Typical German customs during the Christmas season
Roughly 47 million people in Germany are registered members of a Christian church, close to 56% of the population. 5 million are Muslims by religion, and all other faiths make up for less than 1% of the population. So, one can say without hesitation that 95% of the population celebrates Christmas on 24th December – even if it is only for the sake of children! You will probably want to adopt some of the cherished German customs, so here are a few.
Read about the following topics:
- Decoration Season – when you can start shopping and how we decorate
- The “Weihnachtskalender” – advent calendar – a must have for children
- Nikolaus – 06.12. – a German custom with extra gifts
- Christmas Markets – our favorites
- Preparing the festive dinner – typical dinners and when to shop
- Things to do in December – Charity, theatre and the likes
- Julklapp or Wichteln – a lovely and popular christmas game
- The Christmas Tree – when to set up
- Christmas Eve – 24th December – how we go about the big day
- 1.& 2. Weihnachtstag – the 25th & 26th December – family time
- New Year’s Eve – Fireworks etc
Christmas decorations will be in the shops from October. Yes, it is early, and it seems to get even earlier each year. But German’s love decoration and make some of the most iconic displays, even at home. Shops selling decorations include NanuNana, Depot, Butlers. Huge selections are also available at some plant nurseries like Pflanzenkölle or Dehner, and your local stores, as well as DIY construction shops like KWP, Obi, Max Bahr etc.
Even though decorations go on sale early, German people only decorate their houses in December. In the garden, you will see similar decoration as in the US, UK, albeit we don’t usually take it to the extreme. We will have 2-3 light chains for the one or other tree and maybe the entrance door. A lot of people like to put a wreath of whatever material on their front door. Inside the house, we decorate with a garland and four candles. These candles symbolize the four Sundays of the advent – same word in German by the way. The wreath is called a “Weihnachtskranz” and is available for purchase everywhere. Depot, for example, has a great selection. Each Sunday in December, one candle is lit. I am very strict about this and in my home, you will never see four burning candles unless it is the fourth advent. Traditional Christmas plants include the “Weihnachtsstern” and the Amaryllis. They are fantastic gift ideas too if you visit friends during the festive season.
The “Weihnachtskalender” – advent calendar
This is a must if you have children! The shops are full of them and couples also exchange advent calendars. A commercial calendar from any store is sufficient, but over time manufacturers have become a lot more creative. You have advent calendars full of chocolate, beer or perfume. I used to love the simple ones which are fading out in the market. For chocolate lovers Lindt and Niedereggar offer the best quality, from the eyes of a chocolate lover, at least! For a couple of years, I used to “surprise” my partner with a chocolate calendar from Playboy. But that might not be to everyone’s taste 😉!
A lot of moms who love tinkering around, invest time into making a calendar themselves. They make little boxes from paper or sew sock-like bags. There are a lot of sewing sets for sale available on Amazon, and you can buy ready-made “socks” and the like at Nanu Nana and other decoration shops.
The problem with the self-made calendars is that the bags or socks are larger than the daily gifts, so they tend to look a tad empty. Also, remember, once you start it is hard to stop so if you make a fantastic calendar, your kids might be disappointed when you stop! And, believe you me, you will stop! I would not know what to put into my 13-year-old son’s calendar. I would run out of ideas after day 3…
Nikolaus – 06.12.
Nikolaus is a custom not shared by other countries as far as I know. On the evening of 5 December, children place a boot or shoe outside their bedroom doors, hoping that Nikolaus will fill it with presents. In our family, the practice was to put the shoe outside of the house or apartment, where Nicolaus can access it. Shoe fillings include tangerines, an apple, some walnuts or hazelnuts and some chocolate on top. We always used to get a little gift, too, a CD or a set of drawing pencils, a torchlight for kids or the like. Something small up to a max of roughly 10 EUR. It is not Christmas after all.
The most important thing was the cleaning procedure – Nikolaus would not leave any gifts to a dirt shoe…. the children need to tend to their shoes themselves. There is at least some limited educational value to the custom 😉. Moreover, Nikolaus will only leave sweets to well-behaved children. For naughty children, Nikolaus has a helper, Knecht Ruprecht. Instead of presents, Ruprecht puts a bunch of dry branches in bad children’s shoes. Beliefs and traditions about Nikolaus were probably combined with German mythology, particularly regarding stories about the bearded pagan god Odin, who also had a beard and a bag to capture naughty children. Of course, this never happens. Children would not receive any branches! But the fear they might not get treats from Nikolaus leads to some very clean and well-mannered kids!
The background story: Saint Nikolaus was a bishop in Myra (now the Anatolia region of modern Turkey) who lived in the 4th Century, died on this very day, and became famous for his good deeds. He was a Greek Christian bishop known for miracles and giving gifts secretly and is now the patron saint of little children, sailors, merchants, and students. One story tells of how he secretly helped three poor sisters. He didn’t want the sisters to find out that he was helping them, so he climbed onto the roof of their house and dropped three lumps of gold down the chimney. In Germany, the story goes that the three pieces of gold fell into three shoes. Hence the reason why kids in Germany get their presents from Saint Nikolaus in shoes.
Consequently, Nikolaus looks a little different than the “Weihnachtsmann” (Santa Claus). The robe is red like Santa’s, but that is because a bishop robe was red. He is wearing a bishop head as the most visual difference to Santa Claus.
In the UK, the story goes that the three pieces of gold fell into three stockings. That’s why kids in the UK hang out stockings for Santa Claus!
Things to do in December
Cookie baking – if you are remotely into baking it is a must ;) For those not daring to master the art of cookie baking: you can buy prepared baking boxes from Doctor Oetker and others. Vanillekipferl are really nice, regualr butter cookies or anything with cinnamon. However, actually it really doesn’t matter which cookies you do as long as you do them.
Lebkuchen: this is a special gingerbread dough which is pretty strong in consistency and thus is good to build little houses, i.e. the creche. You can buy it at every Christmas marekt or try to bake on your own. Here’s a recipe.
Children will often go to a theatre organized by the school. They go during morning hours. A lot of theatres prepare special Christmas programs, also dedicated to children. Puppet theatre with a figure called “Kasper” is the norm. The theatre’s name, therefore, is often “Kasperletheater.” It is not unlikely that you will find a stage on local Christmas markets, but you can also google for them.
A lot of kindergartens will also prepare a theatre telling the Christmas story. The play will usually be held in the evening so that working parents can attend. If your child is in church, this is also something which the church might organize.
Charity events are another set of events schools often organize. Cookie baking, waffles or self-made Christmas decoration are the products sold for a good cause. You will be expected to give something small, either a self-made cake or bought bags of pretzels or tangerines. Your child or the teacher will tell you. You will be thanked explicitly for if you bring some food from your home country.
A visit to a regional Christmas market is also a custom. You would usually try to combine it with a nice winter walk – well, there is typically no snow, and the weather feels like late November, (umbrella required!)
Businesses are often inviting for year closure dinners, and therefore the working population can get rather busy in the evenings – the same as in most other countries. If you plan for dinner with friends, it is wise to send out the invitation early.
Word Christmas parties occur in December. They are organized by the employer or a local club and dress code differs party to party, so make sure you read the invitation carefully.
They will open at the start of December and will stay open till 24th December. The German expression is “Weihnachtsmarkt” and while there are some really famous markets in Germany like the one in Nuremberg, the local ones are also pretty nice and cozy. Mostly, people go there to have a cup of seasoned hot wine. There are different tastes and you can also get wine without alcohol called “Punsch”, often “Kinderpunsch”. If you want to have more alcohol you ask for “mit Schuß” (with shot) and some liquor, usually, rum will be added. The hot wine is delicious, but after more than two mugs you should consider taking public transport home, especially if you chose “mit Schuß”. You will also find some food stalls at most Christmas market where you can buy typical treats like sugared and burned almonds (delicious, I swear on them), apple lollies and burned chestnuts, as well as donut like little-sugared dough pieces. But you will also find the usual salty stuff like “Bratwurst,” or mushroom pans.
The Christmas markets are also an excellent place to buy homemade Christmas decorations. But beware, a lot of the offered goods might be expensive. Usually, there is one famous market in your area – ask your colleagues for them.
Here is a list of The Red Relocators favorite Christmas markets!
Hamburg: St- Pauli Weihnachtsmarkt – for adults only (joint recommendation), Rathausmarkt with Santa Claus on a flying slide very full hour (Anja’s favorite), Pronstorf – a cute little village in the countryside – (Esther’s tip)
Bremen: Gerhard recommends the Altstadtmarkt, located at Rathausplatz. It’s a nice historical, midieval market with a lot of artwork to buy. There are two in the countryside which he recommends, too. The big one in Oldenburg – one of thebiggest in Germany. And the one in Verden an der Aller – lovely for children and specifically dedicated to them (best ages would be up to 10 years) with storytelling, Santa Claus handing gifts, Kasperletheater
Hannover: Finnisches Dorf and the historical market around Marktkirche, and the one extending to the banks of river Leine next to the History Museum. Both recommendations by Steffi. The Lister Meile market is also nice.
Berlin: Gendarmenmarkt – historical market with a lot of art (Sandra’stip), Schloß Charlottenburg – nice, feudal atmosphere (Steffi’s recommendation), Jagdschloß Grunewald – romantic-slightly scary market with a wonderful atmosphere (Jana’s favorite), Alt-Rixdorf – historical market with live acts (by Jana, too)
Duesseldorf: Hattingen – historical market in the countryside with a nice atmosphere, City Center – with an ice skating arena and the sheer size allows for a really nice stroll, Rheinufer – with a big Ferris Wheel, very romatic, all by Tania
Frankfurt & Rhein Main Area: Darmstadt: Schloss Graben and Rathaus – very kid friendly and more of a family market. Bensheim – tiny and very cosy (Bena’s favorite).
Nuremberg: Christkindl market – famous worldwide
Munich: Münchner Freiheit – an arty, individual, terraced market (Kerstin’s hint),Chinese Tower – very traditional set-up with live band (Sabine’s number 1), Bad Tölz – a nice historical market in the countryside
“Julklapp” is a game often played at smaller Christmas parties. Every attendee pulls a raffle ticket with another participant’s name and has to buy a gift for him/her. The spend limit is set and must be respected by everybody. You wrap your gift nicely, and if you want to have some fun, you wrap it several times, and only the final one has the correct recipient’s name on it. The gifts are then unwrapped by way of a rolling the dice. It is an enjoyable game. We distinguish between “nice” gifts and “rubbish” gifts (“Schrottwichteln”). How Julklapp is played must be defined before buying any gifts. If “rubbish” Julklapp is played you go searching on your attic for some real kitsch or a single old shoe or the like. Again, you wrap it – the fancier the package the more popular your gift will be and it is hilarious how the attendees fight over getting it into their hands and then finally see their faces when unwrapping it. “Schrottwichteln” is even funnier than regular Julklapp.
The Christmas Tree
Buying a Christmas tree is also important to do in December. Customs do differ by family here; some families place it at the beginning of December, most will only bring it in a few days before Christmas and decorate it only on 24th in the morning. This is a big difference to the customs in UK for example where the tree is fully decorated on 1st December with all the gifts underneath which tortures the children 😉. You can buy the tree in unique pop-up stores, or at DIY markets. You can buy all kind of sizes. You will need an individual tree holder to fix it into an upright position in your home. These can be obtained at DIY stores, too.
The gifts are only placed under the tree shortly before the “Bescherung”, that is the German word for receiving all the gifts. How much value you put into the gifts is entirely your own decision (of course). Christmas is minimum as big as the birthday in Germany and children will tell about their hottest gifts in school. A good average value would be between 200 and 400 EUR for well-off families.
The tree gets binned when it dries out, or the latest the 5th or 6th January. The local Stadtwerke responsible for garbage disposal will publish the last day for Christmas tree pick-up. You simply put it to the side of the street. If you want to keep your tree longer you need to dispose of it on your own – which can be rather messy because of all the dry needles.
Preparing the festive dinner
The 24th December is no public holiday, but most employers will expect you to take at least half a day off, and most shops will close around 1 or 2 pm. So you need to be sure you have stocked up before that. Shops are usually extremely crowded, and all the good stuff is gone fast.
Typical dinners are
- A goose or turkey from the oven, or any other big chunk of meat cooked in the oven. Sides are usual red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, potato buns or croquettes. A popular sauce is jam from “Preiselbeeren”, the local equivalent to cranberries. They are a little smaller and a little less sweet. Chutneys in all forms are also good. Especially, if you want to go for a whole bird, it is not a bad idea to reserve one at your local butchers. Otherwise, you might end up with some less good quality from big factories. This is the same, if you want to have a nice rack of lamb
- Another popular dish is Raclette; you will need a unique table grill for this dish. All supermarkets sell the special raclette cheese which nicely melts in the little pans that place under the grill. What else you put into the pans is entirely your choice – we like lettuce, corn, sour cucumber, peppers, pre-cooked mushrooms, diced ham, sweet pies. For those with a more sophisticated approach, you can put pear and gorgonzola and anchovies. The top of the grill allows one to cook some meat or vegetables. As a side, cooked potatoes with sour crème are popular or a fresh salad to lighten the whole thing.
- Fondue is the third popular Christmas dinner. Again, you will need a special Fondue set for the table. Traditionally, the pot is filled with sunflower oil or rapeseed oil. Olive oil is not a good choice because of the heating temperature. Handling the hot oil is not easy. Anything which is put into the cooking oil must be dry – if not, the oil will start to make explosive bubbles and the dinner can become a frightening story. Instead of oil one can also use a broth or whatever you like. The cooking set will come with a set of sticks, and you will put one piece of food at a time on the stick. Typically, chicken, ham or prawns, mushrooms, broccoli or cauliflower. It comes with numerous sauces that you can make yourself or buy – if you buy them a brand is Kühne. You will find curry sauce, garlic sauce, diverse BBQ sauces. Chutneys are also good.
- A lot of families also keep it traditionally simple with a potato salad and cooked sausages (“Kartoffelsalat und Würstchen”). You will take “Wiener Würstchen” for this and any potato salat you like. The sausages come with spiced mustard – the regular one, for example from Kühne (comes in a tube or glass). If you are more the festive person like me, this dish is perfect for a light lunch on Christmas day.
Fish is not so common during the Christmas period, but it has a place on New Year’s day.
Christmas Eve – 24th December
Christmas is celebrated on 24th December, not the 25th. At least the big event is on 24th. When dark, Santa Claus, in Germany this would be the “Weihnachtsmann”, would come to the house and deliver a big sack with the gifts. There are actors you can rent for doing this – which works great for small children as well as adults only.
Many people go to church, and the local church and to avoid the crowds, get there early. There will be several messes. A very traditional one to go to with older children is the “Mitternachtsmesse” – the midnight mass. At Holy mass, you will be expected to give some cash for charity. When I was young my mother always took us to church at around 4:00 pm while my dad placed the Christmas gifts and decorated the tree. When my children where young they were told to take a bath and then suddenly the doorbell rang and it was the “Weihnachtsmann” -my children never got to see him in person 😉. The “Christuskind” or “Christkindl” in the South of Germany is also known as an alternative to the Weihnachtsmann.
The “Bescherung” is the word for the giving of gifts – it’s what the children are always dying for to happen as early as possible. Whether it is done before the dinner, in between courses or after, depends on your nerves and the patience of your children.
Festive music is played the whole evening, usually by a family member. I play some pieces on the piano, younger children play the flute if there is no musician a poem would be cited. I like this tradition, especially if the adults also contribute with a poem. A funny poem can cause great laughter. Some families also sing together. Or somebody reads the Christmas story. A lot of families will simply unwrap their gifts and start playing.
While Christmas is a family event, there are different traditions. The close family, like father, mother, children would celebrate on the 24th, the father’s family i.e. grandparents and uncles, aunts and nieces would celebrate on the 25th and the mother’s family on the 26th. Depending on family size, everybody would come on the 24th. Since we only have one Christmas celebrating family, we spend the 26th with our closest friends.
1. & 2. Weihnachtstag – the 25th & 26th December
The real first bank holiday. Celebrations continue after breakfast. Often, this is a day of great travel because families visit each other. Roads are congested. Although, if further away, you would usually spend the 24th together already and then head back on the 26th. The dinners (or lunches) on both days are equally exhaustive, and you would have the same food as mentioned above.
There will be church messes again.
The days between 26th and 31st December are called “zwischen den Tagen” (in between days) and are typical holidays. Many offices are shut down. Supermarkets are open, but smaller boutique shops are closed, too. Cinemas, sports clubs, etc are usually open, too.
New Year’s Eve
Fireworks can be bought after Christmas. Most supermarkets sell them. The average spent is around 60 to 100 EUR and you can get quite a lot for that money and adults must purchase them. There are not many safety requirements like in other countries, you just buy the stuff and are on your own to protect yourself. Consequently, public events can be quite dangerous if private fireworks are allowed.
Generally, private fireworks can be set off on Sylvester, 31st December, and New Year’s Eve, 1st January – any time. However, there are local restrictions possible, so you better check on your city’s website. This website gives an overview of the landscape in 2018. The red cities have restrictions.
Dinner at Sylvester is similar to Christmas Eve, but on the 1st of January, fish is on the menu. It is generally a “fishy” day, with graved or smoked salmon and Northsea crabs (“Nordseekrabben”) for breakfast – especially in the North of the country. Just like Christmas, Sylvester is not a public holiday, but employers usually let their staff go around 2 pm. Supermarkets also close around that time. The 1st of January is a public holiday, and everything is closed.