Saturday, October 6, 2012

German Christmas History and Traditions

It's undeniable that Christmas in Germany is a big deal. For the entire month of Advent-which begins each year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas--virtually every city, town and village in Germany will mark the season with at least one Christmas market. These are festive events and the largest and best-known ones such as those in Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Munich and Dresden attract two million or more visitors a year.

The German word for Christmas is Weihnachten, which means holy night. Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, is a jolly figure known as the Weihnachtsmann and a Christmas market is a Weihnachtsmarkt, at least in Northern Germany. Dresden's Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is generally considered to be the country's oldest.

In Southern Germany, however, a Christmas market is frequently called a Christkindlmarkt or a Christkindlesmarkt. Since Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Martin Luther introduced the idea of the Christkindl as a bearer of presents-and also to draw focus away from the catholic St. Nikolaus. In many towns a young woman dressed as an angel with golden hair takes on the role of Christkindl. She officially opens the Christmas market and makes frequent visits thereafter. (As a side note, the term Christkindl at some point became Kris Kringle in English.)

St. Nikolaus, meanwhile, is still around and has his own holiday. On the evening of December 5, many German children place a boot outside the door in the hopes that by morning it will be filled with presents and treats. (Naughty children will find a birch rod instead.) St. Nikolaus is rather a dignified figure, who always wears his bishop's mitre.

Luther is also credited with originating the custom of placing lighted candles on the boughs of Christmas trees. And Christmas trees themselves were known in Germany as early as 700 AD. Their somewhat triangular shape suggested the Trinity and evergreens have always been perceived as a symbol of immortality.

It's well known that Queen Victoria's German consort, Prince Albert, was responsible for introducing the Christmas tree into England. As far as America is concerned, although one might assume that the many German immigrants who came here in the nineteenth century imported the custom with them, there's a good case to be made that the Hessian soldiers who fought for the British during the American Revolution--a number of whom stayed--were the first.

In Germany, Christmas trees are decorated only on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Many families open their presents then as well rather than waiting until Christmas morning.

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