The custom of putting up a decorated and illuminated Christmas tree originated in the 16th century in Germany. Back then, small firs were decorated with apples, nuts, and paper flowers on December 24th, and legend has it that church reformist Martin Luther was the first to put candles on his Christmas tree.
One evening, on his way back home, Luther admired the moonlit topped trees. He wanted to recreate that magic moment for his family at home, so he put small wax candles on the Christmas firs in his living room.
Germany's Christmas Markets
In almost every German city, people celebrate the holiday season with at least one (or a dozen) trips to a traditional Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas market). These seasonal events, which date back to the 15th century, originally provided food and practical supplies for the cold winter season, but soon the markets became a beloved holiday tradition and a great way to get into the Christmas spirit. The city of Dresden is proud to have the oldest Christmas market in Germany, which goes back to 1434.
German Mulled Wine
Many Germans celebrate the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas with a lit Advent wreath. Every Sunday in December, a new candle on the wreath is lit and many families sing Christmas carols and eat cookies or a piece of Christmas Stollen.
The Advent wreath was invented by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a German pastor, who founded an orphanage in Hamburg in 1833. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the children would ask him daily if Christmas had arrived. To make the wait easier, Wichern came up with his magical Christmas countdown. He created his first Advent wreath out of an old cartwheel and small candles.
German Christmas Stollen
German Stollen, a loaf-shaped fruitcake made of yeast, water, and flour, is traditionally eaten around Christmas time in Germany. The treat, which was first baked in Dresden in the 14th century, is filled with nuts, raisins, candied citrus, and spices, and its form is said to represent Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.
December 6th: Nikolaus Day
If you are spending December 6th in Germany, make sure to leave your shoes outside the door. Santa Claus, called Nikolaus or Weihnachtsmann ("Christmas Man") in Germany, visits on this evening to fill your shoes with sweets, oranges, walnuts, cookies, and small Santa Claus figurines made out of chocolate. Bad little boys and girls must watch for Krampus.
Unlike Christmas in North America, the highlight of the holiday season in Germany is the Holy Eve on December 24th. German children usually don't get to see the illuminated Christmas tree until this night with parents secretly decorating the tree with ornaments and lights. Presents are exchanged, and many people visit a Christmas mass. A traditional German Christmas dinner is Weihnachtsgans (goose) often served with dumplings and red cabbage.
December 25th and 26th are both federal holidays and the Christmas markets are full. Shops and offices, however, are closed. Families concentrate on the more important things in life like visiting friends, relaxing, watching a Christmas movie, and eating a hearty meal.