Looking into German Christmas traditions, it’s a big surprise how many of the well-known icons of English Christmas celebrations have their roots in Germany – the Christmas tree, for example, or the date of the celebrations. Gifts were traditionally brought on St Nicholas Day, the 6th of December, by a Catholic Bishop who died in 343. His day is still celebrated in Germany every year: Children are supposed to clean and polish their shoes to leave them outside, and Saint Nicholas fills them with sweets and little gifts.
It is very likely that this Bishop inspired the idea of Santa Claus – an elderly gentleman with a long beard, dressed in red, carrying gifts to the children. When Martin Luther’s protestants started to move the gift giving to December 24th to avoid the Catholic tradition of celebrating Saints, they also exchanged the figurehead of the event. Baby Jesus took the job, in German known as “Christkind”. Logistical matters like how on Earth a baby in diapers would be able to carry heaps of sweets and presents into millions of living rooms were not discussed. Nothing is known of a sleigh, reindeers or Elvish helpers.
In modern days, like in many other countries, Santa Claus in his German incarnation as “Weihnachtsmann” is the most important person when it comes to Christmas presents. He incorporates ideas from many different traditions: British and Russian, for example, and a strong influence from Finland, the country that claims to be the real home of Santa’s workshop, as opposed to the ridiculous idea that he might work from the North Pole.
In parts of Germany Santa Claus doesn’t come alone, but is accompanied by “Knecht Ruprecht” (in Austria “Krampus”), a mean spirited, angry fellow carrying a rod to punish misbehaving kids. Sometimes this dark figure appears alongside Saint Nicholas, not Santa Claus, but either way it is a questionable tradition meant to instill fear and obedience in kids. From my childhood I remember an instance where Knecht Ruprecht would read out all the bad things a friend of mine had done, shaming the poor kid in public until he was in tears. Irritatingly afterwards this boy got the biggest and most expensive gifts from Santa’s bag, which left me and my friends wondering about the fairness and reliability of Santa’s naughty and nice lists.
In Germany nobody has to wait until Christmas Day to open their packages. “Bescherung”, the traditional gift-giving, happens on Christmas Eve, after dinner and (depending on religious background) church. The latter might also be replaced by a “Mitternachtsmesse”, a midnight service on Christmas Eve.
Waiting for the Christkind or the Weihnachtsmann to visit is tough on German kids. They usually have to wait outside the living room, staring at the locked door, until a little bell tells them to finally come in. During my childhood years, when Germany only had two TV stations, one of them used to dedicate the whole afternoon of Christmas Eve to a program called “Wir warten auf’s Christkind” – “Waiting for Baby Jesus”.
I remember these afternoon shows fondly. They were full of nice movies, songs and entertainment, and they always featured the final episode of the traditional Christmas Series. Every year ZDF, the second German TV channel, would develop a tale for kids over 6 episodes. These stories were iconic and created some of the biggest stars of German television. The grand finale each year helped getting over the waiting time until we were allowed to unpack our gifts.
With the gifts come chocolate, cookies and biscuits – all following a big dinner. For the grown ups, there’s Glühwein and other beverages. Sugared up, full of excitement about new toys, books (and clothes) it is tough to sleep, so Christmas Day usually starts with a lay-in (if parents are lucky). Christmas Day traditionally is used to visit family (and collect more presents), while the second day of Christmas, known to English people as Boxing Day, is still a public holiday with closed shops. Instead of getting rid of boxes and returning unwanted gifts, Germans spend this day at home with their family to recover from the past celebrations.
And yes, we are aware there are also downsides to the idea of Christmas, but let's keep them for another time. Merry Christmas!