My friend Rachel, who writes for the fabulous website mamamoderne.com, recently asked me to name 10 Top Holiday Traditions here in Germany. Though it took me forever to formulate an answer, I finally found the time, and I thought I'd share these traditions with you.
Christmas in Germany - Top Ten Terrific (or Terrifying) Traditions
Christmas in Germany is officially celebrated for three days - December 24-26. Inofficially, it's celebrated throughout the month of December, and that's done via the candles on (mostly) self-made "advent wreaths", baking, the singing of Christmas songs, visits to various Christmas markets, and - in Kindergartens, schools, and churches - role playing of the manger scene for children of all ages.
They can be terrific, or terrifying, depending on your take on it, but Christmas in Germany can be characterized by:
1) "Plaetzchen backen", or baking cookies - Mine never look like the traditional German "Hausfrau's", but they are just as yummy. From Lebkuchen (a gingerbread like cake-cookie originally made by the Egyptians, modified by the monks, and perfected by the Nurembergers) to Vanilla Kipferl (little horns dusted with vanilla sugar) and dozens of other scrumptuous treats (see http://www.weihnachtsplaetzchen.de/index.php?&lang=en), I'm not sure there's anything more Germanic than baking with - and for - friends and family in the month of December.
2) Christmas markets and Glühwein, or spiced wine - Christmas in Germany wouldn't be the same without the Christmas markets and the soul-warming glühwein - or spiced wine. Nearly every town and city hosts a market, and while some are just for a day or a weekend, others go on for weeks and attract people from around the world. I find the most magical are those which boast the presence of the "Christkind" or Christchild -- which brings us to our next tradition...
3) The "Christkind", Or "Christ child"- Don't ask me why, but the Christkind (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christkind) does not even remotely resemble baby Jesus. It's actually a SHE, with long curly angel-like blonde locks, a white gown, and a golden crown. In most regions, her time is divided up between various Christmas markets (in reality, most major markets have their own Christkind, chosen annually from hundreds of applicants), Christmas tree decorating (usually performed by the mother -- this is a slick technique developed by German hausfrauen years ago which allows them to fully control how and when the tree is decorated without little medling hands), and the delivery of gifts (paired with the decorating of the tree - usually while Papa or some other designated adult takes the children out of the house for a couple hours). If you're a foreigner living in Germany and you're dead-set on passing down your holiday traditions, it's unlikely that Santa Claus will be "coming to town" for long.
4) The Adventskranz, or Advent Wreath - Growing up in America, we had different colors on our wreath. But here in Germany, the candles tend to be one color, with the wreaths being traditionally self-made - from evergreen that is either collected from the forest or purchased from a florist or streeet-side stand. This year ours is simple - a silver platter with four white candles on it, but I think it's just as lovely. Every week, starting with the last Sunday in November, a new candle is lit, until finally - on the last Sunday before Christmas - the last candle has its chance to shine.
5) The "Tannenbaum", or Christmas tree - Usually purchased a few days to a week before Christmas, the tree is decorated by the mother, who then claims that the Christkind was there in her childrens' absence. Though some people still prefer traditional candles on the tree, many people have a sting of lights made to look like candles. Christmas trees in Germany are very expensive and tend to be less full than their American counterparts. As mentioned before, the Christkind places gift under the tree at the time of decoration - usually sometime in the course of "Heilig Abend" or Christmas Eve - on December 24th.
6) Heilig Abend, or Christmas Eve dinner with family - The favorite Christmas Eve meal is goose, though some families will do Karpfen, or carp (a freshwater delicacy in many parts of Germany and relative to the catfish)
7) Midnight mass or "Kindergottesdienst" (Children's mass) - The majority of Germans are either Catholic or Protestant and - though many choose not to attend mass throughout the year - Christmas services are highly attended and a big part of Christmas Eve festivities.
8) Manger scenes and Jesus-and-Mary reenactments - In the homes, churches, kindergartens, and schools children make manger scenes and role-play in various reenactments of the birth of Jesus (barring large cities, there is no real separation of church and state here). My son is four, and within a month he has learned various religious songs in German - some of which he has dutifully passed along to Mama.
9) "Familie Spaziergang", or family walk - preferrably in the snow - or sledding - Germans love to be outdoors. While people in America might sit down on the sofa and watch a Christmas movie, many Germans head outdoors to walk in the snow or - weather permitting - go sledding.
10) Time off of work, and - more importantly - time spent with Family - Most people take anywhere from one to two weeks off of work around the Christmas holiday. This means lots of time spent together as a family -- eating roasts and home-cooked meals, playing games, building houses to help the winter-hard birds, going on long walks and sledding, and watching Christmas movies.
Amidst all of these wonderful traditions, there is one thing I really miss at Christmas-time here in Germany. That infectious holiday spirit so obvious throughout the U.S., where people can't help but wish eachother a happy holiday, Merry Christmas, or happy Hanukah... is nearly nonexistant here. Passing neighbors, I grin nervously on the snowpacked streets, waiting anxiously to hear a Christmas greeting before offering mine. It never comes. Should I offer it first, should I keep it to myself? Does it mean more if we use it more sparingly? Should we expect to hear it from store personnel? Do they really mean it when they say it hundreds of time per day? I don't pretend to have the answers, but - in a way - it does seem a little bit less like Christmas in the absence of well-wishing Americans with their infectious holiday grins and bottomless holiday salutations. And on that note, on this last day of Christmas here in Germany, I'll close by wishing you, and yours, a Frohe Weihnachten and very Merry Christmas!