December 24th-December 26th: Christmas Eve (Heiligabend) is typically a very quiet time in Germany. If you listen, very carefully, in the stillness you will hear the animals speaking. Other legends hold that the rivers turn into wine, mountains open to reveal precious gems and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea.
For those who aren’t the pure of heart enough to witness these miracles, Christmas Eve is still a very “holy evening” in most German households. Germans, like most Europeans, observe a two-day holiday for Christmas (erster und zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag) and find it quite deplorable that Americans have to go back to work immediately after the festivities on December 25th. Christmas, in Germany, really begins during the afternoon on December 24th. They have an evening meal that is simple and very traditional-usually Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) and Wuerstchen (sausages).
Some say the tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve, rather than St. Nicholas Day, was started by the reformer Martin Luther in the 16th century to honor Christ rather than a Catholic Saint. Children open their gifts on Christmas Eve, which have been brought by the Christ Child (Christkind) while they are at church. Traditionally, families do not put up their tree until Christmas Eve and then it is unveiled as a surprise for the children (although that is changing somewhat.) This is because the tree holds a mysterious magic and therefore, the children aren’t supposed to see it before Christmas Eve, when it is usually decorated by Mom while Dad keeps the children busy elsewhere.
The “first” Christmas day is the big day for most German families. Parents, Grandparents and children all get together for church if they haven’t gone on Christmas Eve and then share an enormous meal which typically features a roast goose that might be accompanied by traditional German side dishes like apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage and potato dumplings.
Christstollen is another very traditional food. It is a bread-like fruit cake made with yeast, water and flour and can be stuffed with dried fruits, raisins, almonds, nuts and/or marzipan. As a Christmas pastry, Stollen was probably baked for the first time in the earlier 1400’s in Saxony and made only from flour, yeast, oil and water. The shape of the cake was originally meant to represent baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. Since bakers weren’t allowed to use butter during the Advent fast, the cake was rather tasteless and hard.
Oil was allegedly expensive and hard to find in Saxony so the Prince Elector began petitioning the Pope for the right to use butter without paying a fine to the church. Six Popes and 40 years later, permission was finally granted-but only for the royal family! Once Saxony became Protestant, the ban quickly disappeared and traditional Stollen has changed over the years to a sweeter bread. The most authentic “official” Stollen comes from the city of Dresden and only 150 bakers have the right to make it.
All that feasting is followed by the “second” Christmas, which is more low-key as people relax or go on family outings before starting work again. Germany is changing, though, and it’s becoming more common for people to travel to various family members’ homes on both days which means children, in reality, get presents all week long. Meals are typically not as elaborate on December 26th, which is St. Stephan’s Day in the church calendar.
Keep in mind that Germany has so many different Christmas traditions that continue, in spite of television and the internet. Many of them are specific to a very small area, maybe only one or two villages. The most enjoyable way to learn about them is by asking the older residents in your neighborhood (village).
Bild von Chris Spencer-Payne auf Pixabay
Bild von kalhh auf Pixabay