James Leavey's Corner
In Germany, Every Day Is Chrystmas Day

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In Germany, Every Day is Chrystmas Day

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

If there’s one country that knows how to celebrate Christmas, it’s Germany.  Indeed, the Germans love Christmas so much, they exported various aspects of it to the rest of the world so that we could join in the fun.
The first record of a decorated Christmas tree traces back to a custom from the Bakers Guild of Freiburg im Breisgau, in 1419.   Those early German Christmas trees were decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers, and children were allowed to pick the treats from the tree. In addition to standing fir trees, small hanging trees, twigs and triangularly constructed pyramids known as ‘Klausenbšume’ were also used.
 I got all this from the German Christmas Museum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which opened in September 2000, to commemorate the birth of Christ 2000 years ago.  For the first time in Germany, this permanent exhibition shows the historical development of Christmas traditions. 
“Overlapped by pagan rituals, Christmas developed into a festivity with decorated trees and the giving of gifts,” explained Dr Gisela Schlemmer, director, German Christmas Museum.

“Originally observed only in church, the Christmas celebration spread into the homes of Germany’s Protestant upper class through the guilds during the 16th century.  At the same time, the tradition of giving presents to children and the decorating of Christmas trees developed.

“In the beginning, the trees were decorated with apples and nuts, but were not lit. The designs of tree decorations were ever changing, as were images of Santa and the Christ Child. An extensive variety of decorations developed as artists’ interpretations and folk traditions gave way to individual expression. Barely a material, medium, or shape exists that has not been used for making Christmas decorations.” 

Liselotte von der Pfalz wrote about a candle-lit Christmas tree during her childhood days in Hannover, in 1600.  It wasn’t until the Biedermeier era that Christmas developed into a German family celebration with the exchange of gifts, a tradition that did not become as popular as it is today, until the end of the 19th century. 

In the early part of the 19th century, German emigrants spread the Christmas tree custom throughout the world.  To give you just one, famous example, Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s better half) of Coburg’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 was not, as many believe, the first to be seen in England.  One was lit for a party of English children at least 20 years’ earlier, by a German of Queen Caroline’s household. 

A few years’ later, there were three others, lit by Princess Lieven, when she was a guest at Panshanger for Christmas in 1829. The Teutonic Princess and her Anglo-Saxon hosts probably sang In Dulci Jubilo, the German/Latin macaronic carol, said to have been dictated by an angel to Henry Suso, the German mystic who died in 1366.
Perhaps Princess Lieven also enjoyed a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a cycle of six cantatas, which he prepared for performance during Christmas and New Year, 1734-5.

The Santa Claus character can be traced back to two previous Saints; the Bishop of Myra, who lived during the 4th century, and Abbot Nikolaus von Sion, who died in 564.  Around the beginning of the 19th century, the ‘Weihnachtsmann’ (Santa) was introduced in Germany, as a bearer of gifts. 
Santa’s appearance was heavily influenced by Moritz von Schwind’s drawing of ‘Mr. Winter’ from ‘The Marriage of the Figaro’, in 1825.  In 1847, von Schwind portrayed this character as the ‘Weihnachtsmann’ (Christmas Man) in the ‘MŁnchner Bilderbogen’, which helped widely popularise the forerunner to the ‘Santa’ figure. 
Over the years, Germany’s grim-looking Santa evolved into the friendly, plump, white-bearded, red-coated, older gentleman, who, some of us hope, will descend down the chimney on Christmas morning bearing presents.
In the Erzgebirge, pyramids were used in place of Christmas trees, and began to appear in homes elsewhere in Germany during the 18th century.  The first evidence of revolving pyramids driven by the rising heat of candles, traces back to the beginning of the 19th century
In 21st century Germany, Advent is not only the beginning of the church year but also marks the beginning of the build-up to Christmas.  It is still widely celebrated in German homes, clubs, workplaces and church groups.

The Advent period (Adventszeit) itself, commences on the first Sunday after November 26, with hand-made decorations, home-made cards, cakes and biscuits. 
The first reference to an Advent calendar is found in German literature, dating back to 1851.  Those first Advent calendars - single sheets of paper, written with biblical quotations, and in the form of grape leaves - were hung on the Advent tree. 

The first printed Advent calendars appeared on the market in 1908 and were designed to teach children the reason behind the waiting period for the birth of the Christ Child, or the arrival of Santa.  Printed paper nativities, cut-out forms glued to a sheet of cardboard, and three-dimensional pop-up nativities, were also highly popular during the second half of the 19th century.

Today, a popular decoration in Germany’s homes is the Advent wreath (Advenskranz), consisting of a circular wreath of pine branches with four candles, which is either hung from the ceiling by ribbons, or placed on the main table. On the first Sunday in Advent, one candle is lit, on the second Sunday two, continuing until all candles are lit on the fourth Sunday. 
For every German child, the first of December is a special day, for that is when they are given an Advent calendar (Adventskalender), and permission to open the first of its 24 windows.  On each subsequent day, another window is opened to reveal Yuletide pictures, sweets or, if they are very lucky, a small gift.
 Children also enjoy their annual visit to the Christmas markets, which are the centrepiece of most German towns and cities.  The markets are usually set in the old market squares, where carol singing and the aroma of gingerbread and mulled wine (Adventskranz Gluehwein) adds to the festive atmosphere.
Shoppers wander around beautifully decorated stalls choosing from the traditional hand-made gifts and foods, tasting special Christmas cakes such as Stollen and Fruechtebrot, German sausages, roasted almonds or a candy apple.

The famous Stollen (a rich fruit bread/cake from central Germany, especially the city of Dresden) originated from the privilege of the Bishop of Naumburg, for which the local baker's guild had to present him at Christ's birthday and on Michaelmas with two long white breads, called ’Stollen’, and two Meissner gulden.  The Stollen’s characteristic shape
– oblong and tapered at each end with a ridge down the centre – is said to represent the Christ Child in swaddling clothes, hence the name Christstollen sometimes given to it.

Meanwhile, Frankfurt's famous traditional Christmas market has proved to be so successful, that it now opens its doors abroad.  In 1997, the first Frankfurt Christmas Market opened in Birmingham, England, followed in 1998 by Bristol and 1999 by Manchester. This year's Frankfurt Christmas Market will be exported to Edinburgh and Manchester.
If, like me, you like to celebrate Christmas all-year-round, visit Kšthe Wohlfahrt’s Christkindlmarkt (Europe’s first all-year round Christmas Market, which opened in 1977) and Weihnachtsdorf (a.k.a. the Christmas Village).  Both are situated in the middle of the medieval walled city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.

At the entrance to the stores, which are open throughout the year, visitors are greeted by life-sized nutcrackers standing to attention. You then follow the winding cobbled streets of this indoor Franconian winter world to the 5.5 metre high wooden pyramid which weighs two metric tons and the 5 metre high, white, revolving Christmas tree. The decoration is complemented by 4.000 metres of fir-tree garlands and over 80.000 tiny glittering lights.

Kšthe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Shops can also be found in Oberammergau, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and Nuernberg, and also take part in over 40 Christmas markets in Germany during the Advent season.

In 1988, Kathe Wohlfahrt opened its first Christmas shop in Japan, at Kamakura, followed, four years later, by another in Tokyo, and, in 1995, the ‘Fťerie de NoŽl’ in Riquewihr, the heart of the France’s Alsace region. Today, Kšthe Wohlfahrt employs about 250 employees, and carries over 70,000 different Christmas items in retail, wholesale and by mail order.
 “I am an adult all year, but every Christmas, I am again a child ” wrote Marianne von Willemer in her letter to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in 1816.
Like von Willemer, I believe that Christmas still brings out the best of us.  Which is a good enough reason, I say, to celebrate it every day.  Especially with a fine cigar.

The origin of Christmas:

 The designated date for the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was not official until the 4th century.  In 381, Emperor Theodosius made this a doctrine at the Christian Church Council in Constantinople. 
This decision was designed to discourage the worship of the pagan Mithras, which also was celebrated on December 25th.
Up to the 14th century, the celebration of Christ’s birth was strictly a religious observance in churches. The German word ‘Weihnachten’, meaning ‘in the holy nights’ (first mentioned by the Bavarian poet Spervogel, in 1170), is derived from the Latin words ‘nox sancta’.

Christmas in Germany:

6 December Nikolaustag (St Nicholas’ Day): On the eve of 5th or 6th December, children must polish their boots or shoes and place them in the window.  The next morning, children who have been good throughout the previous year are rewarded by Santa with small presents and nuts. If they haven’t been well behaved, they receive a rod!
24 December Heiliger Abend (Christmas Eve): Shops and offices close around midday so everyone can be home early to get ready for the most important annual celebration in Germany; unlike English-speaking countries, who celebrate Christmas on 25 December.  Families gather round the Christmas Tree, which is traditionally decorated in the afternoon, sing carols and read out the Christmas story. After a traditional Christmas dinner of stuffed goose or Christmas carp, the presents are usually opened and everybody wishes the others a merry Christmas (“Froehliche Weihnachten”).  A lot of people then go to midnight Mass.
25 December Erster Weihnachtstag (Christmas Day): A quiet day devoted to visiting relatives.  Christmas lunch usually consists of steamed carp, or goose, served with braised red cabbage, baked apples and dumplings.
26 December Zweiter Weihnachtstag (Boxing Day): A bank holiday mostly dedicated to visiting friends or going to a pub, concert or sports event.
31 December Silvester (New Year’s Eve): Shops and offices close around midday in readiness for the evening when the Germans celebrate with parties, plenty of drinks and fireworks.  At midnight, people go out on the streets, often with a glass of Champagne, to watch the fireworks, kiss everybody in sight, and wish them a happy new year (Ein gutes neues Jahr).  Another German custom, known as Bleigiessen, is to melt small lumps of lead and throw them into cold water, then try to tell fortunes from the resulting shapes.
1 January Neujahr (New Year’s Day): A public holiday, giving everyone a chance to recover the from the late night before.
6 January Heilig Drei Konig (Epiphany): This is only a public holiday in the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg.  In Catholic areas, small children dress up as the three wise men and go from house to house, singing songs and asking for donations to charities. Sometimes they are also rewarded with sweets.  They then write signs on the door-frames to bring good luck to the households.

Some of the best Christmas Markets in Germany:

Christmas Markets can be found in most German towns and cities from around 21 November to 24 December.  Some of the biggest are in Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne, Munich, Nuremberg and Stuttgart, while some of the most romantic are at Bamberg, Goslar, Trier and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.  
Dresden Pastry Market (2-23 December): Germany’s oldest Christmas Market was founded in 1434.  Don’t miss the Christmas Cake Festival on 3 December.
Frankfurt am Main Christmas Market (29 November-22 December): Traditional, with the biggest Christmas tree in Germany, a varied musical programme, historical Turmblasen (wind music from the tower), a visit by St Nicholas on 6 December, and countless stalls at the Romerberg and in the historical old town.
Freiburg Christmas Market (2 November-22 December): One of the most beautiful in Germany, set in the heart of the historic old town.
Kassel Christmas Market (27 November-23 December): This year’s fairytale theme is ‘The Frog Prince’, performed in the local theatre.  Outside, towering over the gastronomy, arts and crafts stands, stands a giant, free-standing Advent calendar.
10th Original Lauscha Bauble Market (2/3 December and 9-10 December):  Set in the home of the Christmas bauble, where you will find lovingly produced Christmas tree decorations by a local manufacturer, plus demonstration workshops and glass blowers’ galleries.  Don’t forget to visit the museum of glass art, and the glassworks.
Leipzig Christmas Market (1-22 December): First established in 1767 and has since attained an almost legendary reputation on account of its unique range of cultural and culinary delights, including festive concerts by the Thomaner Choir.
‘Sinterklass’ Christmas Market in the Dutch Quarter of Potsdam (16-17 December): A unique festival which specialises in stands and entertainment mainly from Holland.
Stuttgart Christmas Market (1-23 December): Europe’s largest and most beautiful Christmas market, located at Marktplatz/Schillerplatz.
Deutsches Weihnachtsmuseum (German Christmas Museum) Rothenburg ob der Tauber ( and the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village (both open all year), Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Germany –
For a copy of the German Christmas Market 2000 leaflet, contact
Copyright James Leavey, 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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