Christmas market and its stands
Christmas market and its stands© Study in Germany Open fig caption

O how joyfully, O how blessedly!

‘O Du fröhliche, o Du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit’ (‘O how joyfully, O how blessedly, Cometh the glory of Christmastime’). This is how one of the most popular German Christmas carols begins. And indeed, Christmas in Germany is both a time for celebration and a time for reflection.

Christmas

At Christmas, Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they revere as the Son of God. But Christmas in Germany, as in other Christian-influenced areas around the world, is far more than just a religious festival. It is one of the highlights of the year, celebrated with enthusiasm by the whole country – even though less than half of the population actually identifies as Catholic or Protestant.

 

Christmas treats

People in Germany love Christmas so much that the build-up starts months in advance. Christmas treats, such as lebkuchen, Dominosteine (layered Christmas cookies) and Christmas stollen, start appearing on supermarket shelves as early as autumn.

Christmas baking
Christmas baking© Study in Germany Open fig caption
  • It’s not Christmas without Christmas baking – and Germany certainly has plenty of special sweet and spiced treats for the festive season. Lebkuchen have been a favourite for many centuries. These small honey-sweetened cakes/cookies are flavoured with many spices also used in savoury cooking. Stollen, a rich buttery, cake-like bread packed with sultanas and candied orange and lemon peel, has also been traditional Christmas fare since the Middle Ages. And since about the 18th century, Germans have enjoyed Spekulatius, a flat, spiced shortcrust cookie. Most traditional German Christmas cookies are made from shortcrust pastry.

Advent: Counting down to Christmas

The festivities begin in earnest on the first day of Advent, which is the fourth-last Sunday before Christmas. The Advent season is more or less the countdown to Christmas, and in many homes and workplaces you’ll find an Advent wreath made out of fir branches and decorated with four candles. The four candles symbolise the weeks left until Christmas: in the first week of Advent, only one candle burns; in the second, two; and so on. The Advent wreath is a German invention – the first wreath was hung by the Lutheran pastor Johann Heinrich Wichern in 1839 in Hamburg. Over the next hundred years, the custom made its way into Catholic households in the west and south of the country, eventually spreading all across Germany.

Advent calendars are another way Germans count down the days to Christmas. The calendar holds a small gift or a treat for every day from 1 December to Christmas Eve (24th December) to help build the suspense and excitement.

Christmas market in Bonn
Christmas market in Bonn© Study in Germany Open fig caption

Christmas markets: Pre-Christmas joy in the town square

One thing a lot of people don’t know is that in Germany, the first day of Advent actually marks the end of a period of reflection and solemn remembrance. In late November, the victims of war and violent oppression are commemorated on Volkstrauertag (‘Remembrance Day’), a secular day of mourning. This is followed by Totensonntag/Ewigkeitssonntag (‘Sunday of the Dead’/‘Eternity Sunday’), a religious day of remembrance for the dead. And then the mood brightens with the start of Advent. All around the country, festive lights and garlands appear in the streets, and Christmas markets are set up in the town squares.

 

German Christmas markets

Germany’s wintry Christmas markets, with their elaborate, cabin-like wooden stalls, are world-famous. The Christmas markets in some of the older cities like Nuremburg (Christkindlesmarkt), Cologne or Lübeck have a long tradition and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. But markets are also found in many of the smaller towns.

Christmas market enthusiasts love the classic smell of punch, tea and mulled wine, sweet treats and hearty hot food.

Christmas markets are all about community – they are places where people get together with their workmates, classmates and friends to socialize and sample the culinary delights on offer.

Christmas markets are all about community.

Smoking manikin
Smoking manikin© Study in Germany Open fig caption

Christmas decorations

Many stalls also sell Christmas decorations for the home. The production of wooden figurines and nativity scenes, Christmas pyramids, Schwibbögen (Christmas arches), and filigree baubles and ornaments has a long tradition, especially in the mountainous regions of Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria. Christmas decorations produced in these regions are exported all over the world. In fact, Germany’s Christmas industry is now so big that its products can be found in specialist shops all year round.

The months of November and December are very much a highpoint in the German social calendar, with practically every company, organisation and club holding Christmas parties. People living in shared flats and student residences commonly also get together to share the Christmas cheer.

Read what Ayo thinks about the Christmas season in Germany and what was new for him in his interview.

Christmas tree on Christmas Eve
Christmas tree on Christmas Eve© Study in Germany Open fig caption

Friends and family: Celebrating with loved ones

The busy build-up to Christmas is followed by a return to peace and quiet, and Christmas itself is usually celebrated in a small circle of close friends and family. In the biblical Christmas story, Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to their home town of Bethlehem for the census, and in Germany too, most people return to their home towns and villages to celebrate with their families. Bustling and busy university towns are suddenly empty and quiet.

Unlike in the UK or the USA, where the Christmas holiday period begins on the 25th of December, in Germany, Christmas Eve on the 24th of December is considered the main day for Christmas celebrations. That’s when the Christmas tree is put up and decorated and presents are opened. For Christian families, going to church is an integral part of the celebrations.

 

The festive feast: Time for good food

On the morning of the 24th of December, the shops in Germany are still open. Many people still have to work, while others are busy with last minute preparations for the festivities. That’s why some families traditionally prepare just a simple meal for Christmas Eve – there’s plenty of time for more elaborate festive dishes on the 25th and 26th of December, which are public holidays. For many, roast goose with red cabbage and dumplings is an essential part of Christmas. Others serve roast venison, and many in the north enjoy the local seasonal speciality of kale with copious amounts of sausage and salted meat. Raclette and fondue are also popular in some parts.

And after the Christmas celebrations?

The return to ‘normal’ is a gradual and gentle affair in Germany. The days leading up to New Year’s Eve are called ‘die Zeit zwischen den Jahren’ (‘the time between the years’): shops are open on weekdays, but apart from that there is a distinctly relaxed holiday mood in the air. People in the south and southwest of Germany tend to take the most time to mark Christmas and the turn of the year. There, the new year only really starts after Epiphany on 6 January.

Germans like to start the new year wishing each other Frohes Neues Jahr (Happy New Year) – a greeting that remains in common use until about mid-January. And after that, it’s only another nine months until Christmas biscuits and Dominosteine are back in the shops.

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