German Christmas Traditions

Saint NicholasIn Germany, the Christmas season officially begins on the first Sunday of Advent, when one starts to see the signs that Christmas is on its way. Bakers start selling gingerbread, decorations are put up, and the first candle on the Advent wreath is lit. Each Sunday until Christmas, families will light another candle on their wreath, a tradition dating back to the 1800’s when families would use 24 candles to mark the days before Christmas.
At the same time―and stemming from the same tradition of counting down the days to Christmas―many families put out Advent calendars with 24 doors set into the face, one for each day of the month of December before Christmas. Behind each door is a little picture depicting a Christmas scene or sometimes a treat or candy for the children of the house.

On St. Nicholas’ Day, the 6th of December, children across Germany can be found polishing their shoes! This is a very important job for them because as soon as night falls, they must each leave a set of shoes outside the door for St. Nicholas, who will come in the night and fill their shoes―either with candies and toys for the good children, or twigs and stones for the naughty.

Christmas Eve in Germany begins as a normal workday, but by mid-afternoon (if not earlier) everyone has gone home to prepare for the holiday. This is the day in Germany when families put up and decorate their Christmas tree, each taking turns hanging the glass balls, straw ornaments, and tinsel that adorn the fir. Last they light the tree; not with electric lights, but rather with softly glowing candles.

As soon as the tree is decorated and the children have left the room, the Weinachtsmann―the Christmas Man―a jolly old man with a white beard in a red suit, the German version of Santa Claus, sneaks into the house with his sack of gifts and piles a few presents under the tree before leaving again without a trace. The family gathers together again to open presents before they leave for a midnight Christmas church service.

Christmas Day and the day after are both days for visiting friends and family in Germany, with families going door-to-door wishing their neighbors good health and cheer and crying “Ein schöner Baum!”―a beautiful tree!―at the sight of each others’ Christmas trees.

German Christmas Markets

Every Christmas millions of people travel to cities across Germany to experience the magic of the German Christmas markets. For generations, craftsmen have gathered during the month of December to sell their wares to a city’s people. Each city has its own market with a unique character born of the days when only local tradesmen were permitted to attend.

In the shadow of the city’s iconic cathedral, the Cologne Christmas market’s vendors lay out their wares in booths and tents packed onto the cobblestones of the old town square. Booths selling hand-made Christmas toys and ornaments nestle in next to food sellers grilling bratwurst and sweets stalls laden down with baskets of foil-wrapped treats sparkling and glittering in the lamplight. The smells of fresh-baked gingerbread and Glühwein―mulled wine, traditional Christmas market fare―fill the chilly air between the stalls. The centerpiece of the market, a giant Christmas tree―the largest in the Rhineland―towers over all but the cathedral spire, twinkling in the night.

 
Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen

A relative of gingerbread,
this German confection has a
lemon glaze and is sometimes dipped in chocolate!

Open Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 cup dark molasses
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup mixed chopped candied fruits & peels

Lemon glaze:

  • 1 slightly beaten egg white
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. finely shredded lemon peel
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • Dash salt

Directions

Stir together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, beat the egg. Add the brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Stir in honey and molasses and beat until well mixed. Add dry ingredients to the mixture, stirring well until combined. Stir in nuts and fruits. Chill overnight.

Roll chilled dough on a floured surface into a 14-inch square. Cut into 3 1/2 x 2-inch rectangles or use cookie cutters to form the desired shapes. Place 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet and bake at 375°F for 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool 1 minute before moving to wire rack.

While Lebkuchen is baking, make the lemon glaze. Combine all ingredients and mix well. Brush onto the cookies while they are still warm.

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