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German Christmas

History, Traditions and Food

by Diana Viola


The German celebration of the Christmas season is the foundation for many of our own traditions, but the Germans have a more extended season offering more occasions for celebration.

Let's start with the most critical question of all - is there really a Santa Claus? Well, Virginia, let's discuss Sankt Nikolaus...

Santa in all his incarnations

The man we call St. Nick and consider to be a 'right jolly old elf,' was, in fact, Sankt Nikolaus, the Bishop of Myra whose piety, not jollity, guided him to give everything he owned to the poor. The good bishop had a long gray beard and a flowing cape, not quite a fur-trimmed red suit. It was his figure that inspired the Bavarian born American illustrator, Thomas Nast, who created Santa as we know him today for Harper's Weekly in 1862. (Nast is also responsible for giving us the animal figures of the Democrats and the Republicans.) It would not be until the advertisers handling Coca-Cola took over the image of Santa, however, that he would become the relentlessly cheerful soul we recognize today.

Touring the countryside, Sankt Nikolaus visited children everywhere, questioning them about their behavior. He was not accompanied by smiling, toy-making elves, but by the unpleasant Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, a ragged, sinister, dark figure, the very alter ego of good old Nick. Krampus carried a sack full of switches for the less well-behaved children, and struck terror in any child who thought he or she had misbehaved. On Dec. 5th, the eve of the visit, children put out a shoe or boot, a sturdy precursor to our stockings hung by the chimney. If they were good children, they were rewarded with toys and sweets, if not, the notorious lumps of coal were put in the shoe.

The name Kris Kringle is an adaptation of the German word Chriskindl or Christ Child who is the giver of gifts. The name Santa Claus is more than likely an adaptation of the Dutch Sinterklass (St. Nicholas) which came with Dutch immigrants to Pennsylvania where the Dutch and Germans settled together.

In words and story, Santa became the latter-day fellow we all know and love as the invention of Washington Irving who considered Santa to be a pipe-smoking Dutchman, and imagined him soaring over trees in a wagon drawn by air-born horses. This incarnation was reinforced in 1822 by the famous "The Night Before Christmas." Clement Moore added the shaking belly and turned him the portly figure into an elf. It was Moore, too, who questioned the ability of horses to fly, but knew such feat might be accomplished by reindeer. This Santa is a long way from the more somber Sankte Nikolaus though the lineage is evident

Advent in Germany

The season begins with the first Sunday of Advent and the placing of the Advent wreath. One red candle is placed in the wreath on each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas, usually accompanied by singing. Though Advent was established about the year 480 A. D. as a period of penance and fasting, it has lost that aspect. The Advent Calendar originally held a door to be opened each of the 24 days before Christmas. Behind the door were pictures of various Christmas scenes or symbols, but today it usually contains chocolates and candies. Christkendelsmarkt or Christmas markets are common throughout Germany, the most famous being in Nuremberg. Originally these were fairs selling the wares of craftspeople and artisans, today you can buy presents and foodstuffs, and have a drink of mulled wine.

The German Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is a gift from the German countries, the famous tannenbaum of song. Originally, the wreath was the only decoration until Christmas Eve. On the night before Christmas, the German mother would trim the tree, using lighted candles. When the tree was ready, she signaled her family by ringing a bell. Though wax candles were the tradition, hand-blown glass ornaments, many of great elaboration, first appeared in Germany. The family gathered around the tree to exchanges presents, then continued on to Mass. Although we do not know with certainty, the tree may have evolved from the Paradise play, a medieval mystery play which represented Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise. Eden was represented as a large tree decorated with apples set in a circle of lighted candles.

Epiphany in Germany

The twelve days of Christmas, those days that bring maids a-milking and lords a-leaping, extend from December 25 through January 6, or the Three Kings Day (Drei Ksnig Tag). This day, often called Little Christmas, was traditionally a revered holiday in Germany and Austria. On the eve of the Epiphany doorways would be inscribed in chalk with the letters C-M-B. This either represents Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, though the church interpretation says that it stands for the Latin Christus Mansionem Benedictat or 'Christ bless this home.' There are still areas of Bavaria and Austria where children go from house to house singing carols and collecting alms as a gift turned over to charities that work with the poor.

German Christmas Food

Goose is the traditional German Christmas dish. Frequently it is stuffed with a mixture of apples and prunes. We've given a recipe for a wild rice stuffing, but if you want, you can peel and core apples, using them in equal proportion to soaked prunes. Allow one cup per pound of goose. A buffet table would also be spread with a selection of the many German wursts. And, of course, there is the wonderful invention that is called stollen, as well as many other German baked goods. Christmas is baking time the world around.



German Christmas recipes



Diana Viola is a writer and the editor of In Mamas Kitchen. Click to meet her on the about us page.


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