An electricity fills the air toward the end of the calendar year and the beginning of the church year. With the season of Advent, four Sundays prior to Christmas, and the approach of the holiday season there is an atmosphere of anticipation and a hustle and bustle as preparations begin for the numerous festive occasions at this time of the year.
Of all the German holidays Christmas is the most cherished and remembered. Special family customs and traditions are still maintained by local Germans, for this is truly the most beautiful season of all. Within the intimate circle of family and close friends there is an atmosphere of serenity and a bond of love; for the German, Christmas is primarily a family affair, he doesn’t celebrate with the usual open house and large party activities of the American. To many, this was the greatest “cultural shock” in adjusting to the new home.
The season begins with Advent, those four weeks, which herald the birth of Christ, and the preparation of the wreath. Many families still prefer to make their own, some use ready-made wreaths, others use the wooden base and attach green branches. The wreath is made of fir branches and is interlaced with red ribbons. It holds four candles and is usually placed on the coffee table in the living room. Then, on the first Sunday of Advent the fist candle is lit with family members and occasional invited friends participating. The afternoon coffee table is set in a more festive manner for this special celebration. A brief lighting ceremony takes place first, so that coffee, tea and baked goods can be enjoyed in the glow of this first candle. Selections from the Bible are read and verses or poems are spoken or read.
Singing and music are important elements in celebrating all aspects of the German Christmas. In most households family members perform on piano, violin, horn, accordion or guitar. Similar ceremonies follow during the next weeks until all four candles are lit. The big moment is approaching quickly, anticipation mounts and points the way to the many lights of the Christmas tree, which are to appear in a few more days.
This season is an especially festive one for the children who are excited about the preparations and surprises. The Advent calendar, depicting a myriad of religious and secular pictures, bring shrieks of joy each day when a new window is opened. There are 24 windows in all leading to Christmas Eve. There are also more elaborate calendars today, which offer a piece of chocolate candy behind each opening. Such enticement makes it doubly difficult to avoid peeking and opening future windows too soon!
Another special day for the children early in the Advent season is Saint Nicholas Day on December 6. This day commemorates Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Asia Minor, about whom many miracles are reported. He is known as the patron saint of mariners and of students. In modern practice the Nicholas visit is a real beginning of the Christmas celebration. Children put their shoes at the end of the bed, on a bench or outside the bedroom door or hand a long stocking in anticipation of lots of goodies. In a local kindergarten class the Children also put out shoes in hopes that Nicholas will find their room. The good children receive nuts, candy and fruit; the naughty receive a stick or switches. This custom parallels our hanging a stocking on Christmas Eve so Santa Claus will fill it with special goodies. In some regions of Germany St. Nicholas is accompanied by “Knecht Ruprecht” (servant Ruprecht) who admonishes the children who have not behaved. Since it is St. Nicholas who brings small gifts for children early in the season, many Germans refer to the bearer of gifts on Christmas Eve as to the Christ Child, others refer to the “Weihnachtsmann” or Santa Claus.
Another event of excitement and pleasure for grownups and children alike is the Christmas fair. Everyone is mobilized for a family visit to the fair where bright and shining rows of stalls and booths are set against the picturesque market or cathedral square. The most famous of these fairs is the Christkindlesmarkt in Nurenberg. Here are found stalls with a thousand and one glittering ornaments for the tree; other stalls offer finely-carved crèche figures and a beautiful Nurenberg angel used to adorn the crown of the tree.
Most fascinating are the toy stalls, which display music boxes, nutcrackes, beautiful pyramids and doll housed. Such an outing truly affords fun and excitement for the entire family and inspires the making of natural decorations for the house and the tree. In later years it brings back memories of that special event on a cold, snowy December day.
Finally the long awaited day arrives – Christmas Eve. Shops and offices close at noon in Germany and everyone completes preparations for the family celebration and the official two day holiday on December 25. and 26. The Germans whose roots have been transplanted also continue their customs on the holiest of eves.
Depending on the time of church services families attend together at 6:00 p.m. or later at candlelight services or midnight mass to express their joy at this season and hear again the familiar Christmas message.
A light supper is usually eaten before or after the tree trimming and at this time and gift exchanges activities are begun. A variety of Wurst (sausages) are popular at this time and are served occasionally with mashed potatoes but more frequently with potato salad. Herring salad recipes vary; however, this dish is a must on Christmas Eve. Some salads are prepared with sour cream, others contain beets or pickles. “Karpfen in Blau” (carp in blue) is another delicacy served in some homes, scallops or cheese fondue in others. “Gluehwein”(spiced warm wine) or wine are popular beverages with a festive flavor. Finally the numerous cookies that have been baked for weeks and stored for this special holiday are brought out and served. Everyone has his favorite kind from the assortment which include: Springerle, Lebkuchen, Spritz, Zimtsterne, and many others. Every housewife has her favorite cookie recipes and some also have a special recipe for the Christmas Bread or ‘Weihnachtsstollen”. These recipes vary as to region as well as to family secrets.
The “Bunter Teller’, (plate of colorful mixed goodies), is another custom still practiced in some families. Each family member receives a plate filled with colorful cookies, nuts, candies, fruit and other special delights.
Finally, and in many homes not until the evening, is the live tree brought into to the house. Some decorate together as a family, others permit the children to see the trees only after the ringing of the bell is heard announcing the departure of the ‘Christkind’ who has delivered the gifts. Until that time preparations are done in secret and the anticipation of surprise and joy continues to mount. For young and old alike there is a moment of surprise when the lights are all turned off and the doors are thrown open to reveal the beautifully decorated tree in all its lighted splendors! It is then that the intimate family unit enjoys the wondrous magic of Christmas with the fragrance of a pine or fir tree wafting through the room and the dancing shadows of real wax candles casting a warm glow across radiant faces. The love and togetherness of this evening is truly a magical and unforgettable experience. Before the gifts are exchanged and opened, the group joins in the singing of carols and many accompany the singing on various musical instruments. There is the reading of the Christmas Story from the Bible and children have to present a poem, which they have been memorizing for weeks. The gifts are then distributed and the final moment of anticipation and surprise has arrived. Amid shouts of laughter, the rustle of wrapping paper, cracking of nuts, the ringing of the church bells and the singing of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ this sacred evening slips away to memories.
Christmas day is also a festive but more quiet one and is spent visiting or entertaining relatives and friends. Some families, however, do leave the gift exchange until the morning and celebrate with a special breakfast afterwards.
In this way they solve the dilemma of ‘Christkind’ versus Santa Claus. The ;Christkind’ brings the tree and the story is read in its honor. The primarily homemade gifts are laid under the tree and to be opened the next morning along with the stockings which Santa Claus filled that night. Thus both the German and the American customs are interwoven and enjoyed.
In most homes the dinner consists of goose or turkey with other favorite dishes to complement the meat. It is the one time of the year when eating and drinking seem to continue forever, for there are a wealth and abundance of culinary delights.
Christmas is a celebration for everyone and brings the message of ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men’. It is a special season of reaching out to one another, for its traditions and customs literally bring families and friends together from all over the world. Whenever and wherever possible relatives and loved ones will travel great distances to spend ‘Heilig Abend’ (Holy Eve) together once again.