As we’re hurtling towards the 25th of December you’re probably thinking of pohutakawa, barbecues, jandals and a Kiwi-style summer Christmas. It’s a long way from the Christmas’ of my childhood, which were full of traditions that date back hundreds of years and continue even now. In contrast to Aotearoa, December in Germany can be pretty grim – it’s cold, it’s grey and the days are short on hours and sunshine. Perhaps that’s why Germans have developed so many warm and wonderful Christmas traditions that brighten things up and help us make it through the long cold winter.
In Germany the festive season begins with the start of Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. The Advent calendar is a German tradition started by the Lutherans in the 19th century. You’ve probably heard of Advent or at least seen the chocolate-filled Advent calendars that fill the shops at this time of year. The modern variety are far-removed from traditional ones, which often featured a nativity scene, Saint Nicholas or winter weather. Some had windows – one could be opened each day to reveal a scripture or poem while others had a pocket that held a small gift. There are lots of great ideas for making your own – ranging from sewing 24 socks, decorated brown paper bags like the one in the image above, a bunch of little wrapped presents, or an elaborate calendars like this one here.
There is also the Advent wreath, which in Germany has four candles on it, one for each Sunday of Advent. You light the first candle on the first Sunday then on the next Sunday light another and so on, marking the weeks until the big day. Both are clever ways to help children enjoy the countdown to Santa’s arrival and also spread the festive fun over the whole month – most important when the weather is grim and children are largely stuck in the house.
A popular Christmas tradition we celebrate here that has its origins in Germany is the decorated Christmas tree. Popular with Lutherans, who we can thank for so many of our lovely Christmas traditions, the idea soon spread throughout the world and is now one of the most common symbols of Christmas. Usually an evergreen of some type, such as a pine, spruce or fir, they were originally decorated with roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, sweets and tinsel. Illumination began first with candles, moving to Christmas lights after the introduction of electricity, and the sky’s the limit now as whole neighbourhoods compete for the flashiest lightshow! If the idea of all that tinsel doesn’t appeal, you can go completely green with a real tree and edible or plant-based decorations that can be composted once New Year arrives. I always look forward to the day you get out the box of family heirloom decorations from the storage and indulge in memories of years gone by, since you first got these decorations. My favourite Christmas decoration story – one that I annoy my kids with every year – is the one of our straw stars. When we immigrated to New Zealand in 2010, we brought all our household belongings from Germany in a 40 foot container. It was jam-packed and I was dreading what MPI might pick out and take issue with upon arrival on these shores. And the one thing they did pick out, was my collection of straw Christmas decorations – stars and angels – which had been given to me by my mother, who was obsessed with Christmas traditions and decorations. The options were to get the stars fumigated or destroyed. Since I wasn’t ready to part with them, I opted for the $300 fumigation and to this day, my husband still rolls his eyes at the sight of them.
I grew up in the deeply Catholic south western parts of Germany and when I was little we didn’t celebrate the red, cheery “Coca Cola” Santa we now associate with Christmas. Instead we had Saint Nikolaus, dressed in his bishop’s regalia and riding a white horse. The historic Saint Nikolaus was actually a bishop at the time of the Roman Empire in what is now Demre, Turkey. He was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker due to the number of miracles he performed and is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students in various cities and countries around Europe. Busy guy! His legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”).
In those catholic parts of Germany people gather at the house of friends or family and ‘Wait for Saint Nikolaus’. For young children it’s a slightly scary tradition, and one we were reminded about all through the year if we were starting to misbehave. When Saint Nikolaus finally rapped the door with his bishops staff, the time came for each child to stand in front of Saint Nikolaus as he checked his big golden book in which all your good and bad deeds over the year had been recorded. He knew EVERYTHING.
He would start to list your endeavours from the book, looking you up and down and asking whether or not you’d been good. If you had been a little bit naughty you could at least redeem yourself by singing a song or reciting a Christmas poem and then he’d let you reach into his big sack and take a present. But if you’d been very naughty, causing all kinds of problems for your parents or teachers, you didn’t get a present at all, and in the worst cases, you got the rod! It didn’t happen often, but I do remember my cousin not getting a present one year because he had been too naughty…. I laughed last week when my aunt sent a picture of my niece dressed up in Santa clothes ‘Waiting for Saint Nick’ – she’s the daughter of the very cousin who’d been too naughty to get a present all those years ago! This tradition doesn’t seem to have caught on in other parts of the world beyond Santa appearing in shopping malls and little kids having their picture taken with him.
As a baker, one of my favourite ways to celebrate Christmas is with food, and Christmas time is really when the best of German baking is done! One of these is traditional baked treats is Stollen, the mother of all Christmas cakes.
My mouth is watering as I tell you about Stollen – it really is delicious and I hope you have the chance to try some this Christmas. So what makes Stollen so special? Well, its a cake-like fruit bread, and while its ingredients may not look anything special, the combination of yeast, flour, fruit, candied peel, almonds and spice make magic! Filled with a rope of marzipan it gets brushed with melted butter, once it comes out of the oven and then dusted with a thick layer of icing sugar. Something that I only started since moving to these parts of the world is toasting a slice, but it really takes it to another level, slathered with butter, the marzipan spread on top and with a strong black coffee, it’s the perfect Christmas morning treat, while the kids are frantically unwrapping the presents!
The story of the Dresden Stollen (Striezel) goes back over 500 years to 1474, its recipe improving over time. Originally it was sold at a special market, the Striezelmarkt, and even now genuine Dresden Stollen carries a seal depicting King Augustus II the Strong. This ‘official’ Stollen is made by only 150 Dresden bakers. Stollen is so important in Dresden that it has its own festival, which takes place on the Saturday before the second Sunday in Advent. The ceremonial Stollen is massive – it weighs between three and four tonnes and is paraded through the streets before being cut with its own special knife, which is more like a huge saw. Known as the Grand Dresden Stollen Knife, its silver-plated, 1.6 metres long and weighs in at a whopping 12 kilograms! The cutting of the giant Stollen with the giant Stollen knife is all part of the festivities, with everyone sharing in the feast afterwards.
Stollen isn’t our only tasty festive treat – we also have the wonderful tradition of baking small spiced biscuits for Christmas. Known as Lebkuchen, they’re the original Christmas cookie and the tradition spread thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were of German ancestry. Nowadays there are hundreds, if not thousands of different recipes for Christmas cookies and my sister always bakes at least 20 different varieties each year! She starts at the beginning of Advent and unless there’s a more pressing task she’ll bake a different variety each day. Depending on when Advent is and how busy she is otherwise, she usually ends up with 20 big tins full of biscuits. My own efforts are a little more moderate, but usually I manage to bake some four or five varieties. Christmas in Germany really is a delightful celebration of food and family that helps the locals survive the cold and grey winter months.
I don’t really fancy living in Germany all year round ever again, the winters are just too depressing and the general public grumpiness of people, wears me down after a while, but I don’t think I will ever get used to a summer Christmas. I am a summer person, don’t get me wrong, and I love the sunny days and long evenings of a Kiwi Christmas, and New Years in summer beats a winter New Years hands down. But the traditions around Christmas mostly make sense in wintertime and to me will always seem slightly odd in the summer. So I guess it’s one of our more endearing habits that we keep up with the traditions of our past anyway, they remind us of where we came from and what matters most – family and friends, the importance of laughing together and catching up on what happened in life over the last year. Rituals are hugely important for this and no better way to keep rituals alive than through food, so I’m glad I can still enjoy and share some of my favourite old German Christmas traditions – cookies, Stollen and advent calendars with the people in my life here in New Zealand.
No matter where you and what your Christmas traditions entail have your Christmas tree this year. Fröhliche Weihnachten, Mere Kirihimete, Joyeux Noël and Merry Christmas!
The Christmas biscuits I still make every year with my boys are called ‘Ausgestochene’ , which translates to ‘cut-outs’, admittedly neither a very creative nor festive name. It’s a buttery shortbread type biscuit that can be rolled quite thin and cut into any shape or from you like. We have a collection of different cutters and the kids love decorating them in all sorts of ways. It’s fun time and the recipe is easy.
- 500g flour
- 200g sugar
- 2 eggs (medium size)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 250g butter unsalted (cold)
- zest of half a lemon
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 250g icing sugar
- food colouring
Mix flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl and rub in the cold butter. Then add the eggs and zest of lemon. Once you have a dough that sticks together stop kneading. Overkneading results in tougher biscuits. Refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours or overnight.
Cut the dough up into quarters and roll out with a rolling pin. Cut to your liking with your favourite cookie cutters.
Do decorate the cookies, I make icing from lemon juice and icing sugar and food colouring. Make sure the icing isn’t too runny. You can make small piping bags from baking paper, or decorate with small spoons, or skewers. My kids love adding sprinkles, but really there is no end to your possibilities.