For Germans, the most important Christmas traditions are reserved for Christmas Eve. On this most magical of evenings, German families come together and celebrate with song, food and gift giving.
How do Germans prepare?
The weeks leading up to Christmas Eve are steeped in advent traditions. Candles are lit on an advent wreath on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. The lighting of the candle is an important affair and is accompanied by carol singing. Advent calendars containing 24 little windows are given to children and as each day passes children open a window to reveal a chocolate or festive picture. .These festive advent traditions help to steadily build excitement throughout December. You can read more about German advent traditions here; https://www.deutschcentre.com/single-post/2016/12/03/Advent-Traditions-in-Germany
Many of the gifts given and rich foods consumed on Christmas Eve and Christmas day are bought from the German Christmas markets, weihnachtsmarkt, which families visit during advent. Marzipan sweets, gluhwein, stollen and Lebkuchen are just some of the delicious treats Germans stock up on ready for the big day.
Heiligabend – Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve isn't a public holiday across Germany however most businesses are only open for half a day. With the shops open for a few hours in the morning, people are given a last opportunity to grab extra gifts or forgotten recipe ingredients. It also contributes to the festive cheer as Germans wish each other 'Fröhliche Weihnachten ' (Merry Christmas) as they pass each other in the street.
Once the shutters are down in the stores, the festivities really begin.
Unlike in the UK where Christmas trees sometimes go up as early as the end of November, in Germany, the erecting of the tree is saved for Christmas Eve. Most families decorate their tree on Christmas Eve afternoon. It isn't uncommon for the tree to be chopped down from a forest by the family which is a romantic tradition that persists across Germany. The candle-like lights are not switched on until later in the day when they create a magical atmosphere to mark the arrival of Santa Claus.
Many families attend a Christmas Eve church service. Children's services often feature a reenactment of the nativity scene and are a little shorter than usual Christmas Eve services. Whilst the children are out of the home it falls on one adult to ensure that the gifts are in place and the house looks suitably festive.
Who brings the gifts?
Depending on the region the gifts are either laid out under the tree or they are delivered by someone rather special. Weihnachtsmann, Santa Claus, or the Christ Child visits the house with a sack filled to the brim with presents. He asks the children to perform a song or poem before asking them if they have been well-behaved all year. Quite understandably, the visitor brings with him oodles of Christmas excitement.
In other families, Santa Claus delivers the gifts but prefers to remain unseen. Prior to his arrival children are ushered to their bedrooms and can only return when they hear the ringing of a small bell. The sound denotes that Santa Claus has left and that it is time to see what he has brought. No matter which tradition is followed one thing that is the same is that the giving and opening of gifts takes place on Christmas Eve.
There is an increasing trend for gifts to be handmade or bespoke in a backlash against the commercialization of the holiday. Over the years the quantity and value of the presents given have increased dramatically. The move away from this and a return to a focus on what Germans believe to be the true meaning of Christmas has gained momentum recently.
Once the hubbub has calmed down, the family comes together to share a meal together. In most German homes the food on offer is simple such as sausage and potatoes with the large Christmas dinner reserved for the following day.
Christmas Eve in Germany is all about sharing. The extraordinary day sees people share food, presents, time, love and laughter with each other. It is an annual holiday quite unlike any other.
Ein frohes Weihnachtsfest und alles Gute zum neuen Jahr!