Germany Traditions: St. Nicholas, Christmas Eve and Christmas

by Jessica Zen, Kristi Adams
Stripes Europe

Get ready to sing “O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!” to get in the holiday spirit in Germany! From St. Nicholas Day all the way to Christmas Day, there are many reasons to look forward to the coming of Christ.

In Germany, St. Nicholas is based on the Catholic saint, St. Nicholas of Myra – a wealthy, benevolent saint who had a penchant for secretly leaving gifts, particularly under the cover of darkness. Born into a wealthy family on March 15, 270, Nicholas quickly developed a reputation for secret gift-gifting as well as a variety of miracles. He died Dec. 6, 343 A.D., hence the reason his feast day is observed on Dec. 6.

One legend tells the story of St. Nicholas secretly helping a man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. With no dowry to offer a potential husband, the father feared for prospects of his daughters. Nicholas heard of the father’s plight and secretly threw three bags of gold through the man’s window. The story gave rise to the tradition of secret gift-giving under the cover of night.

In preparation for St. Nicholas, German children leave cleaned and polished boots and shoes near doors and windows on the evening of Dec. 5 and awake to find presents and goodies. To this day, along with other gifts and sweets, children will often find oranges in their shoes, as a nod to the bags of gold left by St. Nicholas so many years ago.

Dec. 6 is often the “big day” for presents and gift-giving in German culture, with a smaller celebration on Christmas Eve. Although St. Nicholas traditions may vary a bit in Germany by region, it’s common for many villages to host a St. Nicholas Day parade, and many churches observe a St. Nicholas Day mass.

Christmas Eve is dedicated to putting up the tree and attending mass. “Weihnachtsbäume,” Christmas trees, are generally fir, spruce or pine and is decorated with tinsel, glass ornaments and a star or angel christening the top. Nativity scenes are placed below the tree. Gifts are opened and many people go to mass on Christmas Eve, traditionally at midnight, though earlier services are provided for families. Spending time with family is extremely important, so many travel on this day and most businesses are closed.

Christmas Day is a time for indulging in a feast with family. Eating traditional dishes like carp and potato salad or roast goose stuffed with apples, chestnuts, onions or prunes brings families together at the dinner table. Both Dec. 25 and 26 are legal holidays and businesses are closed. Dec. 26 is a quieter day and time for peaceful contemplation of the presence of the Christ Child.

With so many opportunities, you can celebrate all month long! Share the story of St. Nicholas with your children, attend a Christmas Eve mass and spend some quality family time together eating a Christmas feast. Germany has some fabulous traditions we can all adopt!

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