When a thick blanket of snow covers the country, lights sparkle on Christmas trees and the air is filled with aromas of cloves and cinnamon, the festive season has arrived. From baking cookies to making Christmas decorations or singing songs: Germany's many Christmas traditions create a very special atmosphere in December and help children in particular to pass the long days until Christmas Eve when the 'Christkind' or Father Christmas delivers their presents.
As one of the German rhymes recited by children during the Advent period goes: "Advent, Advent, a little light is burning. "First one, then two, then three, then four, then Father Christmas is at the door". Children can barely contain their impatience for the fourth Sunday of Advent to arrive, when all four candles are finally lit on the wreath of fir branches and Christmas is almost here.
Germany's many festive customs and traditions provide fun distractions during the dark month of December and make the days until Christmas fly by. Some of these traditions date back to pre-Christian winter celebrations and light rituals, while others originate in Christian times and are now practised all over the world. There are also many regional traditions. In Saxony, 'miners' wearing traditional clothing parade through the streets during the Advent period as a tribute to the region's mining past. In the Upper Palatinate, a holy picture of the Virgin Many is passed from house to house in the weeks before Christmas before finally making its way back to the church on 24th December.
But there is one point on which the whole country agrees. With its own special magic, flickering candles on dark winter nights, tantalising aromas of mulled wine and freshly baked cookies, and the atmospheric sound of Christmas carols from churches and market squares, the Advent period is one of the most wonderful times of the year.
Advent calendar: 24 little doors until Christmas Eve
In Germany, an Advent calendar is an essential part of the festivities, along with mulled wine and cookies. The preparations start promptly at the end of November, as the calendar and its 24 little surprises need to be ready by 1st December. The principle is simple: a little gift every day to ease the wait until Christmas Eve. Advent calendars come in all shapes and sizes. Many have little doors concealing colourful little pictures or sweet treats. Even today, many Advent calendars are still lovingly made by hand. Twenty-four little pouches or packages are then hidden inside, containing specially chosen mini-presents for loved ones. An Advent calendar is an essential part of the festive season for children, and many adults also enjoy this lovely tradition. In the Rhineland area, in particular, people practise another German custom that helps to pass the long wait until Christmas Eve: 'laying the straw' or 'filling the manger'. An empty manger is placed in the house at the start of December. For each praiseworthy act – such as a good mark at school or helping with the housework – children are given straw. They then place this straw in the manger to prepare a nice soft bed for baby Jesus when he is born at Christmas.
Winter fun: snowmen with carrot noses
When the first snow of winter falls, it is almost impossible to keep people, especially children, indoors. They pull on cosy hats and run outside into the cold. They gaze up at the sky in wonder as the white flakes fall gently to the ground. As soon as the ground is covered in this magnificent white cloak, the fun begins. They roll the snow into thick balls, lift one on top of the other and build a snowman. He is given a carrot for a nose, and his eyes are traditionally two pieces of coal. A few optional accessories can then be added: A hat, a walking stick or anything else that comes to mind to complete the effect. We will let you into a little secret: many of these 'children' are actually quite big. Because even grown-ups find it hard to resist the fun of building a snowman.
Shoes outside the door: Saint Nicholas is bringing apples, nuts and sweets
Christmas is the main celebration at the end of the year in Germany. But another very popular tradition takes place a little earlier: St Nicholas Day on 6th December. The night before, children – and many grown-ups – place their polished shoes or boots outside the front door. According to legend, Saint Nicholas then passes by during the night and fills them with sweets, nuts, tangerines and little presents. The character is said to be inspired by Saint Nicholas, a bishop who lived in the Turkish city of Myra in the 4th century. This lovely tradition continues in his name, making children jump out of their beds on the morning of 6th December. They race to the door to see whether Saint Nicholas has called during the night with his sack of sweets and rewarded them generously.
December for foodies: cookies, stollen cake and roast goose
Advent is a time for indulging. The sweet treats start in early December with freshly baked cookies. Children have great fun kneading dough, cutting out cookies in festive shapes and decorating them with colourful icing, almonds or sweet pearls. Iced cinnamon stars, spicy ginger biscuits and sweet powdered vanilla croissants are particularly popular. Another sweet treat traditionally enjoyed over the festive season in Germany is Christmas stollen, baked according to different family recipes but usually using yeast dough, butter, raisins and nuts. The reputation of Dresden Christmas stollen, baked according to a special recipe since the 15th century, has spread all over the world. German Christmas biscuits are also very popular around the world. The little gingerbread 'Lebkuchen', and especially the 'Nuremberg Lebkuchen', are enjoyed in many countries. Not forgetting Aachen's moist 'Printen' gingerbread and Lübeck's delicious, beautifully soft marzipan. This being said, German families tend to favour more savoury fare on Christmas Eve. Potato salad with sausages are on the menu in many households, in particular in Thuringia and Saxony. Over the next few days of celebrations, people feast on roast goose with dumplings and red cabbage or even carp. In Schleswig-Holstein, duck is the more popular choice.
The sparkling festive season: the Christmas tree is the most beautiful tree of all
As a popular German Christmas song goes: "The lights shine brightly on the Christmas tree, how it glows festively, beautiful and mild...". The Christmas tree is, in fact, the focal point of the festivities practically everywhere. In almost every household, you can find an opulently decorated Christmas tree waiting for gifts to be arranged beneath its branches. Many families go out to buy their tree together from special market stalls or even chop it down themselves in specially designated areas of woodland. Christmas trees are often lavishly decorated with items that have been passed down through generations. Anything that glistens or gleams is very popular, such as Christmas baubles, bells, angel figurines or shimmering tinsel. In Germany, it is customary for people to still put up real trees and decorate them with actual candles. In the south of Germany, in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in particular, there is a tradition known as 'Christbaumloben', meaning 'praising the Christmas tree'. People go from house to house and praise the beautiful Christmas trees in their neighbours' homes. To thank them for their kind words, they are given a little present, such as a bottle of schnapps.
Christmas Eve: 'Christkind' or Father Christmas?
'Christkind' or Father Christmas? The question of who actually brings the presents has different answers in Germany's regions. Although the more recent arrival, Father Christmas with his bushy beard is now the main gift-bearer, and he is particularly busy in the north of the country. The 'Christkind' (Christ child) with curly golden hair tends to be found more in the south. Children regard both with great respect as, according to their parents, only good children are rewarded with lots of presents. After exchanging gifts on 24th December, many families traditionally go to church for Midnight Mass, even if they are perhaps not usually such regular attendees. This Midnight Mass is very atmospheric. The church bells chime and the whole family make their way there to meet up with other families, neighbours and friends. Children tend to be particularly interested in the nativity scene in the church, featuring beautifully carved wooden figures depicting the story of the birth of Christ.