions we know and love — the decorated fir tree, gingerbread, and even beloved carols, like “Away in a Manger,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum)” — have roots in old Germany.
One of the best ways we’ve found to learn more about our host nation and its vibrant culture is to immerse our family in its customs and festivities. This year, consider carrying on your own rituals while also embracing a few of our host nation’s holiday traditions along the way.
1. Join in the Advent festivities.
The four weeks leading up to Christmas are known as Advent, a religious celebration meant to prepare the world for the arrival of das Christkind, or the Christ Child. Throughout history, the ritual has evolved from representing a somber time of reflection to one of joy and conviviality.
Adventskranz — Today, many families in Germany celebrate by gathering around an Adventskranz, a fragrant wreath made of fresh fir branches, to light one candle a week for each of the four Advent Sundays. Often, scriptures are read, and Christmas carols are sung in cheerful celebration.
Adventskalendar — Children also enjoy counting down the days to Christmas with der Adventskalender. First printed in 1908, modern cardboard Advent calendars typically consist of holiday scenes concealing 24 paper doors. Each day, children can look forward to opening one of the doors to retrieve the small treat — usually a piece of chocolate or a toy — hidden inside.
You can find the wreaths and calendars (including a non-traditional beer version just for adults) at most village grocery stores starting in mid-November.
Christmas markets — The tradition of Germany’s world-renowned Weihnachtsmärkte and Christkindlmärkte revolves around Advent ceremonies. Dating back to the Middle Ages, villagers come together to celebrate the start of the season with food, drink, seasonal handicrafts, music, dancing and merriment in the town square. This is one Advent custom you won’t want to miss.
2. Encourage good behavior.
Germany is famous for its fairy tales and legends meant to scare children straight, and Christmas presents more than one opportunity. In addition to the gifts delivered by das Christkind (a young boy or girl possessing Christ-like qualities) or der Weihnachtsmann (similar to Santa Claus or Father Christmas) on Christmas Eve, boys and girls anticipate a visit from St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Day — On the night of Dec. 5, little ones throughout Germany set their shoes or boots by the fireplace with the hope that St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, may stop by for a visit. Carrying a book filled with the year’s misdeeds, he leaves small gifts — usually candies and chocolates — for well-behaved Kinder to find the next morning.
Krampus — If you thought the threat of receiving nothing but lumps of coal in your stocking was scary, picture a horned monster dressed in rags coming after you with a birch branch if you haven’t been on your best behavior this year. Be sure to warn the kids that they better not pout, they better not cry, because Krampus — a devilish creature accompanying St. Nicholas — leaves twigs instead of presents for naughty boys and girls in Germany.
3. Trim the tree on Christmas Eve.
Unlike the American Christmas tree decorating tradition that usually involves the family coming together to hang ornaments on branches weeks in advance, Mom is usually the one in charge of presenting the tree in Germany. The special occasion is saved for Heiligabend, or Christmas Eve, while the children are occupied elsewhere. Traditional German tree trimmings consist of straw stars; hand-blown glass ornaments; edible treats; such as apples, hard pears, candy, gingerbread (Lebkuchen) and nuts; and candles or lights. Presents are also placed under the tree at this time, having been delivered by das Christkind or der Weihnachtsmann that evening. Plates for each family member are piled high with marzipan, chocolate, fruits, nuts and cookies, and the room is transformed into a Christmas wonderland. When the tree is ready, a bell is rung to let the children know it’s time to enter.
4. Celebrate Silvester.
New Year’s Eve is known as Silvester in Germany. Named for a fourth century Roman saint who served as pope from 314 to 335, the feast of St. Silvester falls on Dec. 31, the day of his burial ceremony. The celebrations were combined with the reformation of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.
Fortune telling — Silvester is a time for making New Year’s predictions in Germany. Some seek spiritual guidance by flipping to a random piece of scripture in the Bible (Bibelstechen), and others ask questions to pendulous objects hoping to determine the answer based on which way they swing. However, Bleigießen, or lead pouring, is the most popular fortune-telling tradition. My sister and I gave it a try for a bit of light-hearted fun when she came to visit for the holiday last year, and the process ended up being pretty entertaining.
Look for packages containing a metal spoon and small pieces of lead formed into lucky charms in shops around town. The spoon is used to heat the charms over a candle. Once the metal liquefies, it is then poured into a bowl of cold water. Whatever shape the lead appears to take once it resolidifies is said to hold significance for the year ahead. For example, my lump of lead resembled a dolphin, which is thought to symbolize rest and peace.
Fireworks — Germany is known for its over-the-top Silvester firework festivities. Even though we couldn’t help but notice the piles upon piles of firecrackers and sparklers that cluttered the aisles of the village markets the week before New Year’s Eve, nothing could have prepared us for the show that startled us out of bed at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. It was as if the entire village had come together in the streets to put on an explosive 360-degree fireworks display. So worn out by the week’s holiday festivities, our boys managed to sleep through the thunderous booms and dazzling lights. Meanwhile, my husband and I took the opportunity to sneak a moment just for us. We opened the windows and snuggled up on the balcony to enjoy the spectacle and ring in the new year together.