Bells are ringing, choirs are singing – it is definitely the most wonderful time of the year. There are, however, subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Christmas traditions all over the world and, of course, Christmas in Germany is also a bit different to what you might be used to… Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun, right?
Enjoy the silence
The most remarkable difference between the Christmas you are used to and German Christmas is the silence. Particularly in English speaking countries, Christmas tends to be very cheerful, bright and loud. In comparison German Christmas seems… quiet AND boring. Well, that does sound like a German thing to me, you might think! But before passing hasty judgements, let me try to explain what the silence is all about.
According to legend, sometime in the early 19th century in a little Austrian village, the church organ stopped working during the Christmas Eve mass. The priest had just composed a new carol and came up with the idea of performing it with just a guitar instead of the mighty organ. This performance with just the voices and the guitar touched people’s hearts in such a way that it went on to become one of the world’s most popular Christmas carol: “Silent night”. This story and the carol itself tells you a lot about the German Christmas feeling: it is a tranquil anticipation, a holding still while waiting for something to happen.
If you’re religious that something is, of course, the birth of Jesus. His birth happened, after all, in the middle of a winter night – the darkest, most gloomy hour imaginable when, all of a sudden, there was a light. A tiny light, of course, but the beginning of something big. As I have previously written, Christian holidays usually have a pagan background, which is in this case related to the hope and confidence that spring will come one day. This is the anticipation we all feel around the darkest days of the whole year.
If you’re not religious that something is probably Christmas itself… spending time with your loved ones, eating, drinking and being merry, all related to universal expectations of hope, peace, joy and love; which exist independently of religion, so everyone is able to feel them. So, next time you feel irritated at the Christmas silence over here, imagine it to be filled with warm and happy thoughts: thoughts of family, friends, warm gingerbread cookies, hot chocolate and a better world to come.
Health and safety around the Christmas tree
If you’re from an English-speaking country, chances are you might have noticed that health and safety regulations are not quite as strict here as where you’re from (contradicting the stereotype that Germans are tight-assed and love rules). On New Year’s Eve, it is pretty much up to peoples’ common sense not to blow each other up with fireworks which might take some getting used to if you come from a different country with more regulations. It´s OK to find it strange. Truth be told, accidents do happen.
Christmas presents another fire hazard for the faint hearted: the Christmas tree. As proud symbol of the season, it is an important part in German Christmas traditions and is almost always real…. like an actual tree. That wouldn’t be too bad if the Germans wouldn’t decide to decorate it with candles. Not any candles, but real candles! Now you’re thinking: “Oh dear God, that thing’s been sitting there since early December, it is so dry it’s going to go up in a blaze!” But fear not, the Germans intuitively counteract the danger by putting up the Christmas tree no earlier than the 23rd of December.
“What a shame,” you might be thinking but, again, fear not, because the tree is allowed to stay until the 6th of January. That is if it doesn’t burn down. Fire brigades do seem quite busy on Christmas Eve! But believe me, there is nothing cozier than to snuggle up beneath a candle-lit Christmas tree that I personally wouldn’t change a thing. That smell of smoking fir needles… wonderful!
Who’s that guy?
Father Christmas or Santa Claus is someone you don’t have to do without whilst celebrating in Germany, however in Munich he might be a less prominent. That is because in southern Germany, and through the alpine regions, the presents are delivered by the “Christkind” (Christ child), i.e. Baby Jesus. Because a baby isn’t quite as convincing as the man with the beard, children in Munich never actually notice the presents being delivered, they just leave the room for a moment and, when they come back, the presents are there whilst their parents tell them round-eyed: “Oh dear, you just missed it!”.
In the rest of the country, we don’t have the Christ child. When I was young, Father Christmas came to my house and delivered my presents personally. I remember standing there in front of him with wobbly knees reciting a Christmas poem (gotta work for your presents a bit) until it hit me that I had been fooled all those years when I was about seven years old. ‘Cause, you know, he looked different that year, not small and stout but tall and lean and I could see the beard was fake and there was an actual person behind it who looked vaguely familiar. Sadly, my regular Santa (my Grandparents’ neighbor) had passed away that year and the new Santa just didn’t look the same.
“What about the “Nikolaus” guy?”, you may ask, “with those scary looking sidekicks who roam Munich’s Christmas markets?” Good question! “Nikolaus” in German- is the original Father Christmas or at least his role model. He is a saint who used to be the bishop of Myra in Turkey during his earthly days and his saint day in on the 6th of December. Over the centuries he took over a prominent role in Christmas tradition by delivering presents and handing out goodies to children. Over time he became Father Christmas and the “Claus” of Santa Claus is derived from his name. Nicolas or “Nikolaus” is the “old” Saint Nicolas while Father Christmas (as you and we know him) is the “new” Saint Nicholas. Therefore, they are two personas +– Nikolaus and Father Christmas – who are really two versions of the same person. While Nicolas is quite lean and often wears a bishop’s ornate, Father Christmas is rather jolly and round in a red and white outfit. He is quite clearly the “good guy” of Christmas (and also the closest one to the American Santa Claus).
But the good guy needs his evil counterpart and that is when Saint Nick’s sidekicks come in. The “Krampus” you might have ran away from on Munich Christmas markets are again the southern, mostly alpine, version of said counterpart. They tend to wear wooden masks with devil-like features. In the rest of the country we have“Knecht Ruprecht” who is Nicolas’ alter-ego — same but different — who looks like Hagrid from “Harry Potter”. He appears on the 6th of December when Nicolas delivers presents, following him like a shadow ready to give the children who have the audacity to have been naughty some lashes with his birch rod. Again, compared to some coal in your stocking, you might find this exceptionally harsh and gruesome and, again, you might be right. However, rest assured (for the sake of your children who might be growing up here), I as a child never once actually thought I might be subjected to that kind of punishment – and not because I was never naughty!
Germans are not quite uniform in what they like to eat for Christmas. Whilst the choice of “Glühwein” (mulled or spiced wine), biscuits and cake featuring cinnamon, ginger, clove and nutmeg, walnuts and mandarines, is quite universal, the actual meal on the day of the festivities is up to debate. The most common choices are: Würste with potato salad (say what??) and goose with red cabbage, potatoes and gravy (that sounds better!). Crazy Germans, once again, you might say, and you’re probably right. The Würste and potato salad one goes back to the idea to have a simple, humble meal amidst all the gluttony of the festive days. Families who opt for the meager meal on Christmas Eve often have a more opulent meal on Christmas Day, bless them.
According to my personal research, families who go for the bird (like my own) have some roots in pre-World-War-II-German-territories which are now parts of various eastern European countries. As we have discussed before, it is not easy to culturally divide Europe up by national borders. In any event, goose or Würste is your choice with a small minority going for carp, ham or other things. As far as I know turkeys are not common.
Let’s end on a personal note. After I’ve done so much explaining, I need some explaining myself: what is it with non-Germans and “Stollen” (Christmas fruit-bread)? Whilst according to personal research it enjoys moderate popularity amongst nationals (and I can see why…), non-nationals seem to be crazy about it. Seriously, it’s not that good, but still it seems to hit a nerve – a bit like cuckoo clocks and sauerkraut. Feel free to leave a comment because I’d really like to know. 😉
Karina worked as TV producer before being cursed with two kids. In her previous life, she was used to writing. She’s been in Munich for ten years now but still doesn’t understand the menu and probably never will. As a German herself, with close ties to the expat community, she provides LMBB with a different angle on life in Munich.
Photo credits: Feature image by freestocks.org on Unsplash, Natitivty scene by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash, Christmas tree photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash, Santa Claus image by rawpixel.com on Unsplash, beer picture by Couleur on Pixabay and bread photo by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash