HAMBURG — Most of North America’s Christmas traditions — from the lighted, decorated tree to the prototypes of Santa Claus and the Christmas stocking to half of the carols we sing — can trace their roots back to Germany.
(Of course some of those traditions arrived via Britain, but most of the UK’s version of Christmas came from Germany too, largely due to the influence of the family of Hanoverian princelings who have been sitting on the English throne since 1714.)
There are some major differences, however, between a German Christmas and a Canadian or American Christmas.
And I’m not talking about weather, although the North German countryside today (Monday, Dec. 23) looks a lot more like a bucolic Irish springtime than the ice-storm mess currently gripping Toronto.
Today (above) and one year ago (below).
The biggest difference between Christmas in Canada and Christmas in Germany (apart from the fact that Christmas in Germany is called Weihnachten) is this:
In Germany, all the really fun Christmas stuff — like rushing to the tree to open presents, singing carols and so on — is already over by Christmas Day.
The big day in Deutschland is Dec. 24 — Christmas Eve — and it really is a big day because almost everything happens that afternoon and evening, including putting up the Christmas tree.
Yep, the tree won’t even go up in most German homes until mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Dec. 24. Everyone pitches in to decorate the tree and then goes out to church or visits neighbours or whatever for the rest of the afternoon.
(Until the Christmas tree goes up, Germans make do with a hanging Advent wreath holding four candles that are lit one by one on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.)
The Christmas tree is pretty much a German invention and is, in fact, older than Christmas. The pagan tribes of ancient Germany brought evergreen boughs into their huts and hovels during the coldest, darkest time of the year to remind themselves that spring would come eventually.
A little later, they started burning whole trees outside their homes around the same time to shoo off the winter blues. Eventually the trees were moved inside and the devouring flames were reduced to small symbolic candles to avoid burning the whole house down.
When Christianity was introduced, the Germans just incorporated their pagan tradition of the lighted winter tree into their Christmas celebrations.
The Christmas tree showed up in England in the 1700s along with the line of German princes who became the British Kings George I, II and III. Mainly because the Georges weren’t very popular, the Christmas tree didn’t really spread outside the royal palaces until young Victoria ascended the throne.
The December 1848 issue of the Illustrated London News contained an engraving showing Victoria, her German husband Albert and their brood of children gathered around a lighted and decorated Christmas tree.
That started a Christmas-tree fad among the celebrity-conscious middle class of England, further fueled by Charles Dicklens’ various Christmas stories that were the best-sellers of the mid-19th Century.
The Christmas tree seems to have been popularized in North America a bit earlier, during the reign of George III, when German mercenaries hired to help put down that nasty little colonial American rebellion celebrated Christmas with their quaint tradition of cutting down fir trees, hauling them inside and decorating them.
Now one thing we need to get straight here is that a Christmas tree is called, in German, ein Weihnachtsbaum since “Christmas” is Weihnachten and “tree” is baum.
So now you’re wondering what Tannenbaum is. The “baum” you know is “tree” and the Tanne is just the type of tree — a fir, which is the evergreen Germans prefer for their Weihnachtsbaum. You could also have a Kiefer (pine) or Fichte (spruce ) Weihnachtsbaum.
Meanwhile, back on Christmas Eve, it’s getting dark and people are gathering back at the house to sing carols and drink hot mulled glühwein (which means “glow wine” but tastes to me more like it’s pronounced, “glue vine”).
When everyone’s attained a certain glow from sharing songs and wine, some mysterious person (could it possibly be Santa?) rings a bell and the assembled celebrants, still singing, traipse into the living room to admire all the presents that have magically appeared under the tree.
Then it’s the usual joyous mayhem of present opening and admiring and more present opening and, because it’s evening not morning, maybe a little more glühwein or bubbly or whatever. It’s all just a day early.
After the presents — sometimes before — comes a feast fit for a … pauper. Yeah, the one big thing left over for the real Christmas Day is a fancy Christmas dinner. The Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally something plain and simple like wieners and potato salad — just to remind everyone that Mary and Joseph were poor folk travelling on a tight budget the night Jesus was born.
Christmas Day itself is a bit of an anti-climax (apart from the big dinner) just because the excitement of the present-opening is already a fading memory. It’s sort of like New Year’s Day a week later — the aftermath, the clean-up-and-count-your-casualties day that follows the truly big event the previous night.
Of course, because all the fun’s already pretty much over, Germans have decided to double their ennui by having two days of Christmas — Dec. 25 and 26 — which is really more like having two Boxing Days (although Germans don’t use the term “Boxing Day” and don’t have Boxing Day sales — the stores definitely stay closed both days of Christmas).
Another Christmasy thing Germans have two — or more — of is Santa Claus. But he’s not called Santa Claus in Germany: He’s called Sankt Nikolas in early December and he’s called der Weihnachtsmann (the Christmas Man) in late December. Depending on who you ask, he’s either the same guy or two different guys.
Sankt Nikolas shows up on the night of Dec. 5-6 (since Dec. 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and other criminals) to bestow small gifts on children who were smart enough to put their shoes by a door or window, just waiting for kindly old Nick to fill them with candies, small toys and so on. It’s where the concept of Christmas stocking came from, in other words.
Germany’s Sankt Nikolaus (left) and Saint Nicholas (right), the 4th-Century Turkish bishop whose Dec. 6 feast day got melded into the whole Christmas package.
He’s got half a dozen other names in other parts of Germany — along the Rhine, Sankt Nikolas is also known as Pelznickel (“Pelz” being fur) for example — but you get the drift.
Weihnachtsmann — or is this Sankt Nikolaus just dressed as der Weihnachtsmann?
Then this other guy (or maybe the same guy), der Weihnachtsmann, shows up on Dec. 24 to deliver another round of bigger presents. In the Catholic south of Germany, kids used to believe that Baby Jesus brought the gifts, but Weihnachtsmann has pretty much taken over everywhere now. Over the years, Weinachtsmann has basically morphed from a Father Christmas character to the basic Santa Claus image. It’s all rather confusing but the kids don’t seem to mind as long as somebody keeps delivering gifts.
Speaking of confusing, let’s look at what Germans call the various days of Christmas.
Everything’s “holy” — which makes sense, given that the whole holiday season is supposed to be celebrating the birth of the little holy being at the centre of Christianity.
But Germans have a couple of words that mean “holy” — “heilig” and “weihen” — and they attach them to different days over the holidays.
Christmas Eve is Heiligabend (Holy Evening).
Christmas Day is Weihnachten (Holy Night).
Anyway, I have to stop now because Heiligabend is almost upon us, there are presents to wrap and Weihnachtsmann is on his way. Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas) from Deutschland.