The festive season is here and we are all in full-on Christmas mood! Ready for some
at home in the warmth while the weather gets colder and colder. Lighting up some candles, getting
our Christmas décor out, decorating the tree und running the last errands before the best holidays of the year are here.
One of the greatest things about Christmas is that so many countries and families are celebrating it for decades and even centuries and there have emerged so many different traditions not just in each family but also in each country. So, what do the festive winter traditions in Germany and Austria look like? Grab your tea or hot chocolate and bundle up in a blanket while reading about how we celebrate Christmas in our countries!
Advent: Preparing for the most festive season of the year
In Germany, the Christmas season is filled with traditions that are particularly fun for children. On December 1st, the first door or package of the advent calendar is opened, which holds chocolate or any other small treat for every day until Christmas Eve. Stores are filled with countless different versions. Many parents, however, prefer to create one themselves. An advent wreath can also be found in every German household. Made out of fir or spruce branches and decorated with four candles, it symbolizes the four advent Sundays before Christmas. Each Sunday, an additional candle is lit until all four burn on Christmas.
A special difference in Austria and some other catholic regions is, that the candles even have traditional colours attributed: Three of the candles are violet and one candle is pink – which is the candle of the third Advent Sunday. Violet is the liturgical colour of Advent and penitence while the pink colour of the third candle stands for joy and anticipation.
St. Nicholas and his companions
While Scandinavia has St. Lucia on the 13th of December, we have St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, stemming from the saint Nicholas of Myra. The night before, children place one of their cleaned boots either in front of their fireplace, their window or door for St. Nicholas to fill it with sweets and little presents. It almost feels like Christmas already when you wake up and rush down in your pajamas to see what St Nicholas brought for you. Typical gifts are chocolate, tangerines or oranges, gingerbread, peanuts and a little bit of money.
In Austria, there is often even someone dressed as St. Nicholas coming to the elementary schools, teaching the children to be well-behaved. The idea is that the good kids then get presents while the bad kids only get coal – but that, of course, never happens because they shall only be encouraged to keep up the good work.
St. Nicholas even has a companion which is Knecht Ruprecht in Germany and the Krampus in Austria – the more famous one in recent years who even has his own day: The 5th of December. The Krampus is a very special tradition, frightening children with his demonic appearance of dark fur, hooves, horns, sharp teeth and long tongue while rattling heavy iron chains and carrying a basket with him in which he traps the naughty children.
Christmas markets and cookies
Of course there is no Christmas season without drinking mulled wine at the Christmas markets, which can be found in almost every town. The festive decorations and twinkling lights create an almost magical atmosphere and provide the perfect surrounding for shopping some unique presents.
When talking about traditions, we cannot forget about all the culinary delights the season brings. In the weeks before Christmas, every kitchen in Germany and Austria turns into a Christmas cookie bakery. There is nothing more festive than baking dozens of traditional Christmas cookies while listening to carols. Gingerbread in all shapes and forms, covered in every possible chocolate flavor or sugar frosting fill up the cookie plate too. Often, the Christmas cookies get out of hand and there is a need to make at least 10 different sorts of cookies if not even more. Some of the absolute must-have cookies are “Vanillekipferl” (vanilla cookies in crescent shape), “Linzer Räder” (double-layer short-crust cookies with apricot jam in between) and “Marzipankartoffeln” (marzipan in potato-shape rolled in cocoa powder) but there are many, many more and definitely too many to list here.
Christmas Eve: Time for the gift giving
In Germany and Austria, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve with the “Bescherung” (gift giving) as the highlight. It is usually only celebrated with the close family and consists of dinner and gift giving, some even sing together carols such as “Silent Night” and others may read stories with their children. For dinner on Christmas Eve, the most popular dish in Germany is potato salad and sausages, believe it or not! According to old tradition, the 24th of December was the last day of the fasting period. Today’s reason is probably related to reducing the stress on Christmas Eve by making a simple yet delicious meal. On the 25th, however, a roast goose or duck with potatoes and red cabbage complete a joyous Christmas day in celebration with the whole family.
While Santa Clause is the usual gift-bringer associated with Christmas nowadays, in Austria there is actually not Santa Clause bringing the presents but the “Christkind” (Christ-child) which is said to have gold curly hair and wings and wear a white gown and is never seen by anyone.
The aftermath: The three holy kings
The Christmas joy unofficially ends on January 6th, on Epiphany (three holy kings). This is the day where most families pack their decorations in boxes again and dispose their tree. In some regions, children sent from the church, dressed as the holy three kings go from door to door and sing to collect money for charities. When a donation is received, they bless the household by writing the inscription “20 - C + M + B – 21” with chalk on the door frame. Many think that the inscription stands for names of the three kings – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – but in fact it is the abbreviation for the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” which stands for “Christ, bless this house”. The number before and after the letters stands for the year in which the inscription is made.
Of course, there are many more details and as mentioned earlier, even every family has its own traditions but that is probably the case in most other countries, too. No matter how you celebrate your Christmas, we wish you a cosy festive season with your loved ones and of course: Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!