If your favorite part of the holiday season is decorating the Christmas tree or paying an annual visit to Santa Claus, you can thank Germany for most of these traditions. Many Christmas customs North Americans recognize as their own actually began in Europe, with most of the traditions hailing from Germany. In Germany, Christmas traditions are alive and well during December. Here are some of the beloved customs you might find on a trip to Germany—or in your own hometown!
The custom of chopping down a spruce and decorating it as a Christmas tree originates from 16th century Germany. Back then, small firs were traditionally decorated with apples, nuts, and paper flowers on December 24.
According to legend, church reformist Martin Luther was the first to put candles on his Christmas tree. As the story goes, when Luther was walking home one night, he stopped to admire a tree shining in the moonlight. 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.
In just about every city in Germany, you can count on the annual Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas market, to set up shop somewhere in the center of town. Locals typically make at least one visit to the markets, not just to go shopping, but also to enjoy some baked goods, hot chocolate, and the general festive atmosphere German Christmas markets are famous for.
These seasonal markets, which date back to the 15th century, originally provided food and practical supplies for the cold winter season. Over time, 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 dates all the way back to 1434!
There's no better treat on a cold winter day than a glass of mulled wine, Germany's traditional Christmas drink. This wine is served hot and added spices like cloves and cinnamon give it that Christmasy flavor. Called Glühwein in German, which literally translates to "glowing wine," you can find it at every Germany Christmas market.
German Christmas Stollen
German stollen, a loaf-shaped fruitcake made of yeast, water, and flour, is traditionally eaten around Christmas time in Germany. The bread-like cake, which was first baked in Dresden in the 14th century, is filled with nuts, raisins, candied citrus, and spices. The shape is said to represent Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.
Many Germans celebrate the four weeks leading up to Christmas with a lit Advent wreath. With four candles placed inside a wreath, a new candle is lit on every Sunday in December. During the lighting of the candle, many families sing Christmas carols and eat cookies or a piece of Christmas bread.
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.
Saint Nikolaus Day
If you are spending December 6 in Germany, make sure to leave your shoes outside the door. Santa Claus, often 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.
German children are not only on their best behavior to impress Santa Claus, they are also trying to avoid Krampus. This half-goat half-demon character is said to punish naughty children and is the counterpart of Santa. You will often see them depicted together, however while Santa's day is December 6, Krampus Night is December 5.
Unlike Christmas in North America, the highlight of the holiday season in Germany is the Holy Eve on December 24. 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. The traditional meal is the Weihnachtsgans, or Christmas goose, often served with dumplings and red cabbage.
December 25 and 26 are both federal holidays and the Christmas markets are full. Shops and offices, however, are closed. German families concentrate on the more important things in life like visiting friends, relaxing, watching a Christmas movie, and eating a hearty meal.