When you walk through the Hauptbahnhof in Leipzig, you may notice an ad for an “English Christmas.” England has long been an interest for many continentals – notably the popularity of English gardens in Germany and also of the British royal family.
But why the Germans would wish to borrow Christmas traditions from another country, with such a bounty of their own, is curious.
The modern Christmas tree, used widely all over the world as decoration at Christmas time, originates from Germany. The tree was used in theatrical plays to represent the Garden of Eden, 24 December being the religious feast day of Adam and Eve.
The candles traditionally used to decorate the tree represent the light of Jesus Christ. Christmas pyramids, decorated with figures and candles, then merged with the Christmas tree in the 16th century. They made for the decorative trees we see today.
Until the 18th century, the tree was especially popular among Lutherans and would later become an ingrained German tradition. Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria of England, is credited with bringing the Christmas tree to England. It was brought to North America by German settlers. They had become highly fashionable by the 19th century.
The word “tinsel” comes from the French estincelle, meaning sparkle. Germans traditionally hung thins of silver on Christmas trees, reflecting the candlelight. The silver would be hammered into thin pieces and then cut into strips. Because real silver tarnishes (particularly with real candlelight) and is so expensive, cheaper alternatives began to be produced in the 20th century. It was then produced with lead until the 60s in the U.S., when people became aware of the dangers of this.
Baubles – or Christbaumschmuck aus Glas – have been around since the middle of the 19th century, handmade by workers in Thuringia. According to legend, the idea came from a poor glass blower from Lauscha, who couldn’t afford expensive walnuts and apples, and so made these shapes from glass. The first commission for 12 Weihnachtskugeln in different sizes was recorded in 1848.
The mass production of these tree decorations was made possible in 1867 – in Lauscha through the construction of gas works, with very hot gas flames to allow for bigger and thinner baubles. They were then dipped in colour and sometimes decorated with reflective glitter particles.
In 1880, the American Winfield Woolworth brought baubles to the U.S., and production greatly increased.
The success of such exports hindered the effects of inflation and the economic crisis during the war period.
Today, traditional handmade glass baubles are still produced in Lauscha and are available in Christmas markets in various designs.
Encyclopedia Britannica suitably orders its entry for Santa Claus under “legendary figures”. His character is based around a 4th century Christian Saint, Saint Nicholas.
The figure of Santa Claus is often said to stem from Sinterklass, a historical Dutch folklore character. But the modern depiction of Santa Claus – large, white bearded and in a red and white suit – is largely due to the work of the German-born Thomas Nast and his cartoon for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Perhaps we should rather emphasise his round cheeks and smile, as Nast had the intention that Santa Claus would cheer people up. From 1931 onwards, the image was further popularised by Coca-Cola adverts.
However ubiquitous in Europe now, the Christmas market tradition is very much German. More specifically, it originates from Saxony.
The Dresdner Striezelmarkt was first mentioned in 1434, and in 1737 there were already 140 market stalls in Nuremberg: not much less than the 203 of today. Germany’s 2,500 Christmas markets attract more than 150 million visitors each year, and not just tourists: the markets remain popular among locals as well.
The Bautzen Christmas market dates back to 1384, when King Wenzel agreed that a meat market could take place, allowing the meat producers to sell their wares in the weeks up to Christmas. The tradition became unique to the region and gradually more products came to be sold, developing into the style of markets we see today.
The Christmas market concept has now taken over many major European cities. It has successfully been exported to places like Belfast, Brussels, Budapest and Bucharest. The format follows that of Germany, with a selection of hot drinks and food, as well as Christmas gifts and decoration. Very few, however, live up to the selection of traditional Christmas products in Saxony’s markets.
Possibly the most popular consumable German Christmas export is Glühwein (literally “glowing wine”). Mulled wine is usually prepared from red wine, which is heated with Christmas spices such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise, as well as orange juice and rind and sugar. The expression “glowing wine” comes from the hot irons which were used to mull the wine.
The first Glühwein mug – now a favourite collectable among Christmas market visitors – is attributed to Count John IV, a nobleman from Katzenelnbogen, and supposedly the first grower of Riesling grapes. His tankard dates back to 1420.
Trier’s Christmas market even has an official Glühwein Queen, to “brush up” the image of mulled wine.
Sarah Schmidt, the 2016 queen, aims to make the product better known, to combat prejudices, and give recognition to the work that goes into making the wine.
Schmidt’s tips for the perfect Glühwein include that it should come directly from the winegrower. If this is not possible, Dornfelder is a good alternative.
Of course, one should not cook the Glühwein – doing so cooks off the alcohol. Glühwein tastes best from glass or ceramic crockery.
If making Glühwein on your own, don’t use too many spices: a pinch of cinnamon or a few cloves are enough.
Mulled wine is also a popular tradition in Alsace and other part of northern Europe. It has been successfully exported to the UK and Ireland, often with high mark-ups, thanks to higher taxes on alcohol. A bottle of Glühwein in Lidl in Ireland typically costs €6 to Germany’s €1.
Along with Stollen, sugar roasted almonds, potato pancakes and Bratwurst, Lebkucken gingerbread serve as a popular Glühwein accompaniment. A tradition among many families is to bake Lebkucken or Plätzchen in the advent period.
The name “Lebkucken” comes not from “Leben”; rather, researchers believe that it comes from the Latin libum, meaning “flat cake”.
The history of Lebkucken began with honey cookies, which were already popular in antiquity. Honey and spices grew particularly well in the area around Nuremberg. For a long time, the tasty biscuits were produced in cloisters, praised as healthy, medicinal and good for digestion.
Aachen is probably the most celebrated producer of Lebkucken, its production there dating back to the 16th century. Lebkucken used to be baked in the weeks of advent for reflection, repentance and reversion.
America may have made Christmas a fest of consumerism and flashy decorations, but we can surely attribute some of the most enjoyable Christmas traditions to Germany. Moreover, thanks to the traditional Erzgebirge handcrafts – wooden toys, lighting decoration for windows, carved wood decorations – a true German Christmas is really somewhat stylish, if a little kitsch.