What have I just said?
I said, "Merry Christmas" in German!
After listening to me read the previous documentaries, my daughter Dawn asked me how many of my childhood Christmas experiences were descended from German traditions. I told her I thought most of it was made up from groups of people living in the Pierron area. How wrong I was! German Christmas customs have had an important influence on those celebrated here in America, since the 1840’s. Over the centuries, Americans have adopted many German Christmas traditions. This may be due to the German heritage of many Americans and the fact that their customs are far older than ours. After doing some research, I dare to say; almost all of my childhood Christmas experiences derived directly from German customs and practices. The following German customs are nearly identical to those childhood experiences.
On the first Sunday after November 26th, German children receive the Advent calendar from their parents. The calendar has bright little pictures with numbers on each of them: one, two, three, and so on up to 24. Wherever the numbers are, there are small paper windows. Children hang the calendars alongside their beds and open a "window" each morning. Chocolate figures can be found inside. Children can count the day towards Christmas when having their little treats. When all the windows are opened, then it will be Christmas Day!
Form the beginning of Advent until Christmas, booths and stalls are set up on the market places in all German cities. People can buy everything they need for Christmas, such as a Christmas tree, decorations for the tree, candles, crib figures, gingerbread, and presents for Christmas Eve. The most famous Christmas market is the one in Nuremberg, which has a history of more than 400 years and is attended by people from many countries. People usually have hot "Rotwein" (red wine) and "Wurst" (sausage) when they are in the Christmas market. During the Advent season, Germans often set-aside special evenings for baking spiced cakes and cookies.
When Christianity entered Germany, St. Nicholas, a 4th Century bishop of Asia Minor, became popular. He was known for his miracles and generosity and became a saint to children. The feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6. It is said that St. Nicholas rode a white horse and carried gifts to all the good little children on the eve of his feast day. He traveled with a dark- faced companion who was most commonly called “Knecht Reprecht”.
After the Reformation (15th Century), the authorities did not feel like the idea of having a character representing the bishop or saint distributing gifts. As a result, the figure Santa Claus, who had a long white beard, always in red suit and sleigh, was born to replace the position of St. Nicholas.
On Sankt Nikolaus Day, a man dressed like a Bishop reads from his book of good and bad deeds, and gives the good children candies. In Berchtesgaden, several henchmen, known as Krampus, accompany him. They are there to take care of the bad children by beating them with switches. They wear large furry costumes, with cowbells to warn of their arrival. All across the country, children set out their shoes that night, and parents put candies and trinkets in them for the next morning.
It has long been thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. One Christmas Eve he brought in an evergreen tree to his daughters’ nursery for her to enjoy since the weather was too bad for her to go outside. He decorated the tree with candles.
During the 1500’s German people decorated trees in their homes on December 24. These early trees were decorated with homemade paper objects and lots of food to eat. Often fresh apples, cookies and candies were hung on the tree. Special small candles were attached to the branches. Beautiful glass ornaments were made in Germany and helped decorate the trees. When the Germans settled in America they brought the Christmas tree tradition with them. In 1856, President Franklin Pierce set up the first White House Christmas tree. Since then people in the United States have brought trees into their homes at Christmas time. Even today, In Germany, they still put candles on their trees to light them instead of using electric lights.
When the long awaited Christmas Eve Day arrives, shops and offices close at noon. Everyone completes preparations for the family celebration and the official two-day holiday on December 25 and 26.
A light supper is usually eaten on Christmas Eve. Varieties of Wurst (sausages) are popular at this time and are served occasionally with mashed potatoes but more frequently with potato salad. Herring salad recipes vary; however, this dish is a must on Christmas Eve. Some salads are prepared with sour cream; others contain beets or pickles. “Karpfen in Blau” (carp in blue) is another delicacy served in some homes, scallops or cheese fondue in others. “Gluehwein”(spiced warm wine) or wines are popular beverages with a festive flavor. Finally the numerous cookies that have been baked for weeks and stored for this special holiday are brought out and served. Everyone has his favorite kind from the assortment which include: Springerle, Lebkuchen, Spritz, Zimtsterne, and many others. Every housewife has her favorite cookie recipes and some also have a special recipe for the Christmas Bread or ‘Weihnachtsstollen”. These recipes vary as to region as well as to family secrets.
The Christmas tree is presented prior to the evening feast of December 24. Some decorate together as a family; most parents permit the children to see the trees only after the ringing of the bell is heard announcing the departure of the ‘Christkind’ who has delivered the gifts. Until that time preparations are done in secret and the anticipation of surprise and joy continues to mount. For young and old alike there is a moment of surprise when the lights are all turned off and the doors are thrown open to reveal the beautifully decorated tree in all its lighted splendors! It is then that the intimate family unit enjoys the wondrous magic of Christmas with the fragrance of a pine or fir tree wafting through the room and the dancing shadows of real wax candles casting a warm glow across radiant faces. The love and togetherness of this evening is truly a magical and unforgettable experience. Before the gifts are exchanged and opened, the group joins in the singing of carols and many accompany the singing on various musical instruments. There is the reading of the Christmas Story from the Bible and children have to present a poem, which they have been memorizing for weeks. The gifts are then distributed and the final moment of anticipation and surprise has arrived. Amid shouts of laughter, the rustle of wrapping paper, cracking of nuts, the ringing of the church bells and the singing of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ this sacred evening slips away to memories.
Christmas day is also a festive but more quiet one and is spent visiting or entertaining relatives and friends. Some families, however, do leave the gift exchange until the morning and celebrate with a special breakfast afterwards. In this way they solve the dilemma of ‘Christkind’ versus Santa Claus. Families attend church services together at 6:00 a.m. to express their joy at this season and hear again the familiar Christmas message. In most homes the Christmas Day dinner consists of goose or turkey with other favorite dishes to complement the meat. It is the one time of the year when eating and drinking seem to continue forever, for there are a wealth and abundance of culinary delights.
Christmas is a time for people to enjoy all kinds of delicious food. The highlight of the Christmas food is the cookies; they are shaped like figures of Christmas or stamped with familiar designs. The gingerbread cookies are one of the most delicious among them. Christmas Eve is also known as "Dickbauch" which means, "Fat stomach". There is a tradition that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. So the opportunity is given to enjoy dishes such as sucking pig, "reisbrei," sweet cinnamon, white sausage, macaroni salad, and other regional dishes. On Christmas Day, people have a banquet of plump roast goose, "Christstollen" (long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), "Lebkuchen " (spice bars), “Marzipan”, and "Dresden Stollen" (moist, heavy breads filled with fruit).
Starting with the first Sunday in Advent, sounds of bells and other musical instruments are present in all households. It reaches its peek in the Holy Evening of the Christmas Eve. The famous Christmas song "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" (Silent Night, Holy Night) is actually a German Christmas song. This song was composed by Franz Taver Gruber and was written by Joseph Mohr in 1818. It was first heard during Christmas 1818 at the small church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf (Austria), which is near Salzburg and the German-Austria border. Today this famous song is translated into 44 other languages and is known all over the world. Another famous Christmas song, “O Tannenbaum” (O Christmas Tree) is also borrowed from Germany.
The “Bunter Teller’, (plate of colorful mixed goodies), is another custom still practiced in some families. Each family member receives a plate filled with colorful cookies, nuts, candies, fruit and other special delights.
Paw-Paw Dennis Buchmiller 2003