Germans have many wonderful ways to celebrate the holiday season, and, luckily for us in the United States, many of these traditions have made their way across the Atlantic.
1. The Christmas Tree
If you think about it, it may seem a little odd to take a tree from the forest and put it up in your living room. But what would Christmas be without a tree?
The tradition actually goes back to the early 1400s, when the first tree was decorated with fruits, nuts, and baked treats. However tempting this might have been, no one was allowed to eat the treats until New Year’s Day. Eventually, every household in Germany had to have their own Christmas tree, or Tannenbaum. Today in Germany Tannenbaums are decorated on Christmas Eve, with candy, glass balls, and ornaments made out of straw or baked dough, often with an angel on top. Many Germans still use lit candles on their tree.
The Tannenbaum made its way to America by way of German settlers. Hessian troops during the American Revolution also had Christmas trees, as a little bit of home away from home at wartime. However, Christmas trees did not become a “must have” until the Royal Family of England popularized the custom. Illustrations of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert (who were both of German descent), and their children around a beautifully decorated tree appeared in popular newspapers of the day, and soon everyone in Britain (and later America) had to have one.
There are thousands of different kinds of ornaments you can put on a tree, but it really isn’t complete without some sparkling tinsel. Tinsel is a German invention, dating from around the early 1600s. At that time, real silver was used—machines pulled the silver into the thin strips. Although silver was quite durable and beautiful it also tarnished easily. Christmas craftsmen tried to make tinsel out of a mixture of lead and tin, but this proved to be too heavy, so they continued to make tinsel out of silver until the mid-20th century, when companies began to mass produce tinsel made from plastic.
3. Santa and Santa Customs
Do your kids leave letters to Santa? This idea may come from the German tradition of children leaving letters on their windowsills for Christkind, a figure with wings, robes, and a golden crown who leaves gifts.
German children also may leave letters for Saint Nicholas on December 5, the day before Saint Nicholas Day. Saint Nicholas checks his special book to see if children deserve gifts, much like our Santa Claus checking his list. In America children that have been bad may receive coal instead of gifts—in Germany Saint Nicholas may leave them coal, a tree branch, or even potatoes.
One German tradition that hasn’t made its way across the Atlantic (although some parents may wish it had) is Saint Nicholas’ partner, a devil-like character known as Knecht Ruprecht, Schwarz Peter, or Krampus. As Saint Nicholas rewards the good children, this character punishes the bad.
4. Advent calendars
In Germany, Advent is the official beginning of the Christmas season. To begin counting down the days until Christmas, Germans use the Advent wreath, which has four candles—one for each Sunday between the start of Advent and Christmas. A variation of this is the Advent calendar—often made out of cardboard with a Christmassy picture on it and 24 flaps. One flap is opened to reveal a piece of candy each day in December, leading up to Christmas. In America, the tradition has caught on—Advent calendars are fairly easy to find in grocery and drug stores.
5. Gingerbread houses
Many American families celebrate the season by decorating gingerbread houses (lebkuchenhaeusle, as they are known in Germany). Although gingerbread is not originally from Germany, the tradition of making it into houses to decorate is German. It is said the custom began after the Brothers Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel, and the wicked witch’s edible cookie house, became popular. Early German settlers brought the tradition to America.
What would an American Christmas be without these German traditions?