Visiting Berlin in December, I am reminded that Germany is a land of five seasons: there’s spring, summer, fall, and winter. And then, there’s Christmas time. The Weihnachtszeit is not so much a frenzied countdown of shopping days (though gifts have a place) as an elaborate protocol of traditions, rituals and festivities. Many of these are country-wide, some are regional and some vary by family. All of them offer a reprieve from the bleak December days, when trees are bare and dusk descends in the afternoon.
Christmas is by far the most popular German holiday and has been celebrated since the sixteenth century. It is a quintessentially Christian holiday but it has pagan roots. Centuries ago, Germanic tribes celebrated the Winter Solstice by lighting fires and torches and bringing evergreens indoors to ward off the encroaching darkness, and to symbolize their trust that light – and the cycle of growing - would return. In order to convert the pagans, Christians followed the calendar of these non-believers and adapted their rituals. They picked a day close to solstice - December 24th – as the night of Christ’s birth and allowed the evergreen tree to have a place in the Christmas holiday. East German authorities attempted – unsuccessfully – to wean the population away from Weihnachten. They did away with Christian images and with Santa Claus and even came up with the neutral term Jahresendzeitfigur (year’s end figure) to replace the word angel. Unsurprisingly, that word never stuck. But for many years it was difficult, if not impossible, for East Germans to obtain Christmas trees and decorations.
Weihnachtszeit is the Advent season, marked by the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In the Christian tradition, Advent is a time to prepare for the high holiday of Jesus’ birth. But with its brightly burning candles, Advent also links to the celebrations of light that characterized the older solstice rituals.
On the first Advent Sunday, fat evergreen wreaths appear in homes, public offices, cafes and hotels. They don’t decorate font doors, like American wreaths do, but they sit on tables, shelves or pianos and they hold four candles. On the first Advent Sunday, one candle is lit, a second is lit on the following Sunday and so on, until the four burn brightly just before Christmas Eve.
As a child, I would find an Advent calendar thumbtacked to the wall by my bed on December 1. Usually, it was a glitter-sprinkled holiday scene, with the numbers 1 through 24 written on windows or doors. I remember gently pushing these open with my finger to reveal the second layer of images—a tiny gingerbread man, a rocking horse, or an angel. The images were simple, but the daily ritual of opening these little windows filled the dark winter days with anticipation, helping me to keep a countdown until December 24th, Christmas Eve.
Advent calendars originated in Germany in the 1920’s. Originally, they depicted religious images, usually a nativity scene, but over time, they became more secular: a snowy village, Santa with a sack full of presents. For decades, Advent calendars remained a uniquely German tradition and I really missed them when I came to the United States as a twelve year old. Just recently, I learned that General Eisenhower, stationed in Germany after World War Two, commissioned an advent calendar for his family in 1946 (the one featured in the photo). Nowadays, they have become more common and more elaborate. I’ve seen exquisite three-dimensional scenes whose hidden pictures delight adults as well as children. It’s good to know that the small ritual of uncovering a tiny surprise has lost none of its magic.
Advent is the time of Germany’s famous Christmas markets, which transform urban plazas and village squares into brightly lit fairylands with booths featuring sweets, food and drink as well as handmade crafts. Depending on the region and the town or even the district of a city like Berlin, each market has a distinct atmosphere. But all of them feature mulled wine, gingerbread Lebkuchen and raisin-studded Stollen, roasted almonds, marzipan and chocolates.
On December six, children arise with great eagerness to see what St. Nikolaus has left in the shoes they have polished eagerly and set by the front door. Like Santa Claus – the figure he inspired - St. Nikolaus knows which children are “good” and which are “bad” and he distributes goodies accordingly: sweets and nuts for the well-behaved and coal pieces or switches made of twigs for those who were naughty.
During the days leading up to Christmas, more and more decorations appear: the colorful nutcracker immortalized in Tschaikovsky’s ballet, the traditional wooden Pyramide with candles whose heat rotates tiers of carved angels, the Räuchermännchen – a hollow wooden figure of a man that hides an incense cone. When lit, smoke curls from the man’s pipe. Often, these are family heirlooms, handed down through generations. Some Germans force hyacinth or narcissus bulbs, others cut a branch from a fruit tree and put this in a vase on Saint Barbara’s Day, the fourth of December. In twenty days – just in time for Christmas – the Barbarazweig sprouts leaves and blossoms – another welcome symbol of rebirth at the end of the year.
Traditionally, Advent is the time for baking cookies - peppery Pfeffernuesse and cinnamon flavored Zimtsterne as well as family favorites. In my family, the women baked Schokoladenherzen whose recipe was passed by word of mouth until I badgered my mother to write it down. The recipe is a list of ingredients, with vague measurements, so the cookies, like fine wine, have their unique taste every year.
As a child, the Weihnachtszeit was magical for me because of its sweet surprises. It was full of specific sensory sensations: the smell of fir and spice, the taste of nuts and chocolate. Cold hands and feet were a part of it, too. Whispered secrets and hidden presents heightened the sweet sense of anticipation. Years later, when I raised my daughters, I realized how much work was required to create the excitement and Vorfreude (literal translation: the “ joy before”) that I had cherished. All the markers of the season are labor intensive and I found myself writing the longest to do list of the year. As I paced myself to complete this list in a spirit of calm and good cheer, I found myself wishing for a real Weihnachtsmann who would take care of buying and wrapping the gifts.