Oh Tannenbaum: A story of Germany and Christmas

Merry Christmas to one and all! Here is my Christmas gift to you…. a little something that I wrote several years back for a magazine in Munich. Figured I’d allow all that research to breathe again, so I freshened it up a tad and wrapped it up on my iPad in hopes of sharing all the great things I learned about so many of our Christmas traditions, and it all begins in Germany…. where else?! 

Of all the times of year to be in Germany, the Weihnachtszeit, or Christmas season, is my absolute favorite. The innate beauty, endearing charm, and colorful traditions that I found in Bavaria added to the distinct magic of the season….it was sort of like living in a Christmas card. Let me explain –


The Zwetchgenmaendl (Bavarian), or Zwetschgenmaenner

Spanning from the first Sunday of Advent to Epiphany on January 6, Weihnachten is a time when Germany – and Bavaria in particular – displays a delightful and fascinating collection of secular and solemn contributions to this much-loved holiday. From Saint Nikolaus to the amusing Zwetschgenmandl (plum man) – a folk talisman of good luck – Christmas is a mix of religious devotion, folk heritage, pagan custom and Bavarian whimsy. In the Christian ecclesiastical calendar, Advent is the period before Christmas which spans four Sundays, beginning with the one closest to the feast of Saint Andrew (November 30) and ending on Christmas Eve — Heiligabend. The first Sunday of Advent is significant not only because it’s the official start of the Christmas season, but also because it marks the beginning of a new church year. And, according to tradition, it’s on this Sunday that the first candle of the Adventskranz, or Advent wreath, is lit.

Tracing its origins back to the mid-19th century, the Advent wreath is considered a relatively new holiday practice. An evangelical theologian in northern Germany is credited with the original idea — a wooden wheel, which held 24 candles, one for each of the 24 December days before Christmas. In the ensuing years, as the custom developed and grew in popularity, the wooden wheel was replaced by a wreath of evergreen branches, and the number of candles was reduced to four. By 1925, even the Catholic Church in Cologne publicly displayed the wreath. And by 1930, the custom had reached Munich, too.

Another Protestant and Catholic ritual is the December 4th commemoration of Saint Barbara. On this day, a branch is customarily cut from a tree – such as apple, hazelnut, cherry, plum or forsythia – and brought inside the house, where it’s placed in a vase. If the branch — called the Barbarazweig — blooms by Christmas, it is considered an auspicious sign for the future and the coming year. In some parts of Germany, the feast of Saint Barbara is also the day on which Kletzenbrot, a traditional fruit bread, is baked.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany will agree that the most spirited and visible sign of Germany’s Advent season is the Christkindlmarkt, also known variously as the Christkindlesmarkt, Weihnachtsmarkt or Nikolausmarkt. One of the oldest, and certainly the most famous, is Nuremberg’s Christmas market, which can be traced back to the mid-16th century. These immensely popular outdoor fairs, featuring rows of festively decorated wooden stalls, offer everything from holiday decorations, wooden toys and candles, to arts and crafts and warm, woolen socks. Filling the crisp Winter air with the wonderful aromas of grilled sausages, roasted chestnuts, gebrannte Mandeln (sugar-roasted almonds), Gluehwein (mulled wine), and Lebkuchen (gingerbread), no Christmas in Germany seems complete without a visit to one of these magical places.

A beloved pastime of young and old alike is yet another tradition with decidedly German origins, the Adventskalendar (Advent calendar), which appeared for the first time in the 19th century in one primitive form or another. The first printed version was produced in Germany in 1908. It was based on the childhood experiences of Swabian-born Gerhard Lang, whose mother made him cardboard Advent calendars to which 24 Wibile, or small candies, were attached.

Screen shot 2015-01-04 at 4.08.04 PMAn eagerly anticipated day on the calendar in Bavaria is always December 6 — the feast of Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra and patron saint of children. On this day, or more often the evening before, the bearded saint visits youngsters, presenting them with gifts from his sack, such as nuts, apples, clementine oranges, Lebkuchen, Kletzenbrot, and chocolate. More fascinating, perhaps, than the Christian symbolism associated with Nicholas, though, are the pagan roots of his scary-looking Bavarian companions.

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Thomas Nast Illustration

Depending on the region, they are referred to by any one of a number of names, including Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, Buttmandl, Klaubauf, Buttz, Pelzmaertel, Gangerl and Rumpelblas. These shadowy, sinister creatures with ghastly faces are typically covered in tattered garments, fur or straw, and known for their boisterous bells, Ruten (switches), loudchains or terrifying screams. In pre-Christian times, the foreboding characters were intended to scare away Winter’s demons on long, cold, dreadful nights. But today, Nicholas’ escorts often perform the additional task of scaring misbehaved children…. (I’ve heard that some even have burlap sacks to carry off any children who’ve been bad!)

Interestingly, Thomas Nast, the U.S. illustrator and cartoonist credited as the first to sketch America’s image of Saint Nicholas as a fat and jolly “Santa Claus” (Weihnachtsmann), was born in Landau, Bavaria, in 1840. It is said that his childhood memories of the Pelznickel contributed to his now-famous depiction.

Who then, one might ask, is the bearer of gifts to Bavarian children on Christmas Eve, if not Nicholas? Why the Christkindl, of course! Literally translated, the name means “Christ Child.” But the mysterious, captivating figure is usually female and dressed like a so-called Rauschgoldengel (gold foil angel), with curly, glowing hair, flowing robes and wings. Any youngster will tell you the Christkindl not only brings the presents on Heiligabend (December 24), when gifts are traditionally exchanged in Bavaria, but the Christmas tree and decorations too! At least one reference attributes the nickname of Nicholas – “Kris Kringle” – to an altered or misunderstood adaptation of “Christkindl.”

Bavaria’s age-old love for the Krippe, or creche (crib), is well known; the large annual Krippenmarkt (nativity scene market) in Munich during Advent attests to this. In fact, the city’s Bavarian National Museum is home to one of the most extraordinary and extensive collections of Krippen in the world. History credits Italian Jesuit Saint Francis of Assisi with assembling the first re-creation of a nativity scene in 1223, and the Jesuits brought this custom north of the Alps. But the talented artisans and woodworkers of southern Bavaria, especially Oberammergau, are said to have helped the custom propagate throughout the rest of the world.

Note the two miners in this classic Schwibbogen design

Two miners are featured in this classic Schwibbogen design

Craftsmen from Germany’s Erzgebirge (Iron Ore Mountains), in the state of Saxony, just north of Bavaria, have also made significant contributions to our Christmas holiday. The region, after all, is where the Nussknacker (nutcracker) first took its familiar grim-grinning form! Here the brightly lit and bowed Schwibbogen (flying buttress), displayed in windows at Christmas, is a local tradition dating from 1778. The intriguing artwork with its intricate interior designs, owes its name and shape to the architectural form of the entrance to the mountains’ mines, or tunnels (Stollen in German). It is worth noting that the similarly shaped, yet edible Christstollen (Christmas stollen) originated in Dresden about 1450.

The familiar Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramid), meanwhile, also comes from the Erzgebirge. Made from rough sticks and branches in earlier times, the pyramid is believed to be the predecessor of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree. Long a pagan symbol of life and fertility to the Germanic and Celtic peoples, beliefs about the evergreen are firmly rooted in German soil and legends about the tree as a Christmas symbol abound. One such story tells of Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, being among the first to use a candle-lit evergreen as a decoration at Christmas. The festive trees, of course, were eventually trimmed with such things as apples, paper roses, nuts and wafers. And thanks to glass-blowers of Thuringia, Christbaumkugeln, or glass ornaments, were introduced in the mid-19th century.  In 1841, the Christmas tree tradition spread beyond continental Europe to Great Britain. German Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, wanted his children to experience the Christmas tradition of his childhood. From Britain, the rest of the world was not far behind.

In German-speaking countries, the Christmas tree was part of a tradition called Rauhnaechte (harsh, or wild, nights) — known also as Eisnaechte (ice nights), Rauchnaechte (smoke nights), Zwischennaechte (between nights) and Zwoelfnaechte — in other words, the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” These are, quite simply, the 12 days between the end of Advent and Epiphany. According to custom still practiced in many German households, the tree is put up on December 24 and taken down around January 6 — Epiphany — which is known as the “Twelfth Night.” Age-old beliefs hold that during these 12 days, horrendous demons, witches, and mischievous spirits roam freely on earth to harrass the living. And loud noises, it would seem, are a successful means to drive the fiends away. So, as is still practiced in some areas, such as Berchtesgaden, whips are repeatedly cracked, bells are rung and gunpowder Boeller (muskets or canon) are shot with deafening repetition. Leaving nothing to chance, houses, stables and stalls are also blessed with holy water and fumigated with smoldering branches of juniper and other herbs.

A medieval legend that bones of the Three Wise Men are housed in a golden shrine at the cathedral in Cologne has, at least partly, contributed to the centuries’ old tradition of celebrating Epiphany — Heilige Drei Koenige. Children, dressed as the biblical Three Wise Men and carrying a Star of Bethlehem, go from house to house, singing traditional songs and collecting offerings for the poor. According to custom, they write “C + M + B” along with the year, above the door of each house. The meaning of the intials is two-fold: first, as the initials of the Three Wise Men — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar; and second, representing the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which asks God to bless the dwelling.

Without the influence of many of the customs that come from Germany, our own festivities would seem rather lackluster today. So, as we deck the halls with our own special traditions during Christmas, it’s worth remembering the abundant and colorful contributions made by this seemingly storybook land. 20111225-171627.jpg

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