This year was my very first Christmas that I spent away from my family. Not only were we not together, but we were almost 4,000 miles away. It also happened to be one of the most interesting and informative Christmases.
Something that many people don’t realize is that a lot of American Christmas traditions originate from Germany: advent calendars, advent wreaths, Christmas trees, gingerbread, even many songs like “Silent Night” and “O Christmas Tree”. That being said, even the similar traditions were all slightly different from those that I grew up with. This meant “Silent Night” becoming “Stille Nacht” and the ever rock hard gingerbread of my childhood suddenly being soft, covered in chocolate, and filled with jelly. Advent calendars in the US might consist of 24 tiny and cheap pieces of chocolate in a cardboard box, and while you can find those in Germany as well, they were not the norm in my experience. My Advent calendar this year had a different packet of Müsli, a form of German cereal, everyday, and my host sister had one full of journaling supplies. Moreover, it’s also extremely common to receive handmade Advent calendars. My host mom, for example, was a part of a group of 25 women who each baked 24 christmas confections and gave one to each of the other women in the group. Thus, each day of Advent everyone received a different homemade treat ranging from Christstollen to homemade chai syrup to fresh Gluhwein.
What’s even more amazing is that this doesn’t even begin to cover the traditions that were completely new to me. The biggest shock culturally was how Christmas was celebrated in school. Having grown up going to public schools in the US, there was always an extra effort made to be inclusive to people of all religions. This meant no Christmas songs at the winter concert, Christmas Break being called Winter Break, and Secret Santas being called “Secret Snowflakes”. In Germany, there was zero effort made in this regard. My public German high school was filled with Christmas trees the second Advent began and the giant crosses throughout the school had been there since I arrived. Every class had a Christmas party on the last day before break and was visited by “Nikolaus” despite the large number of Muslim students in the school. My host sister’s public elementary school even put on a big production of the Nativity play on Christmas Eve.
Another major difference in tradition was the prevalence of Christmas markets in Germany. It felt like every town and village in Germany had its own “Weihnachtsmarkt” and with these many Christmas markets came an abundance of German Christmas foods. I tried roasted chestnuts for the first time this year, along with Bratwurst, Schupfnudeln, Gulasch, Langos, Kinderpunsch, Magenbrot, Lebkuchen, and an abundance of candied nuts.
On the topic of food, I also ate goose for dinner on Christmas day, which was something I thought only happened in A Christmas Carol and not in real life. However, despite the impressive goose dinner on the 25th, Germans actually celebrate Christmas on the 24th or Heiligabend. Presents are opened on Christmas Eve night instead of the following morning and there are no stockings at all. Instead, on the 6th of December, they celebrate Nikolaustag or St. Nicholas Day. Here kids receive candy and small presents in their shoes from St. Nicholas if their shoes are properly cleaned, and get punished by Knecht Ruprecht if they are not.
Despite the many differences from the Christmas I had grown expect to over the years living in the US, Christmas in Germany was equally beautiful in its own way. I look forward to spending Christmas with my family again next year, but it will definitely be with the addition of many of the German Christmas traditions I learned and came to love this past December.