Common German Holiday Traditions

Few people are aware that many of their most cherished holiday traditions, especially Christmas ones, originated in Germany. Between the lavish markets and the home-grown decorations, Germany offers one of the most dedicated and elaborate celebrations of Christmas.

Photo: Christmas tree on the Potsdamer Platz (Sony Center) in Berlin, Germany
Photo: Christmas tree on the Potsdamer Platz (Sony Center) in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

German Christmas Traditions

German Christmas traditions are close to the country’s heart, and probably to yours, whether you are German or not. You may be surprised at how many Christmas staples have German origins.

Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas

Known as Saint Nicholas, he is the patron saint of children and the original Santa Claus, beloved by kids for the gifts he brings. If you grew up in the United States, you probably hung stockings by the fireplace for Santa to stuff. German children do the same thing, but with shoes or boots.

The other difference is that Saint Nicholas is expected on a different date in Germany. He is thought to come on December 5th, which starts the seasonal festivities, and presents arrive on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.

The Christmas Tree

Dubbed the “Pretty German Toy” by Charles Dickens, the Christmas Tree as we know it is indeed German. However, the tradition of using the fir tree as decoration is older than even Christmas. Pagans and Romans used the trees to decorate during winter when few other plants saw the light of day.

The Advent Wreath

One of the most common Christmas decorations, the Advent Wreath, is also German. Originally made to help children learn how to count the days of Christmas, today’s wreaths typically only carry four candles.

Stollen – A Christmas Pastry

Stollen is a sweet bread served at Christmas. Originally from Dresden in Saxony, serving Stollen is one of Germany’s most common holiday traditions. The bread has become so popular that it has found homes outside of Germany. That said, the cakes you’ll find abroad are often much sweeter than the traditional recipe, although the latter has incorporated new ingredients over time. Marzipan, orange zest, candied lemon peel, nuts, cinnamon, rum, and cardamom are examples of additions that have made for sweeter versions of Stollen.

With widely adopted German Christmas traditions, look to the more traditional foods or practices for clues of your German ancestry. Celebrate the holidays by sharing stories of your ancestors. Whether it’s stories passed down for generations or new details preserved in German-American newspapers, it’s the perfect time to learn more about your family history.

Other German Holiday Traditions

Christmas is only one holiday with German traditions you may find in your family’s celebrations – there are many others.

Easter

Did you know that the Easter Bunny is also German? The story goes, a duchess was forced to flee with her children from war-ravaged lands. She found safety for her family in a humble town in the mountains. The people were poor but generous. In thanks, the Duchess gave them chickens. For the children, she decorated the chicken’s eggs by dying them bright colors. She then hid them in man-made nests for the kids to find. Surprised by a hare jumping out of a bush, the Easter Bunny was said to have laid the eggs.

All Saints Day

Halloween does not have much of a presence in Germany. All Saints Day, however, is an important day for German families. On November 1st, Germans come together to visit the graves of their loved ones.

The Braided Pastry

In Bavaria, godparents give their godchildren sweet bread on All Saints Day. Different than the Stollen, Bavarian Strietzel is easy to spot because it is braided. Although the meaning of the practice is not common knowledge, the bread’s shape reveals its origin. The bread is a nod to the old funeral rite of women cutting off their braided hair to mourn. After all, All Saints Day is a day of mourning and remembrance. According to folklore, disaster was said to strike the household of those whose yeast did not activate to raise the bread.

Oktoberfest

Far from the superstitious and the spiritual, Oktoberfest is one of the most famous German contributions to the world.

Oktoberfest was initially instituted to commemorate the generosity of the rulers of Munich. In October 1810, Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese and invited the entirety of Munich to the nuptial reception. Horse races, feasting, and a whole lot of beer drinking ensued. Since then, Oktoberfest has become one of the largest festivals in the world.

Although the name would point to October, the folk festival is actually in September. Bavaria can get snowy in October, and the traditional Bavarian costumes of Oktoberfest are not conducive to freezing temperatures. The festivities begin at noon with the arrival of the mayor in a horse-drawn cart. The first parade ends with the mayor tapping the first beer keg. What follows is 16 days of dancing and drinking, with men in lederhosen, and women wearing the three-piece, beer maid apron/dresses known as dirndls.

The Day of German Unity – “Tag der Deutschen Einheit”

Like Italy, Germany became a unified country later than its neighbors. Before 1871, the German territory was often referred to in the plural, namely “The Germanies.” Religious, social, and even linguistic differences kept regions distinct in separate kingdoms and principalities. Hence the importance of German holidays that bring the people together under a collective, national banner. This motivation is especially true since 1990, after the 41-year division of Germany between West and East.

The Day of German Unity, or “Tag der Deutschen Einheit” in German, is celebrated on October 3rd. The country throws a festival dedicated to its citizens known as the “Bürgerfest.” The state capital presiding over the federal council also hosts celebrations. In addition, Germans in the capital, Berlin, are treated to a fireworks show.

Depending on the year, Oktoberfest can overlap with the national holiday.

Germany is responsible for some of the most readily adopted and universally beloved holiday traditions. As with all common holiday traditions, many of them have been celebrated for decades and passed on from generation to generation. Does your family celebrate any of these German holiday traditions? Let us know in the comments section below!

Sources

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