“Silent Night”

We wanted to know what makes for a classic Christmas in Germany. Read what we found out here.

Panoramic image of Christmas tree at Brandenburger Gate in Berlin
tilialucida/AdobeStock

Christmas is the most important family celebration in Germany. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, though these days the festival is also observed by many families for whom the religious aspect is no longer the central focus. Constanze Kleis wrote a book entitled “Gebrauchsanweisung für Weihnachten” (Instruction Manual for Christmas). We asked her what the essential elements of a Christmas celebration are.

What are the prerequisites for the perfect Christmas?
Officially, you will need a Christmas tree, candles or fairy lights and Christmas tree decorations, a nativity scene, and a certain repertoire of Christmas carols. Good food and baked goods such as a stollen or Christmas biscuits like vanillekipferl. Sufficient generosity with gifts, including for the postman, your building’s caretaker or for guests, who do not necessarily have to be blood relatives.

Which sweets are typically eaten at Christmas?
Christmas biscuits, known as plätzchen in German – a word that originally meant “flat-shaped cake” – are the undisputed number one Christmas treat. Apparently there are 13,824 different types of plätzchen nowadays, classically flavoured with things like vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, lemon, orange, coffee, rum, hazelnut, almond, walnut, ginger, cardamom and honey, and typically in the form of crescents, rings, balls, coins, hearts or cubes. Normally they are filled with chocolate, vanilla, jam or marzipan.

What is the traditional procedure on Christmas Eve, 24 December?
In principle, it is just as Nobel Literature Prize laureate Thomas Mann describes in his 1901 novel “Buddenbrooks”: everyone sings Christmas carols. Then there are the presents under the mighty fir tree, “decorated with silver tinsel (…) gifts lying everywhere”. Then an overwhelming abundance of foods and drinks is served up. In practice, the festival nowadays is no longer bound by such a rigid corset of rules. Christmas can be a successful combination of all kinds of rituals that make one feel cosy and comfortable.

What are the classic Christmas dishes?
According to surveys, potato salad with sausages is still in pole position as far as favourite dishes for Christmas Eve are concerned, closely followed by fondue and raclette. One survey shows that 288 hours are spent on average – mainly by women – preparing for the festival by the time Christmas Eve arrives. Traditionalists like to serve the family a goose with dumplings and red cabbage on Christmas Day.

Which carols are sung?
The Office for Christmas Carols in the Austrian city of Graz has around 12,000 songs in its archive. Christmas carols are a bit like the master key when it comes to unlocking the Christmas mood. 90 percent of Germans would not wish to spend Christmas without them. The most famous carol in the world is without doubt “Silent Night”. It was first sung in Austria in 1818 and has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects.

Is there such a thing as a “modern” Christmas?
I would say that a modern Christmas is characterised by a welcome relaxation of customs. A fir tree? Maybe not the best thing from an ecological point of view. Roast goose? Perhaps a bit too brutal for vegetarians. Instead, people tend to focus nowadays on the original idea of the festival, namely that it’s a good thing to get the whole family together once a year to share a meal. To spend time together. To treat one another with gifts – including the gifts of being close and providing a sense of security – and in some cases to use material gifts to signal: I’ve been thinking about you and about your wishes.

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