Rooted in pagan celebrations, German Christmas has many rituals
Christine Schoefer, Special to The Chronicle
When I tell my friends that in the German style, we don't decorate our
Christmas tree until Dec. 24, they pity me a bit. "What's the point?"
one of them asked, assuming that this custom indicated a lack of holiday
spirit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christmas is by far the
most popular German holiday and has been celebrated since the 16th century.
This quintessentially Christian holiday has pagan roots. Centuries ago,
Germanic tribes celebrated the winter solstice by lighting fires and
candles and bringing evergreens into their homes to symbolize the
returning light and the coming of spring.
Christians, in a bid to convert these "nonbelievers," followed their
timing and adapted their rituals: They designated Dec. 24 as the night
of Christ's birth and made the evergreen tree a symbol of the Christmas
Germans probably have the longest Christmas season in the world. I don't
mean a frenzied shopping countdown that starts in November, though more
and more that plays a dominant role. I mean an elaborate protocol of
rituals, traditions and festivities that begins on the first Advent
Sunday or Dec. 1 (whichever comes first), culminates in the Christmas
Eve celebration and draws to a close on Three Kings Day, Jan. 6.
The holiday commemorates the birth of the Christ child, but Germany is a
secular society, so most Germans cultivate this season as special family
time. The Weihnachtszeit - Christmastime - is characterized by a mood of
anticipation and excitement. This is the one time of the year when it is
permitted to whisper secrets and to hide things away in preparation for
the Bescherung, the gift-giving that takes place on Christmas Eve.
Adults have the job of building anticipation by putting up decorations,
baking cookies, lighting candles, singing carols and, yes, shopping for
gifts that remain hidden until the evening celebration. Various
celebratory markers help to pass the time until the big day arrives.
Usually, the holidays begin with the Advent calendar. This is a
cardboard picture of a Christmas theme - a snowy village, Santa's
workshop or a Nativity scene. Little openings are cut into the picture
so that flaps can be turned back to reveal a small surprise inside - a
piece of chocolate or a colorful image. Every morning, children open one
little window on their Adventskalendar, keeping an excited countdown
until Dec. 24.
During Advent, families display evergreen wreaths with four candles in
their homes. On the first Advent Sunday, one candle is lit; the second
is added on the following Sunday and so on until all four candles are
burning by Christmas Eve.
As the days pass, various decorations appear: the colorful nutcracker
immortalized in Tchaikovsky's ballet, the wooden pyramid with its
candles and rotating scenes of carved angels, the Raeuchermaennchen - a
wooden figure constructed so that incense smoke curls from its pipe. On
Dec. 4, St. Barbara's Day, many Germans cut a branch from a fruit tree
and put it in a vase. After 20 days - just in time for Christmas - the
Barbarazweig will have sprouted leaves and blossoms, a symbol of rebirth
in the midst of winter.
In a separate tradition, on Dec. 6, children arise with great eagerness,
for they know that St. Nikolaus and his donkey have visited their home
during the night, filling with treats the polished shoes they have set
in front of the door. St. Nikolaus knows which children are "good" and
which are "bad," and he distributes goodies accordingly: sweets and nuts
for the well-behaved and coal pieces or switches made of twigs for those
who are naughty.
The prospect of St. Nikolaus going from house to house with small
delights has excited German children since the early Middle Ages. After
the Reformation, however, Protestant town officials wanted to do away
with the generous Catholic saint and introduced a new custom: From now
on, the Christ Child would be the one to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve.
By the late 18th century, the Weihnachtsmann with the red coat and long
beard had evolved as a hybrid of Catholic and Protestant traditions. He
is, of course, the prototype for the American Santa Claus. Today, most
German children expect two benefactors - Nikolaus comes on Dec. 6 with
small edible goodies, and Santa Claus or the Christ Child visits on the
24th with more substantial presents.
The day of Christmas Eve is characterized by almost agonizing
anticipation for German children. They are not allowed into the living
room while the adults in the family finish the final preparations. In
the afternoon, everyone puts on festive clothes and gathers to sing
Christmas carols and eat stollen, a traditional holiday fruit bread.
After darkness falls, a bell chimes to indicate that the Christ Child -
or Santa Claus - has come and gone.
Finally, the children are allowed into the living room, which has been
transformed into a glittering Christmas installation. The Christmas tree
is decorated with angels, orbs, birds and trumpets made of glass or
pressed pewter, stars made of straw, apples and nuts, confections made
of sugar and chocolate, and, of course, candles that are fastened to the
branches with special metal clips. Underneath this sparkling attraction
lie the colorfully wrapped presents next to the bunte Teller, plates
filled with Christmas sweets: Kringel, Lebkuchen, Zimtsterne and
Typically, only a modest meal - herring salad or potato salad with
sausages - is served on Christmas Eve so that no one has to spend time
in the kitchen. The holiday feast happens on the next day, when roast
goose is the traditional main course.
Germans have a second Christmas holiday on the 26th, typically a day for
relaxing and winding down. But the season is not over until Jan. 6. On
that day, the tree decorations are taken down and children get to eat
the sweets that hang from the branches. The nutcracker and the little
pipe-smoking man disappear into boxes, along with the pyramid, the
candleholders and the cookie cutters. After that, it is just winter,
without the luster and sparkle of the Weihnachtszeit. Even the glow of
candles seems less bright as the days get longer, ever so gradually.
Among my German friends in the Bay Area, some of the old customs have
fallen by the wayside because they don't make sense in California. Who
needs a blooming apple branch when camellia blossoms beckon everywhere?
My mother has replaced the Advent wreath with a poinsettia, and my
friend Inke decided years ago to force-grow paperwhites. She loves the
smell and the way the white flowers seem to intensify the light of the
candles. Inke also started the tradition of decorating her large ficus
with glass beads and lights instead of buying a Christmas tree.
Other rituals disappear simply because people don't have time to
cultivate them. German Christmas is quite labor intensive - constructing
the mood of anticipation that reigns during Advent takes time, effort
and planning. Most Germans I know schedule at least one day for baking
and decorating traditional gingerbread and almond cookies with their
children. They even sing the traditional carols - mixed with American
Christmas songs - as they work.
But it seems that no one has time for sitting together to enjoy the
Advent candles. My friend Susanne told me that she actually forgot
Nikolaus this year.
There is an advantage to having rituals that are not part of mainstream
culture - the kids don't really notice when Nikolaus comes late.
"Traditions evolve and change," said Brigitte Lehr, proprietor of the
German specialty store Lehr's in San Francisco. Lehr sees hundreds of
German shoppers during the holiday season - they come for the Christmas
chocolates, the stollen and the Lebkuchen, and also for tree decorations
and the wooden incense burners.
"First-generation German immigrants," she said, "celebrate the
traditional way, on Christmas Eve. But their children will typically get
and decorate the tree ahead of time and then make Christmas Day the main
event." She has noticed that people just don't have time to get things
ready by Christmas Eve. "The children don't mind," Lehr said, "because
they end up with two celebrations."
I asked Lehr what traditions Bay Area Germans do keep. She listed the
Advent wreath, the Lebkuchen and the goose dinner. To my surprise, she
also mentioned real candles on the Christmas tree.
"We always sell out of these candles, the white ones and the red ones,"
Even without these specialties, most Germans feel at home with American
Christmas celebrations. After all, many of their customs, brought over
by immigrants in the 19th century, are an integral part of American
festivities: the lighting of candles and baking of special holiday
cookies during Advent time; the decorated evergreen tree and the wrapped
gifts; the Santa Claus who fills stockings instead of shoes. And, of
course, the carols.
Next time you sing "Oh Christmas Tree," you are acknowledging not just
the Christmas spirit but also the practices of early German settlers and
their pagan ancestors.
The Christmas season is also the time of the winter solstice, after the
long nights start to give way to the return of light. Waldorf schools
keep German holiday traditions because they connect this pagan
celebration of the miracle of rebirth with the Christian celebration of
the birth of Jesus and because their beauty and magic inspire a sense of
gratitude, hope and reverence.
Waldorf schools also celebrate the holiday customs of other cultures and
traditions throughout the year.
Inspired by the thinking of Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf
Steiner, a Waldorf education seeks to cultivate children's imagination
and inspire their creativity by giving them a sense of connection to the
larger whole. The curriculum and school life emphasize nature and its