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Christmas: a very German holiday

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

By Phoebe Jeffries

It's that time of year again: the tree is decorated, the lights are on and the gifts are wrapped.

Surprisingly, many of our Christmas traditions have German origins. Here is a brief overview of some of those traditions:


Christmas Markets

Seasonal markets in Germany had an important function in medieval times for villagers to stock up on supplies to last over the winter and to come together and celebrate after the busy harvest period. Following the popularisation of Christmas as a gift-giving festival, stalls began to sell gifts, treats and decorations. The oldest recorded December market was held in Vienna in 1298, but the first specific Christkindlmarkt did not appear in Germany until nearly a century later and have since spread across Europe.


The Christmas Tree

Whilst evergreen trees have received a special status and symbolism in human culture since antiquity, they did not become associated with Christmas until the 16th century, when Christians in Germany began bringing fir trees into their homes. They decorated them with apples, nuts and gingerbread, which evolved into paper decorations in the 17th century. Most Britons did not have a Christmas tree in their homes until the mid-19th century, after sketches appeared of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree. The custom had been brought over by Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert and quickly became fashionable, and the tradition spread.


Christmas Tree Lights

German legend states that whilst German pastor Martin Luther was out walking in a forest one night, he was enraptured by the beauty of the stars twinkling through the trees. He tried to recreate the scene for his family by lighting candles and placing them on the branches of a fir tree in their home. Partially owing to their fire and smoke risk, candles were replaced by electric lights in the West in the 1890s, though many European countries still use candles to light up their Christmas trees.


Tinsel

Records of the idea of tinsel have been found from as late back as 1610 in Nuremburg. Thin strands of shredded silver were originally used but tarnished quickly so other shiny metals such as copper began to be used. Although they reflected the Christmas tree lights effectively, such metals were heavy and replaced by aluminium, and later, lead. Developments in manufacturing and materials made plastic-based tinsel a cheaper, easier and safer option to decorate the tree with in the 20th century.


Baubles

Baubles were first invented in Lauscha, Thüringen, a town famed for its glassmaking. In the late 1840s, Hans Greiner began shaping glass into moulds shaped like fruit and nut. Silver coloured detailing was added using a combination of sugar water and silver nitrate and the shape become more spherical. Queen Victoria was said to like baubles brought over by her husband Albert from Germany and helped to popularise their use as Christmas tree decorations in the UK.


Carols

Whilst Germany did not invent the concept of carolling, many of the classic carols we hear today have German origins. Perhaps the most popular traditional carol, Silent Night, is a translation of Stille Nacht, which was composed in Austria in the 19th century, although the original melody has changed considerably from the original. Deriving its title from the German word for fir tree, O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree) was not originally meant to be Christmassy, but simply a celebration of the evergreen as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness in uncertain times. As the concept of Christmas trees became more popular during the 19th century, the song began to be associated with Christmas time.


Mulled Wine

Most adults enjoy a cup of spiced red wine during the Christmas season, a drink known in Germany as Glühwein (mulled wine). The oldest recorded recipe for Glühwein has been found in the state archives in Dresden and dates back to 1834. Composed by the Count of Wackerbarth, Augustus Christopher, it combines honey, pomegranate, cinnamon, ginger, aniseed, nutmeg, saffron and other ingredients to create a heavily spiced wine.


Naughty or Nice

Whilst Germany did not invent the ‘naughty list’, folk culture in southern Germany and Austrian does contain the concept of a Christmas ‘demon’ who accompanies Saint Nicholas (a forerunner to Father Christmas) and punishes naughty children. Known by many names including Belsnickle, Knecht Ruprecht, and Krampus, this half-goat, half-man demon whips naughty children with switches of birch before carrying them away to his lair.

Frohe Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!

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