Merry & bright with Germany’s favorite Christmas decorations

Merry & bright with Germany’s favorite Christmas decorations

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

O Tannenbaum! When evergreen branches sing out for seasonal decor, Germany’s got them covered. For centuries, the country’s craftsmen have cleverly managed to turn even the simplest of materials into objects that spin, sparkle and delight on and around the Christmas tree.

The practice of decorating Christmas trees existed in northern Europe as far back as the 1500s. The glass bulbs still commonly used as decorations are a German invention, and some credit the practice of placing lit candles on the branches of an evergreen tree to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who, legend holds, was inspired by the shimmer of starlight as he trudged home through the forest on a cold winter’s night.

Fast forward through time and the tradition of decorating one’s tree, home and hearth at Christmastime remains as popular as ever. Some German families proudly display items passed down through the generations, while others eagerly snap up the latest trends. Traditional or contemporary, the choices of seasonal decor are as wide as a sky full of twinkling stars. These items will add tradition and flair to your home and tree this season, as well as evoke memories of time spent in Germany in the years to come.

Weihnachtskugeln: Christmas tree bulbs began replacing more traditional decor such as nuts and apples, and later baked figures such as gingerbread, in the mid-19th century. According to legend, a glassblower from the town of Lauscha in Thuringia blew the first glass orbs back in 1847, when he found the nuts and apples sold to decorate trees prohibitively expensive. True or not, the custom caught on, and the area became a center for the production of these colorful baubles. Unique, mouth-blown glass ornaments are still made in the area today.

Nussknacker: While the nutcracker’s practical use has been all but forgotten, these carved wooden figures of soldiers, policemen and all the king’s men continue to stand sentinel in windows and over countless Christmas tables. Note the stern expressions on their faces. A possible explanation is that humble craftsmen portrayed authority figures unflatteringly as a means of protest against their elite and powerful oppressors.

Räuchermännchen: These small figurines known as smoking men come in various guises, from bearded grandpas to smiling centipedes. Usually made of wood, or less commonly crafted of metal, their distinguishing feature is an internal, metal-lined compartment designed to hold an incense cone. Once the incense is set alight, smoke wafts out from the figure’s mouth, pipe or other orifice as a pleasant fragrance fills the room.

Pyramide: These multi-tiered carousels are topped with a propeller. The heat generated by a single burning candle is just enough to nudge this contraption constructed of light wood or delicate metal into action, causing angels, reindeer, snowflakes or other symbols of the season to twirl around in perpetual motion.

Zinnfiguren: Plain or painted pewter ornaments depicting Christmas-themed scenes are perfect for hanging on trees or in windows. Made by Bavarian-based craftsmen, it’s common to see figures inspired by a few of their favorite things, from beer steins to maypoles and pretzels.

Schwibbögen: These carved wooden arcs recall a common scene in the mining region of Saxony from which they originate. After a long shift, miners would emerge from the shafts and hang their lanterns above the underground entryways, creating rainbow-shaped arcs of shimmering light. A traditional version of this item would hold candles; nowadays, electric lights make a safer alternative.

Teelichthalter: Tea light candleholders come in many different shapes and sizes. “Porzellanlichter” are domed lights made of a pale monochromatic biscuit porcelain, molded or perforated to allow flickering flames to create a play of shadows. “Leuchtgläser” are vibrantly colored tea light candleholders in patterns resembling half-timbered squares, spangled elephants and other fantastical scenes.

Weihnachtssterne: This Christmas market staple catches the eye once darkness falls and the vendor’s stall is transformed into a glittering sea of stars. Constructed of heavy paper, these stars are often imported from India, where they are painstakingly worked by hand, making each one a unique work of art. The electric light bulb glowing from within is usually purchased separately.

Lichthäuser: These small, many-windowed ceramic houses depict charming half-timbered dwellings straight from the Middle Ages. While even a single house looks sweet on its own, purchasing a new one each year results in an ever-expanding Old Town square.

Glühweintassen: Many consider mulled wine mugs the ultimate Christmas market gift. Emblazoned with the name of the city and the current year, these mugs are best purchased filled with the brew they’re meant to hold, a warming, spice-laden mulled wine. Once the contents have been imbibed, one can forgo the few euros’ deposit initially paid and keep it as a souvenir of a moment frozen in time: the coming together of friends and family in a beautiful setting at the most wonderful time of the year.

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