European Christmas traditions
Although people who celebrate Christmas usually do so around the same time of year, many families create their own ways to celebrate the season, mixing both traditional and contemporary events. Living in Europe is a great time to discover other countries’ wonderful and different traditions passed down for centuries. You may want to incorporate some of these into your future holiday celebrations.
Advent wreath and calendar
During Advent, which is the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, both the Advent wreath and calendar are used to help build anticipation and educate children about the story of Christ’s birth. The wreath holds four candles and is placed in a prominent location. On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, a new candle is lit. Sometimes a fifth candle is also included to be lit on Christmas day. The wreath has been attributed to German minister Johann Hinrich Wichern of Hamburg in 1839. Wichern volunteered in an orphanage and each Sunday before Christmas used the wreath to accompany Advent prayers.
Advent calendars also originated in Europe in the 19th century as a fun way to count down the days before Christmas. The calendar has 24 windows and doors. Beginning Dec. 1, a door is opened each day to share a different picture and Nativity story. Sometimes treats or small gifts await behind the doors.
Christmas markets or Christkindlmärkte/Weihnachtsmärkte
Dating back to the Middle Ages, these markets began as a way for local merchants to sell practical goods and food to prepare for the long winter. The markets transformed into beautiful, traditional meeting places to eat, drink and buy goods and gifts and celebrate the coming of Christmas. Most German villages and towns have their own Christmas markets, which usually open on the first weekend of Advent. Today several European cities have markets with their own customary foods and decorations (see our Christmas Market Calendar for locations and dates).
Many traditional holiday foods are found at the markets. Dresden’s 14th century Strietzel, or Christstollen, the namesake of their Christmas market called Strietzelmarkt, is a sweet, dense loaf bread of dried fruits and spices. Nuremberg offers both its famed 12th century sausages and lebkuchen, a soft gingerbread sold and shipped in gift boxes worldwide. Glühwein, or “glow wine,” is an ever-present alcoholic drink found at markets. This hot, mulled wine helps stave off the cold as you visit with friends. Perhaps it receives its name from the “glow” that comes after you’ve had a few. The wine’s potency does have a way of sneaking up on you.
St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6
As the Patron Saint of Children, his day of Dec. 6 is celebrated in many European countries. He may visit schools, daycares and neighborhoods to bring treats and discuss the virtues of being nice. Or, in some countries, children leave their clean shoes or boots outside the door on the evening of Dec. 5 in hopes that St. Nicholas will visit overnight and fill them with goodies. Beware, naughty children. You may get sticks and rocks instead.
The Christmas tree and decorations
The Christmas tree was first documented in Germany in the 16th century. For thousands of years before, evergreen boughs were used to decorate great halls during Winter Solstice as symbols of everlasting life during the winter months. Evergreens were incorporated into Christmas because the symbolism was mirrored in the Christian faith.
Originally, Christmas trees were adorned with edible décor. Candles were later added for illumination, and carved wooden ornaments were created to hold the candles and fill the tree. The 20th century brought electricity and lights replaced candles, but many of these traditional and popular wooden decorations are still made by hand. For authentic Ore Mountain treasures, visit “The Christmas Lady” at Galerie Wagner in Kindsbach or go to Kunsthandwerk & Design in Tübingen-Kressbach near Stuttgart. Both of these wonderful stores offer authentic, German handmade items including pyramids, nutcrackers, smokers and nativity scenes hand-carved in the famed Erzgebirge. Either buy for yourself, or send a timeless gift to a loved one at home.
Some families in Germany still honor the old tradition on Christmas Eve (Heiligabend), when the tree is decorated by one parent and then illuminated for the children that evening. Traditional Christmas dinner and festivities will follow. Both Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 are considered holidays in many European countries to spend time with family and friends.
These are just a few of the many traditions celebrated in Germany and Europe. Research and discover those that may fit into your own holiday celebrations. Have a Merry Christmas!