This blog will take you through Germany not in the three dimensions of geography, but in the fourth dimension: Time. It will take you on one full circle round the sun, and presents German holidays, traditions, customs and events throughout the year in chronological order.
I am beginning the circle in accordance with the church year, not the calendar year, in order not to tear apart the Christmas season.
Advent, from Latin adventus (arrival), is the name of the four weeks before Christmas. Originally a time of fasting and repentance like the Lent, this period has become a festive season of its own, a period of anticipation and preparation. Unfortunately to many people it has become a period of stress, gift-hunting, preparations for the holiday feast etc.
Advent is not Christmas. Christmas begins, to us, on Christmas Eve, December 24. Advent has its own traditions. This is when the Christmas markets are open, when all those special cookies and pastries are made, it's Glühwein season... I like Advent better than the actual Christmas holidays.
One of these traditions is the Advent wreath, made of (real!) fir twigs and decorated with gilded nuts or pine cones or anything glittering or Christmassy that people like. It bears four candles to count the four Sundays of Advent. On the first Advent Sunday the first candle is lit, a week later the second, and so on (and if you light the fifth candle you have overslept Christmas, as the corrupted version of a well-known Advent poem tells...)
Some years ago I used to collect twigs and make m own wreath, but now I have taken to buying one. All flower shops sell them in late November, both plain or completely decorated. I prefer decorating it myself, though. The first photo shows my 2008 one on the second Advent Sunday, the second photo has the 2009 version (decorated with gold-painted leaves, nuts and chestnuts) after the third Advent Sunday.
In the meantime I have abandoned the Advent wreath, though, because during a trip to Saxony I was introduced to the tradition of woodcarved Advent chandeliers. I bought one in Seiffen in the Ore Mountains in 2010 and since then it has been in use.
Weihnachtsmärkte - Christmas Markets
Christmas markets are an essential part of the pre-Christmas season, beginning in late November. Every city and larger town has one in a central square, or even more than one. In small places the Christmas market is often limited to one weekend.
Usually the city sets up little wooden huts in the square and rents them out to merchants. The stalls sell gifts and decorations, pretty arts and crafts by local artisans as well as pure cheapo kitsch made in China or whereever. Some products show up on all Christmas markets throughout the country. Check and compare. (If you see something you really like and want, though, buy it, otherwise you'll regret it when you are back home...)
In addition, food and drink stalls take up a lot of room. The largest crowds assemble round the Glühwein stalls (mulled wine, see separate tip). Sausages, pizza, crepes, roasted almonds in sugar, roasted chestnuts are foods that can be found everywhere. Some regions have their specialities, like gingerbread and the tiny sausages in Nürnberg, Flammkuchen and Schupfnudeln in the southwest, fish rolls in the north, Printen (a kind of gingerbread) in Aachen, Stollen in Saxony. Give them a try...
Despite a widespread misunderstanding, Christmas markets are NOT open during the Christmas holidays.Their purpose is selling gifts and decorations, which people need for Christmas Eve. They start during the week before the first Advent Sunday, i.e. four weeks before Christmas. Most markets terminate on December 22 or 23 or maybe December 24 around noon.
During this period, they are open 7 days a week, usually from 11 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. The markets are prettiest, and most crowded, after dark.
Recently a few cities have decided to reopen their markets after the holidays, which is against all tradition and does not make much sense except for the Glühwein stalls. For the sake of tourism and commerce a tradition is sacrificed. The atmosphere is gone when the holidays are over.
Glühwein (mulled wine) is the country's favourite drink in wintertime, especially during Advent and Christmas season. A traditional Glühwein consists of red wine that is heated together with spices, usually cinnamon, cloves, anis and lemon peel or a splash of lemon or orange juice and sweetened with sugar.
Prefabricated Glühwein is often made from low-quality wines. Don't drink too much of it, it may cause a "hair-root catarrh" (aka headache or hangover).
No Christmas market would be complete without a number of Glühwein stalls. They are easy to find: check where the densest crowds assemble. Friends meet there, colleagues go out after work... Glühwein stalls usually offer, in addition to plain Glühwein, a number of varieties like Glühwein with brandy, with cognac, with amaretto and cream, with or entirely made from fruit wines. Sometimes you may also find white Glühwein. Hessen's speciality is hot apple wine. For kids and drivers, there is an alcohol-free version made from fruit juice (if you're lucky) or red fruit tea (lame). Across the border in Alsace I also found hot orange juice with spices, which was really yummy.
The price for a cup of Glühwein (0.2 l) is around 2.50 to 3 €. In addition to that you pay a deposit for the cup, usually 2 €, that you get back when you return the cup. Some stalls hand out plastic coins or paper tickets, these have to be returned together with the cup to get your deposit back.
Glühwein cups often have a special design with a picture of the town and its market. You may even find cups in the shape of a little boot. Some are really pretty. If you want to keep the cup as a souvenir and not claim the deposit back, that is morally okay. You paid for it. That's why they want deposit for the cups - too many are taken home.
The Herrnhut stars were invented in Herrnhut, the central settlement of the Moravian church which was founded by Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf in the 18th century. The original stars are still hand-made in the village of Herrnhut.
A real Herrnhut star consists of 18 square and 8 triangular peaks. Stars in any other shapes are not authentic. The peaks are mounted with little metal fasteners. Assembling the star takes a while and is part of traditional Advent preparations. No worries, it's easy and they come with an explanation in both German and English.
The traditional colours are red, white, or yellow, and bicolor with either a red interior and white or yellow peaks, or alternating in white and red or yellow and red. They come in paper for indoors or plastic for outdoors. A little electric lightbulb hangs inside to light them, available in cheaper indoor or safe and waterproof outdoor version.
Beginning as a local tradition, these stars are now sold and mailed all over the world.
Herrnhut is situated in the Lausitz in Saxony, so in that region the stars are most popular. In Dresden, for example, they are everywhere. Imagine an uglier than ugly 14-storey concrete apartment house when at night such a star is glowing on every second balcony. Wow!
In the 'West', churches were the first to have them. There is hardly a church in Germany that does not put up a big Herrnhut star above the altar during Advent and Christmas season. After the opening of the wall when people started travelling and visiting the Christmas markets in the East, the first ones appeared in windows over here, too. Nowadays they are still not as frequent as in Saxony, but you see quite a number of them over here, too. In my living room window, for example...
Mine is the smallest version, about 40 cm in diameter. I bought mine in Dresden on the Striezelmarkt where the Herrnhuter have a stall that sells nothing but these stars. They are now on sale on Christmas markets all over the country. Original ones come in such blue boxes as in photo 3.
St Nikolaus Day, December 6
December 6 is the holiday of St Nikolaus, Bishop of Myra. His holiday became a day of little gifts and sweets for kids (and big kids) which is also popular in several other European countries, e. g. Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.
The legend tells how the saint witnessed the prayers of three girls from a very poor family whose father saw no other way out of misery than selling his daughters to a brothel. By night Nikolaus threw three balls of pure gold into their window and thus saved the girls from this cruel fate. Nikolaus statues in churches often show him holding three golden balls in his hand (photo 2).
Only good kids receive sweets on Nikolaus Day, however. Naughty kids used to get nothing but a birch rod. (Today’s parents are not that strict any more.) In the evening before St Nikolaus Day kids set up one of their shoes, polished and shining please, outside their door for Nikolaus to fill. In the Alps region, they traditionally put an empty plate on their window sill instead.
Nikolaus was a bishop, so originally he wore a bishop’s ornate. The figure was mingled with that of Father Christmas, they look alike now. “Santa Claus” is actually St. Nikolaus/Nicolas.