Christmas Eve 1971, when I got my first bicycle
Christmas Eve is the main event among the Christmas holidays in Germany. In the afternoon everything closes down. Shops stay open till noon or maybe 2 p.m., supermarkets maybe till 4 p.m. but don’t rely on that. Public transport will only run on a much reduced timetable. Public life comes to a halt.
By the way, “Christmas” means December 24-26 here. The time before the holidays is not named “Christmas” but “Advent”.
Christmas in Germany is a quiet family holiday. Christmas is not party time. Only one institution is in for peak business: the churches.
Christmas Eve, December 24
In the morning of December 24 the Christmas tree is put up and decorated. To us, the tree does not belong in the house before Christmas Eve.
Bescherung, the lighting of the candles on the tree and distribution of the gifts, takes place in the afternoon or early evening of Christmas Eve, earlier if there are children in the household, later if not.
After all those preparations and with little and big kids waiting for Weihnachtsmann or Christkind (depending on the region) to deliver the gifts, no one has time both to prepare and to eat a big lunch or dinner. Christmas Eve food is rather quick and easy. Households without children are more likely to prepare a sophisticated meal. In general, though, Christmas Day is the day of the big feast (in our family, the traditional meal is duck and red cabbage).
Many people who would not set foot in a church throughout the year will attend a service at least on Christmas Eve. Churches, both catholic and protestant, hold two or three services for families in the afternoon. These usually include a Krippenspiel, a play about the Nativity of Christ performed by children. Then there are the midnight services which begin at 10 or 11 p.m. The churches will be full, come early if you want a decent seat. The schedule of the services for all churches in town will be in the local newspaper. Each church has its own schedule put up in the glass box on the outside.
Late in the evening some pubs and clubs reopen for the youths who want to party after all that family stuff.
Being alone on Christmas Eve is about the worst that can happen to a German (except the ‘Bah humbug’ fraction). We feel sorry for everyone who has to. We also feel sorry for foreign tourists who are stuck in their hotel rooms with nothing to do and nowhere to go – although people who are not used to celebrating Christmas Eve at home won’t miss it here either.
If you happen to travel Germany at Christmas, either organize your own celebrations or choose a hotel that offers a Christmas programme with meals and activities. You’d have a tough time finding an open restaurant. Do all your shopping for anything you may need over the holidays in the morning of December 24. Both Christmas Day and Boxing Day are public holidays, all shops are closed. As for museums and sights, check individually if and when they are open. And no, Christmas markets are not open on the Christmas holidays either. The best time to travel Germany for some Christmas atmosphere is before, not during the holidays.
For the Foodies: Most Traditional German Christmas Eve Meal
I cannot help but smile when the question comes up in the forum - people searching for a restaurant where they can have a "traditional German Christmas Eve meal". Believe it or not, but statistically the most frequent food served in German families on Christmas Eve is - potato salad and hot Wiener sausages.
How come? This kind of food is easy to prepare - the potato salad can be made in advance and the hot dogs are quickly heated. Christmas Eve is the main event and a quick&easy meal like this takes a lot of pressure from whoever is in charge of the preparations, especially in families with children where the mother is already busy enough with everything else and the schedule is tight, and no one wants to stand in the kitchen for hours or wait for the meal for hours.
The big Christmas feast, goose or duck or a roast or similar, is had at lunchtime on Christmas Day.
Potato salad, served cold, is a popular dish for any kind of party in Germany. The base are potatos cooked in their jacket, then peeled and set aside to cool down before they are cut into slices. It can be done with a mayonnaise dressing, or (like ours) with a vinaigrette, my grandma used to make it with a white roux. Onion rings, fresh herbs, cucumber slice can be added, or pickled cucumbers, peppers, onions, little cubes of bacon, and so on. There are countless recipes, every family seem to have their own.
P.S. The photos show our table on Christmas Eve 2015. Of course we laid the tabel with the finest china and decorated it for the event. The little jars contain two varieties of mustard. And one wine goes with potato salad: a dry Silvaner from Franconia.