Here in Franconia, as in the US, each family has their own Christmas traditions. However there are some general similarities in the way Germans celebrate that are different than the US holiday celebrations. No one that I’ve talked to is really sure about the evolution of the differences but they are interesting and celebrating is fun no matter where you are.
First there is the 6th of December, the day that St. Nikolaus visits. The children put their shoes outside before bed and legend says if they have been good, they get candies or presents in their shoes in the morning. If they have not been good, they get something not so fun in the shoes. (Although so far I have never seen this happen.) Often people visit eachother on this day bearing gifts said to be from Nikolaus. After the 6th we don’t hear from Nikolaus again or Santa (Weihnachts Mann) for that matter.
The next important figure in the German Christmas story is the Christkind (Christ Child.) He makes his appearance on Christmas Eve (Heilig Abend). The Christkind is the baby Jesus with wings–kind of the spirit of the baby Jesus. It is believed that he delivers the gifts on Christmas Eve as a reminder of the gift he was to all mankind. We like to go to midnight mass because it’s pretty and romantic but families with kids often go to afternoon mass. When the families leave for church on Christmas Eve, they are sure to open a window so that the Christkind can get inside to deliver the presents. Often on the way to church, some family member remembers something they forgot and runs back home to retrieve it. So it seems very possible that this person is putting the presents under the tree, but of course it’s also possible that the Christkind is visiting every home and delivering the presents himself. Either way the presents are ready for opening when the family arrives back home from Church and all the present opening happens on Christmas Eve afternoon or night.
So Christmas Eve is really the big celebration day. In Forchheim our day went like this:
We woke up and got ready. Then we picked up my Romanian friend from the train station. She is a friend I met in language school who speaks beautiful English and Italian. Now she is mastering Deutsch but this was her first experience spending the holiday with real Germans! It was really fun for me to introduce her to my favorite Germans. We stopped by at Jola and Heinz’s to say hello and then walked to the christmas market. Then we met some friends for a Weisswurst Frühstück. The city was very crowded when we got near the advent calendar and it was difficult to find a spot where we could really see the Angels. We coincidentally met lots of friends and neighbors while we were waiting. It was exciting to be able to speak much more German this year compared to last year. I remember last year we arrived at the market and a friend asked me, “Wie war es gestern in Nurnberg?” (How was it yesterday in Nuremburg?) I remember thinking he was telling me about what he and his family had done yesterday because “Wie” (which means “How?”) in German, sounds like “We” in English. But this year I could introduce my friend and talk about where she was from etc. A really big achievement or at least a relief.
Finally the angels came out and announced the winner of the car. (Sadly it wasn’t us.) After that we mosied back to our house for a restful afternoon. (Well, kind of restful, I was madly knitting, trying to finish Jola’s scarf) but then we all worked on what is turning out to be a really hard puzzle! In the evening on we had Heinz and Jola over for dinner and then went to midnight mass at the Dome in Bamberg.
For dinner on Christmas Eve we had Raclette. This is something I had never heard of until I came to Germany. It’s an electric kind of indoor grill. You fill the table with meats, cheese and veggies and then you grill them on top. Each personal gets a small pan for roasting things underneath!
Last year we went to church in Forchheim. I didn’t understand anything at all except the Christmas carols. The moment that everyone was waiting for came at the very end. Only the candles were glowing, and the familiar strains to Silent Night (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) began. Everyone sang together–a very special moment. This year the service (Gottesdienst) in Bamberg was even more beautiful. The Bamberg Symphony and choir were there. The Bishop and all the priests were dressed in their finest regalia. And the message was very clear and easy to understand. The Bishop said wonderful things about the christmas celebration and the meaning of the season. BUT–it was two hours long and it really started at midnight. We got there early and had a good seat, but that meant we spent about three hours at church and got home at 2am! Oh man! I felt bad because I was falling asleep. But then Silent Night came at the end, and it couldn’t have been any better. Silent Night seems to be THE christmas carol in Germany and Thorsten says that he thinks people would stop going to church if they didn’t end with it every year.
On Christmas day the usual thing is to go to the grandparent’s house or parent’s house for a big lunch time meal. Most often this is a Christmas goose. It’s no surprise that Jola’s goose did not disappoint. I went as far as saying that maybe it was even more tasty than a thanksgiving turkey!