It’s that time of the year again when monsoonal troughs hover over the coast of Far North Queensland, when cyclones begin to build and the air feels like a prickly woolen jumper several sizes too small. It’s one of the few times of the year when I become homesick for Germany. After more than two decades in Australia, Christmas in summer still makes no sense to me, especially in the Wet Tropics.
I don’t believe in baby Jesus, but I believe that gingerbread needs to be eaten on icy cold days when the sun never shines. I am a firm believer that the festive season needs to smell of fir tree branches, freshly baked Vanille Kipferl (crescent shaped, vanilla flavoured biscuits) and sugar coated roasted almonds. For me, Christmas will always be about going to the Weihnachtsmarkt (the Christmas market) all rugged up in a full-length feather down coat, drinking Glühwein (spiced hot mulled wine), browsing for hand made Christmas decorations and handcrafted toys I will never need, eating sausages with sauerkraut and German potato cakes with apple compote until I am about to burst.
Why I love Christmas in Germany
Last year I spent Christmas in Germany for the first time in many years and I was reminded what a special time of the year it is in Germany. It should be on you bucket list. Seriously. The whole country transforms into a twinkling winter wonderland. Public squares turn into bustling Christmas markets, giant Christmas trees decorate the streets and sunless days are filled with the light of a thousand candles and fairy lights, illuminating our homes, streets and hearts. If you haven’t been to Germany at Christmas time, make a wish this year and make sure you go, just once in your life!
Christmas is also the day when some of us celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary. My parents are not among them. We never went to church, we weren’t baptised, but we all love Christmas. Passionately.
Like most of the world, my family celebrates the pagan traditions of Christmas. In pre-Christian times, homes where decorated with branches of fir tree at the winter solstice as a reminder that spring was going to follow the bitterly cold winters; that icy fields will always thaw and crops will once again be sown and harvested.
The traditions I love: The Christmas Tree
Visiting Germany at Christmas makes you understand why this is one of the rightful birthplaces of the Christmas Tree. The tradition of decorating freshly cut fir trees with edible things, like ginger bread and gold covered apples, goes back to the Middle Ages. Later, glass makers began to craft small ornaments which evolved into the decorations we use today and which can be admired and purchased on the many Christmas markets you will find all over Germany.
In Britain the Christmas Tree only arrived in the 1830s. It became popular a decade later when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, had a Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle.
Growing up, we always had a freshly cut tree with real candles. As tradition has it, my parents would secretly decorate the Christmas Tree on the 24th of December. As the light began to fade and the world turned into a fairytale of candlelight, they’d ring a bell and call us in to see the brightly lit tree, decorated with ornaments we had crafted ourselves in the weeks leading up to the big event. Underneath the tree, we would find our Bescherung, a pile of Christmas gifts.
These days white Christmases are rare, we don’t really do presents any more and mum has decided it’s easier, safer and more sustainable to have a fake Christmas tree that can be used over and over again. But like the rest of Germany, we continue the tradition of celebrating and giving presents on Christmas Eve.
The importance of Advent in Germany
Advent is an important part of the Christmas celebrations in Germany. As a kid, the best part of it was the Advent calendar. Ours were usually store-bought cardboard imitation gingerbread houses with 24 little doors. Counting down the days to Christmas Eve, each morning we would open one of the little doors and eat the piece of chocolate it contained before breakfast. Some years, a bigger effort was made and we would have a wreath of fir tree branches decorated with 24 little boxes or bags, each containing a different treat or small surprise.
Advent was also celebrated on the four Sunday afternoons before Christmas Eve. We would gather around our Advent Kranz, a circle of fir branches decorated with Christmas ribbons and four large candles, and light a candle, one on the first Sunday, two on the second Sunday and so on. My mother would toast a branch of fir tree on the stove. Soon the whole house would smell of fir and feel warm and cozy from the candles.
Gotta love the Christmas markets
The best part of Christmas in Germany are the Christmas markets. Every German town will put on its own. Some are famous and very large, some are intimate and small, but all will overstimulate your tastebuds. Freshly baked Flammkuchen, pizza-like discs topped with sour cream and bacon; sweet, hot, spiced mulled wine that goes to your head quickly; sugar coated apples that break your teeth. Christmas in Germany is an explosion of flavours, and colours. I had a long list of Christmas markets I wanted to visit, in the end I only managed to visit two. Berlin and Frankfurt, two of Germany’s best and largest Christmas markets.
Berlin’s Christmas markets
There are several Christmas markets in Germany’s capital city Berlin. The one held under the Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) right in the centre of the posh shopping mile, the Kurfürstendamm, impressed me the most. It gives you a culinary and historical perspective on Berlin and of the celebration we call Christmas, there is food for the stomach and food for the brain here. One moment you are munching on that Berlin institution, the Currywurst (chopped up sausage drenched in curry spiced tomato sauce), the next you are visiting one of Berlin’s most important monuments. The Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) remains deliberately bomb-scared, as a reminder of the atrocities of WWII.
Christmas market in Frankfurt
This is my home turf, so I will be biased and say that this is the best Christmas market in Germany. Go and see for yourself. It’s one of the largest and oldest in Germany. Held in the centre of town at the Römerberg, between St Paul’s Square and Mainkai (Quay of the River Main), it is packed every day from morning to evening. It’s on the tourist trail and it’s also an institution with the locals who stop by on their way home from work to chat, eat, drink and gossip as Frankfurters love to do.
My nomadic soul felt truly at home here, drinking hot spiced wine, braving the winter winds under the stunning backdrop of replica timber framed houses, the so called Fachwerkhauser. I remember coming to the Römerberg as a kid, when there were no timber framed house. It’s incredible to think that the traditional houses in the centre of Frankfurt, destroyed in WWII, like so much of Germany’s architectural heritage, have been rebuilt during my lifetime. But this is no Disney land. If I hadn’t told you, you wouldn’t know it. They look just like they did when the poet Goethe used to meander the streets of his hometown Frankfurt.
What’s your relationship with Christmas? Do you love? Do you hate it? Maybe you don’t do Christmas?
I would love to hear from you!
Merry Christmas! Frohe Weihnachten!
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