First of all, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Johanna, I am German and I spent a semester in Moncton, NB, Canada, where I met my lovely friend Ashley who is the owner of this blog. I can say that I am incredibly honoured to have been asked to contribute to blogmas this year. In the following, I will describe the German Christmas customs and traditions as they differ quite a lot from the ones I got to know when I stayed in Canada three years ago.
One key item of Christmas preparations is definitely the advent calendar. This tradition is commonly known in Canada but in Germany, we definitely take it to a new level. Instead of buying chocolate- filled advent calendars, many families have home-made calendars they refill every year. Mine is a wooden sleigh my dad made when I was in elementary school, but they come in all shapes and sizes, like linen bags, little buckets or paper boxes. Also, there is a trend among many couples to gift each other an individually designed advent calendar. The home-made ones can be filled with anything from candy to cosmetics, from inspirational quotes to gift cards for doing chores.
Abbildung 1 My Advent Calendar with 24 drawers // Abbildung 2 My Mum’s Advent Calendar
Another very important tradition is the „Adventskranz“, a wreath with four candles that is put on the table. Every Sunday prior to Christmas, one more candle is lit on the wreath, visualizing Christmas to approach. In 1839, a pastor in an orphanage was tired to answer the ever-present question of how long it would be till Christmas Eve. So he took a wooden wheel and placed 24 candles on it, one for each day. With this, the children were able to count the remaining days themselves. As the wheelwas really inconvenient for most households, people began making smaller wreaths with only four candles.
There are tons of ways to decorate those wreaths. This year, I had the impression that all shades of pink were trendy, but I decided to keep mine really simple and natural.
Abbildung 3 My Advent Wreath // Abbildung 4 My Mum’s Advent Wreath
One tradition that is definitely crucial for most Germans is going to at least one Christmas market. In case you have never heard of them: There are booths selling (often home-made) decorations, clothing, crafts, toys, etc. as well as a lot of food stands offering everything from Bratwurst to vegan veggie stir-fry. And of course, there are numerous spots to buy hot beverages, especially mulled wine. Due to migration, there are quite a lot of places in the world hosting Christmas markets nowadays, but they originated here in Germany. Every year, my family makes a point of taking a stroll over the rather big Christmas market in my hometown Bonn. However, we also enjoy going to the smaller ones in the villages around. They may only feature a couple of booths but they have the best atmosphere. If you ever happen to be in Germany during December, I definitely recommend checking one out.
Christmas time always means a lot of baking to me and my mum. She starts in late October by making the famous „Christstollen“, a special type of cake made of yeast dough with pieces of raisins and candied peel of lemon and orange. It is covered in powdered sugar and needs to rest a couple of weeks to develop the perfect flavour. Its shape is supposed to resemble Baby Jesus being wrapped in a cloth.
Apart from Stollen, we bake a lot of the so-called „Plätzchen“ which means cookies in all forms. We usually bake seven to ten different types, depending on how much time we have. Some of my favourites are Austrian „Vanillekipferl“ and „Spritzgebäck“ where the dough is put through a grinder and cut off at the end.
There is one kind of „Plätzchen“ that pretty much everybody in Germany has baked with their parents, Canadians (and all North-Americans) would probably call it sugar cookies. My family has been using my aunt’s recipe for the last years and we found it to be the best. In case you want to try it, here it is:
-1 pinch of salt
-2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg -140g butter
If you have an electric mixer with a kneading program, these cookies will be done really quickly. Just add in the ingredients one by one until you have a big clump of dough. If you don’t own such a fancy gadget, you will have to knead it by hand. For that, you will want your table or kitchen counter to be absolutely clean. Then you spread the flour and all the dry ingredients onto the surface, forming a flat volcano. There has to be a little „valley“ in the middle where you put the eggs in. Divide the butter into little cubes and put them over the dry ingredients. In order to incorporate it to a dough, knead the wet and dry parts together, until you get an even clump of dough. Believe me: Even if it seems pointless to knead this mess in the beginning, it will become a dough after ten to 15 minutes. Don’t give up!
Once you have the dough ready, wrap it in cling film and chill it for at least 30 minutes. This is the absolute minimum of fridge time, leaving it in there over night is no problem at all! (Unless you live together with people who love raw cookie dough…)
Preheat your oven to 200°C (390°F). After retrieving the dough from the refridgerator, put some flour on your countertop and use a rolling pin (if you don’t have one at hand: A bottle is fine as well) to flatten the dough. You will want it to be less than a quarter of an inch thick. Use cookie cutters or a knife to cut out cookies and place them on a parchment paper covered baking tray. Whisk together an egg yolk and a sip of milk or condensed milk and brush it onto your cookies in order to get a golden colour. (This step is optional) Bake them for 10 to 15 minutes.
I like my cookies just plain, but you can certainly get creative and decorate the cookies. When I baked these with my host sister three years ago, she put sugar perls and glitter on them to make them look really festive.
Abbildung 5 Our batch of Plätzchen this year
In addition to the stuff we bake ourselves, there are two sorts of cookies we buy because it is too much work to make them at home: Nuremberg Gingerbread Cookies (the absolute best!) and Spekulatius. The latter are thin and hard but they go great with a cup of tea and smell of all the Christmas-sy spices.
A couple of days ago, on 6th December, German kids celebrated the first peak of Christmas season as it was St. Nicolas Day. It originated in the middle ages when a bishop in Turkey put goodies in children’s boots during the night. Until today, kids clean their boots the night before and hope for St. Nicolas to fill them. I usually receive some gingerbread along with nuts and tangerines, but some people also give their children small gifts.
The time for the real presents comes 18 days later. Yes, you have read that right, we get to open our presents on 24th December. For most people, Christmas Eve means an overcrowded service in the afternoon or early evening, sometimes featuring a crib or children playing the Christmas story. Then, they head home where the presents await them. Unlike Northern American kids, most of them don’t ask Santa for toys but the „Christkind” which translates to Christ child. It was established by Martin Luther around 1500 A.D. because he wanted to oppose the Catholic custom where St. Nicolas brought the presents. Due to Coca-Cola, every kid here knows Santa Claus as well and of course, there are secular or non-christian families where he is responsible for the wish lists.
The longer I think about it, the more uniquely German traditions come into my mind, but I think that the ones above allow a nice insight already. If you want to know even more, just comment so I can answer your questions.
Last but not least: I wish all of you a Merry Christmas, maybe even featuring some German cookies this year!