When it comes to Christmas traditions, we all have our favorites. Maybe it is a special movie you watch as a family (For us, it is Elf. I know, it doesn’t exactly ring of the true meaning of Christmas, but a grown man who believes in the magic of Santa- and gets to eat nothing but candy and syrup- still resonates with my young children.) It could be a special worship service, like Candlelight Communion on Christmas Eve, or even a special meal with family (as our family has started to branch out a little farther over the last few years, this has become one of my favorites). Whatever your favorite traditions may be, at least some of them are sure to have come from Germany.
As with every culture, Germans tend to have traditions that have been passed down to them for generations. One example is the Advent Calendar, where you count down the days of Advent in anticipation of Christmas Day by opening one window (often depicting a picture, verse of Scripture, or in many cases- candy!) of the calendar every day for the 24 days before Christmas. Along the same line is the Advent Wreath (also a German tradition) like the one we see in church. Four candles adorn the wreath with one lit each Sunday leading up to the week of Christmas. In the past, a family’s Advent Wreath might be the only site and scent of the season until the unveiling of the Christmas Tree took place on Christmas Eve.
Also among favorite German traditions that made their way to the U.S. is that of the Christmas Market, or Christkindlmarkt. Popular in German speaking areas of Austria and Switzerland, as well as Germany itself (where approximately 3,700 currently exist!), these markets showcasing handmade goods such as ornaments, warm gloves and wooden toys as well as tasty treats like roasted pecans and mulled wine are now all over this country, including the heart of downtown Chicago. You can stop by any day from just before Thanksgiving until the day before Christmas Eve and see for yourself all the treats that come to us from parts of Eastern Europe (and right here in the city).
Perhaps the best-known of our Christmas traditions- the Christmas tree- also comes from Germany. Roughly 400 years ago, families would bring evergreen branches into their home in the winter to decorate for Christmas. Eventually this turned into bringing in whole trees. Those first trees were decorated with ripe apples and silk flowers to give the illusion of a blooming tree in the middle of winter. By the 19th century, trees had even taken over as the focal point of German Christmas celebrations. Fast forward to 2017 and it isn’t unusual to see trees in a variety of colors decorated with ornaments of all shapes and sizes, from all generations, and with all types of meaning to their owner. Look closely enough and you may even see a pickle ornament- another German favorite! Legend tells that parents would place a pickle ornament in the tree after the rest of the decorations were up. On Christmas morning, the child who found the ornament would get an extra small gift. This was started not to reward one child over others, but to encourage everyone to enjoy the beauty of their tree before racing to see what St. Nick might have left them.
So you see, tradition lies all around at the holidays. In many homes those come from Germany, through family members who brought a little piece of their childhood with them when they came here, as well as those who like to cherish and hold on to the past who keep traditions alive. Look around your house this Christmas and really notice what traditions you have maintained. Think back on why they were important to you in the first place, and treasure those memories. In a world that is constantly changing, some things still withstand the test of time. Merry Christmas!