What have I justsaid?
I said, "Merry Christmas" in German!
Afterlistening to me read the previous documentaries, my daughter Dawn asked me howmany of my childhood Christmas experiences were descended from Germantraditions. I told her I thought mostof it was made up from groups of people living in the Pierron area. How wrong I was! German Christmascustoms have had an important influence on those celebrated here in America,since the 1840’s. Over the centuries,Americans have adopted many German Christmas traditions. This may be due to theGerman heritage of many Americans and the fact that their customs are far olderthan ours. After doing someresearch, I dare to say; almost all of my childhood Christmas experiences deriveddirectly from German customs and practices. The following German customs are nearly identical to those childhoodexperiences.
On the firstSunday after November 26th, German children receive the Advent calendar fromtheir parents. The calendar has brightlittle pictures with numbers on each of them: one, two, three, and so on up to24. Wherever the numbers are, there aresmall paper windows. Children hang thecalendars alongside their beds and open a "window" each morning. Chocolate figures can be found inside. Children can count the day towards Christmaswhen having their little treats. Whenall the windows are opened, then it will be Christmas Day!
Formthe beginning of Advent until Christmas, booths and stalls are set up on themarket places in all German cities. People can buy everything they need forChristmas, such as a Christmas tree, decorations for the tree, candles, cribfigures, gingerbread, and presents for Christmas Eve. The most famous Christmasmarket is the one in Nuremberg, which has a history of more than 400 years andis attended by people from many countries. People usually have hot "Rotwein" (red wine) and"Wurst" (sausage) when they are in the Christmas market. Duringthe Advent season, Germans often set-aside special evenings for baking spicedcakes and cookies.
When Christianity enteredGermany, St. Nicholas, a 4th Century bishop of Asia Minor, became popular. He was known for his miracles and generosityand became a saint to children. The feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated onDecember 6. It is said that St.Nicholas rode a white horse and carried gifts to all the good little childrenon the eve of his feast day. He traveled with a dark- faced companion who wasmost commonly called “Knecht Reprecht”.
Afterthe Reformation (15th Century), the authorities did not feel likethe idea of having a character representing the bishop or saint distributinggifts. As a result, the figure SantaClaus, who had a long white beard, always in red suit and sleigh, was born toreplace the position of St. Nicholas.
OnSankt Nikolaus Day, a man dressed like a Bishop reads from his book of good andbad deeds, and gives the good children candies. In Berchtesgaden, severalhenchmen, known as Krampus, accompany him. They are there to take care of the bad children by beating them withswitches. They wear large furrycostumes, with cowbells to warn of their arrival. All across the country, children set out their shoes that night,and parents put candies and trinkets in them for the next morning.
It haslong been thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir treeinto the home. One Christmas Eve he brought in an evergreen tree to hisdaughters’ nursery for her to enjoy since the weather was too bad for her to gooutside. He decorated the tree withcandles.
During the 1500’s Germanpeople decorated trees in their homes on December 24. These early trees were decorated with homemade paper objects andlots of food to eat. Often freshapples, cookies and candies were hung on the tree. Special small candles were attached to the branches. Beautiful glass ornaments were made inGermany and helped decorate the trees. When the Germans settled in America they brought the Christmas treetradition with them. In 1856, PresidentFranklin Pierce set up the first White House Christmas tree. Since then people in the United States havebrought trees into their homes at Christmas time. Even today, InGermany, they still put candles on their trees to light them instead of usingelectric lights.
When the long awaitedChristmas Eve Day arrives, shops and offices close at noon. Everyone completes preparations for thefamily celebration and the official two-day holiday on December 25 and 26.
A light supper is usually eaten on ChristmasEve. Varieties of Wurst (sausages) arepopular at this time and are served occasionally with mashed potatoes but morefrequently with potato salad. Herring salad recipes vary; however, this dish isa must on Christmas Eve. Some salads are prepared with sour cream; otherscontain beets or pickles. “Karpfen in Blau” (carp in blue) is another delicacyserved in some homes, scallops or cheese fondue in others. “Gluehwein”(spicedwarm wine) or wines are popular beverages with a festive flavor. Finally the numerouscookies that have been baked for weeks and stored for this special holiday arebrought out and served. Everyone has his favorite kind from the assortmentwhich include: Springerle, Lebkuchen, Spritz, Zimtsterne, and many others.Every housewife has her favorite cookie recipes and some also have a specialrecipe for the Christmas Bread or ‘Weihnachtsstollen”. These recipes vary as to region as well asto family secrets.
TheChristmas tree is presented prior to the evening feast of December 24. Some decorate together as afamily; most parents permit the children to see the trees only after theringing of the bell is heard announcing the departure of the ‘Christkind’ whohas delivered the gifts. Until thattime preparations are done in secret and the anticipation of surprise and joycontinues to mount. For young and oldalike there is a moment of surprise when the lights are all turned off and thedoors are thrown open to reveal the beautifully decorated tree in all itslighted splendors! It is then that the intimate family unit enjoys the wondrousmagic of Christmas with the fragrance of a pine or fir tree wafting through theroom and the dancing shadows of real wax candles casting a warm glow acrossradiant faces. The love and togetherness of this evening is truly a magical andunforgettable experience. Before thegifts are exchanged and opened, the group joins in the singing of carols andmany accompany the singing on various musical instruments. There is the readingof the Christmas Story from the Bible and children have to present a poem,which they have been memorizing for weeks. The gifts are then distributed andthe final moment of anticipation and surprise has arrived. Amid shouts oflaughter, the rustle of wrapping paper, cracking of nuts, the ringing of thechurch bells and the singing of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ this sacredevening slips away to memories.
Christmas day is also a festivebut more quiet one and is spent visiting or entertaining relatives and friends.Some families, however, do leave the gift exchange until the morning andcelebrate with a special breakfast afterwards. In this way they solve thedilemma of ‘Christkind’ versus Santa Claus. Families attend church servicestogether at 6:00 a.m. to express their joy at this season and hear again thefamiliar Christmas message. In most homes the Christmas Day dinner consists ofgoose or turkey with other favorite dishes to complement the meat. It is the one time of the year when eatingand drinking seem to continue forever, for there are a wealth and abundance ofculinary delights.
Christmas is a time for people to enjoy allkinds of delicious food. The highlightof the Christmas food is the cookies; they are shaped like figures of Christmasor stamped with familiar designs. The gingerbread cookies are one of the mostdelicious among them. Christmas Eve isalso known as "Dickbauch" which means, "Fat stomach". There is a tradition that those who do noteat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. So the opportunity is given to enjoy dishessuch as sucking pig, "reisbrei," sweet cinnamon, white sausage,macaroni salad, and other regional dishes. On Christmas Day,people have a banquet of plump roast goose, "Christstollen" (longloaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), "Lebkuchen " (spice bars), “Marzipan”, and"Dresden Stollen" (moist, heavy breads filled with fruit).
Startingwith the first Sunday in Advent, sounds of bells and other musical instrumentsare present in all households. Itreaches its peek in the Holy Evening of the Christmas Eve. The famous Christmas song "StilleNacht! Heilige Nacht!" (Silent Night, Holy Night) is actually a German Christmassong. This song was composed by FranzTaver Gruber and was written by Joseph Mohr in 1818. It was first heard during Christmas 1818 at the small church ofSt. Nicholas in Oberndorf (Austria), which is near Salzburg and theGerman-Austria border. Today this famous song is translated into 44 otherlanguages and is known all over the world. Another famous Christmas song, “OTannenbaum” (O Christmas Tree) is alsoborrowed from Germany.
The “Bunter Teller’, (plate ofcolorful mixed goodies), is another custom still practiced in somefamilies. Each family member receives aplate filled with colorful cookies, nuts, candies, fruit and other specialdelights.
Paw-PawDennis Buchmiller 2003