Thursday 21 January 2016

Strange German Holidays #13 - Christmas

Now before I get to my next regular post, hopefully later in the week, I want to get one of the posts I still owe you out of they way. Only one more holiday to go after this one!

Now, for me, personally, Christmas is usually my favourite time of the year. I love the lights, the smells, the atmosphere, giving and receiving gifts, all of it. Of course the magic has decreased since I'm no longer a child, but I hope that years like the last one - where there were several factors contributing to being really stressed out before Christmas - will remain an exception. So anyway, where do I begin...

In Germany, there are three days of Christmas, from the 24th to the 26th. The 24th - Christmas Eve or 'Heiligabend' in Germany is, however, not an actual holiday - although some companies are closed and lots of stores are only open until around noon. But that's okay, since celebrations only start in the afternoon and evening as well!
In my family, we used to go to church at 5pm - that's the family mass which is kept short and fun, with many well-known songs, and instead of the sermon there is a nativity play by kids from the local kindergarten. For the past two years,  I went there alone with Felix, since my grandparents can't sit comfortably for that amount of time, so they volunteered to stay at home and prepare the food.

We always had food shortly after returning from church - our traditional Christmas Eve meal was ham and potato salad, the ham cooking while we were away and the salad prepared in the morning or even the day before. We're also doing different foods occasionally, like fondue. This year, we had a quite lovely filet of pork in puff pastry. Many families will also have goose or carp as traditional meals. 

After dinner, at least at our house, it's time fore presents! The act of gift giving on Christmas Eve is called 'Bescherung' in German. Now, there are two differnt traditions on who brings theses gifts in Germany: The Christkind and the Weihnachtsmann. And as far as I know, the distribution goes like this: When the reformation first happened in Germany in the 16th centuary, giving gifts on Christmas was not yet a common thing. It first started in Protestant areas, where the gifts where said to be brought be the Christkind. Then, as the Catholics started to adapt, the Protestants switched over to the Weihnachtsmann. So today, you will find the Christkind tradtion predominantly in areas with lots of Catholics, and the Weihnachtsmann tradition in areas with lots of Protestants. As the region I live in is mostly Catholic (although I'm not), we are a Christkind-area, and I honestly don't know much about how the Weihnachtsmann works - I think he is mostly like Santa Clause, like depicted by Coca Cola. If he also brings the presents overnight and the Bescherung is shifted to the 25th I frankly don't know.

The Christkind is a bit of a different story, and I can tell you about that! The Christkind, in the original version, is actually the little baby Jesus. However, over the years this interpretation has changed a little, and on most pictures (there are a lot of children's books covering this) the Christkind looks a bit older, an actual child rather and a baby or infant, and - I don't know why - mostly female, also it could still be a rather feminine looking boy as well. Now, the Christkind lives in heaven, and together with all the little angels it takes care of the Christmas workshop. In early December, children will write a whislist and place it in an envelope outside the window, where the postangels will collect them and carry them to the workshop, where the actual toys are made.

Then on Christmas Eve (or shortly before), the Christkind and its angels will decend, carrying all the toys, visiting every home and setting up a christmas tree with the presents underneath. In praxis, in my family at least, the living room used to be closed of for me starting a few days before christmas - there was an ornament with a bell hanging on the door, which meant the angels were at work in there! And when it was time for the Bescherung, a little bell would ring to indicate that it was okay to go in now. In some families, one parent will go out with the kids the afternoon of Christmas Eve so the 'angels' can work while they are gone, and I know that in Felix' family, they used to set up the Christmas tree all together in the morning, so the Christkind only put the presents underneath later.

Some families will sing Christmas carols together before opening presents, or even play them on instruments if they are musically talented, but we usually just put our favourite Christmas CDs on, then spent a lovely evening with presents and family and sweets :) When I was younger we also had the tradition to watch a specific music show that was broadcast on Christmas Eve, but that was canceled many years ago.

No for the Christmas tree - I noticed from the blogs I read that apparently many people in the US have fake Christmas trees, but in Germany it's still the most common thing to get a real tree. As we only put them up on Christmas Eve or a few days before, and usually leave them until January 6th (Three Kings Day) they will look great for the whole time. Some places and Catcholic churches will leave their trees until Feburary 2nd, and by then they loose quite a lot of needles. But fake trees are up and coming here as well - my grandparents just got one shortly after Christmas (for a reduced price) because going out to by a tree is getting more and more exhausting for them, and they do make some pretty fake ones nowadays.

Besides the tree, the nativity scene is also an important part of German living rooms on Christmas. The most basic version is just the crib with the child, Mary and Josef, but there are also elaborate display that include more characters - the donky and ox, shepherds, lots of sheep, the Magi with ther followers, elephants, camels, other animals and people that have some to see baby Jesus. Some families will just place the figures under the tree, some have a little stable, bought or selfbuild, and some displays include a lot of landscape around the stable as well. Felix' grandma has a HUGE display, about four metres long and at least half a metre wide, with hills and a lake (a mirror) and a bit of sand as desert, a stable with real lights and a flickering fire, many little tools and stacks of wood and a TON of figures. She used to collect those, her husband would always give her a new one every year, and he build a lot of the setup himself before he passed away. I wish I had thought of taking a picture for you guys when we were there on Christmas, it's truly amazing!

After so much blahbing about our first day of Christmas, there's not so much to day about the other two. December 25th and 26th are holidays, called the First and Second Christmas Holiday (very inventive, I know), so everyone has them off. Most families will use the time to visit relatives - for example, you might spend Christmas Eve with your parents, then 25th and 26th with one set of grandparents each. Or you might spend them with friends - Felix and his best friend Frank have started that tradition of a party with punch and old Christmas movies on the 26th. Or you could just stay at home - basically, those are just two more days to be lazy, eat good food and play with your presents!

Please excuse the novel-length text on this post, but there IS a lot to say about Christmas. Just one holiday to go - hopefully a much shorter one - and we're done!


Heather said...

Great way to celebrate and very interesting how different it is. I've learned a lot from these posts! Thanks :)

Tiffstitch said...

Wow, that is very different. Thank you for the info!

Mel said...

Your Christkind story makes me think of how different stories around the world. A personal favourite of mine is Sinterklaus in the Netherlands. Santa shows up in early December on a boat! Cause there's really no snow for a sleigh.
Thanks so much for sharing. Great read. :)

Susan said...

Very interesting post. Having two traditions - Christkind and Weihnachtsmann - for a similar figure is interesting but understandable with your explanation. I think I also finally understand where my parents got the "no children in the living room until Dad does his inspection" came from - a slight modification of the angels.

Jo who can't think of a clever nickname said...

Great post about the different ways of celebrating Christmas.
Quite a few people in the UK have real trees, we always do anyway.
I look the idea of shutting up shop at 12 noon on Christmas Eve too. You wouldn't believe the number of people still shopping at 5pm which is so annoying when you just want to get home.