German Christmas Traditions (Weihnachtstraditionen)
Many of the Christmas traditions that are today celebrated in countries around the world began in German-speaking countries.
Advent Calendars (Adventskalendars)
Advent is the 24-day period that anticipates the celebration of the birth of Christ. In the 1800s, German Lutherans would count down the days until Christmas by marking each day with a chalk line on the door. Some lit a new candle for each day of Advent, and others hung little religious pictures on the wall.
The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, and the first commercially printed calendar was produced in 1908. The Advent Calendar was at first a simple card with a paper backing, with 24 windows on the face that revealed different Bible verses and Christmas scenes and symbols when opened. A window was opened each day over the 24-day period leading up to Christmas Eve (“Heiligabend”). Other Adventskalendars were fashioned from sheets of cloth with pockets that were filled with candy or small gifts.
Most Advent Calendars today are made for children and reveal pieces of chocolate behind their windows. As in the past, some windows include a poem, picture, prayer or part of a story. While most Advent Calendars are shaped like cards, some are three-dimensional models and are made to look like buildings or figures.
Nutcrackers as we know them today originated in the Erzgebirge area of Germany around the 16th century. Over the years, they became popular children’s toys and collectible items.
People also traditionally gave Nutcrackers as keepsakes to bring good luck to friends and family and protect their homes from evil spirits and danger.
The Nutcracker became a part of popular culture beginning with the novel “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig”), which told the fairy tale of a prince Nutcracker who comes to life. The novel was the basis for the composer Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” a ballet which is often performed around the Christmas. The popularity of the ballet is also attributed to the popularity of the toy soldier Nutcracker, probably the most recognizable Nutcracker figure around the world.
German Smoking Men (Räuchermänner)
During the early to mid-1600s, it was commonly believed that evil spirits came out on “Die Rauhnächte, or “Raunacht” (the longest night of the year), close to the Christmas holidays. Noise and light was said to drive away these evil spirits and protect the people inside the home. One tradition that developed as a part of this, and as an extension of Christian religious practices, was the burning of incense to bless German homes. At first, incense was simply burned on a tin plate, but as the tradition developed, people thought of more inventive ways to offer their blessing.
The “Smoking Man” became a decorative and common way to burn incense. Hollowed-out figurines were created that came apart at the middle and held a tin plate inside to hold incense. When the incense was lit and placed on the plate, smoke would curl out of a hole carved in the mouth to resemble a man smoking a pipe.
The first Smoking Men were carved to resemble people who could be found around any local village, such as bakers and other tradespeople. As the figures evolved, they were limited only to the creators’ imaginations, and today can be found in many styles and variations, especially Christmas themes such as Santa Claus and snowmen.
Christmas Trees (Tannenbaum)
The Christmas Tree, or “Weinachtsbaum,” is a popular tradition that began in Europe but is now found in countries around the world.
In the 7th century, a monk traveled around Germany and nearby countries converting people to Christianity. According to legend, like St. Patrick did with the shamrock, the monk used the fir tree’s triangular shape to teach the people about the Holy Trinity. The fir tree (“Tannenbaum”) became a symbol of Christianity and was decorated and hung upside down from ceilings at Christmas in central European countries to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Christmas markets established in many German towns provided gingerbread cookies and wax ornaments for people to hang on their Christmas Trees. The angel or star that is often placed atop the tree represents the angels that appeared in the sky on Christmas or the Star of Bethlehem that guided Mary and Joseph to their destination.
German Nutcrackers (Nussknackers)
Although Nutcrackers have been found from as early as the third century B.C., the Nutcracker figurines as we know them today originated in the Erzgebirge area of Germany around the 1700s. Over the years, they became popular collectible items.
Nutcrackers represent “cracking a tough nut,” a German expression referring to a person who has big problems. The artisans who originally created Nutcrackers did have big problems – they were poor and had to struggle to make a living. They also resented the day’s authority figures because they felt that they did not care about them and did not help with their problems. The artisans began crafting their Nutcrackers to resemble kings, soldiers and other military figures. These authority figures would now crack the nuts and be at the beck and call of the poor instead of the other way around. The internet shows examples of these traditional Nutcrackers.
People gave Nutcrackers as keepsakes to bring good luck to friends and family and protect their homes from evil spirits and danger. Many Nutcrackers have “bared,” big teeth, which is purposely done to resemble a watchdog and scare away the evil spirits who would bring harm. In medieval times, part of the dessert course included nuts and other sweetmeats. An unusual or interesting nutcracker was part of the social custom and a conversation piece, like a pretty vase or piece of art might be today.
Nutcrackers are also a symbol of the cycle of life. When a nut falls to the ground, it grows into a strong tree that is eventually cut down and used by woodcutters and craftsmen. The cycle begins anew when another nut from the big tree falls down to the ground.
The nutcracker became a part of popular culture beginning with the novel “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” by E.T. Amadeus Hoffman. The novel was the basis for the composer Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” a ballet which is often performed around the Christmas holidays and has become a popular holiday tradition around the world.
German Smoking Men (Rauchermanner)
For thousands of years, incense has been regarded as a valuable commodity for both personal use and trade. In ancient times, it was considered as valuable and important as spices and even gold. Incense also has a strong religious connection, as it was offered as one of the gifts presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men. The festival of the Three Wise Men is still celebrated in Germany on January 6, known as the Epiphany in some Christian religions, and incense is still burned in many religious ceremonies in all cultures of the world today.During the early to mid-1600s, it was a common belief in Germany that evil spirits came out on “Die Rauhnachte, or “Raunacht” (the longest night of the year), close to the Christmas holidays. It was said that noise and light would drive away these evil spirits and protect the health of the home’s inhabitants. One tradition that developed as a part of this, and as an extension of Christian religious practices, was the burning of incense to bless the home. At first, incense was simply burned on a tin plate, but as the tradition developed, people thought of more inventive ways to offer their blessing.
The “Smoking Man,” first created in the village of Heidelberg, became a decorative and common way to burn incense. The creation of Smoking Men originated during the long, harsh winters of the Erzgebirge (“Ore Mountains”) region, when the miners who lived there needed both an extra source of income and a way to pass the time. The plentiful wood in the densely forested region offered a solution to both, and they began making little hollowed-out figurines that came apart at the middle and held a tin plate inside to hold incense. When the incense was lit and placed on the plate, smoke would curl out of a hole carved in the mouth to resemble a man smoking a pipe, a custom that was very popular at the time and was a familiar sight in the region’s villages. Public pipe smoking is most likely the inspiration for the initial Smoking Men.
At first, the figures were carved to resemble people who could be found around any local village, such as peasants, bakers, and other trades people. As the figures evolved, they were limited only to the creators’ imaginations, and today can be found in many styles and variations, especially Christmas themes such as Santa Claus and snowmen due to their connection to and widespread use during the Christmas holidays. Many interesting Smoking Men and other quality German Christmas pieces of folk art (Volkskunst) are on display, along with some background information on their creation and historical significance on many websites.
Many Smoking Men and other regional craft specialties were created by the art of wood turning, which is attaching a piece of wood to a special pin and turning the wood as it is carved to achieve a more uniform shape. Wood turning was initially used to make household goods like buttons and cups, but as the production and sophistication of wooden folk art increased, it was used more and more to create the Christmastime figures for which the former miners would become known throughout the world.
Cuckoo Clocks (Kuckucksuhren)
The Black Forest (“Der Schwarzwald”) in southwestern Germany is the home of the Cuckoo Clock (Kuckucksuhr), invented in the region in the 17th century. The long, harsh winters in the Schwarzwald during that time meant people spent long hours inside their homes, when they needed both something to do to pass the time and an additional source of income to supplement their work in the local mines. The largely forested area surrounding them inspired them to begin making wooden crafts. Among the products they created were nutcrackers (“Nussknackers”), incense burners (“Smoking Men” or Räuchermänner), and clocks that mimicked the cry of the cuckoo bird.
The first version of the famous clock as we know it today was produced around 1738 by Franz Anton Ketterer, from the village of Schönwald near Triberg. It is thought that he was inspired by both the cry of a rooster and other clocks decorated with scenes of farm life, but found the sound of the cuckoo bird easier to produce than the rooster’s crow.
Germany already had a long history of fine clock-making before the Cuckoo Clock came on the scene. Artisans had been making ornate clocks entirely by hand, including all the gears and moving parts inside as well as the casing and decorations. The first Cuckoo Clock and those following in the early years of production were also made entirely by hand.
Later, the use of metal parts and the incorporation of the pendulum provided more accurate timekeeping. A pendulum clock has a weight at the end that, once swinging, swings back and forth at the same rate all the time and moves the gears continuously. Little weights hanging from under the clock, often in the shape of pinecones on a Cuckoo Clock, are pulled on a regular basis to continue the pendulum’s swing and keep accurate time. The mechanism that makes the clock go “coo-coo” is still used today: bellows that push air through small pipes, similar to how a pipe organ works.
On most Cuckoo Clocks, when the movement on the inside strikes to mark the hour, a cuckoo bird appears out of a door and returns behind the door when the gong or other sound stops. Some clocks may have other animals, trains or people that appear to mark the time.
Making Cuckoo Clocks became such a popular industry that craftsmen would try to outdo each other by creating a more beautiful and elaborate clock than their neighbor. Not only the mechanisms of the clocks became more sophisticated, moving from wood to metal, but also the decorations, which progressed from watercolor paints and square faces to elaborately carved faces painted in rich, bold colors.
Making Cuckoo Clocks was a cottage industry for many years, but with the move to industrialization across much of the world in the late 1800s, factories began production of the clocks. However, the families who traditionally made Cuckoo Clocks were still going strong. They were so skilled and devoted so much attention to their craft that individual family members had developed their talents to specialize in certain parts of the Cuckoo Clock’s production. Some would assemble the gears, while others might paint the faces. That is why clocks made in the old-fashioned way today are so beautiful and elaborate.
Making Cuckoo Clocks is still an important part of the Schwarzwald’s industry today. Although factories generally produce the gears and other metal parts, the outside of the clocks are still hand-carved and decorated just as they were over 200 years ago.
Common themes of Cuckoo Clocks include hunting, family life and the military, but there are many clocks produced today with any kind of theme you can imagine. Both clocks with traditional and whimsical themes can be found on on the internet and many fine examples of “Kuckucksuhren” and other handmade German folk art.
Although other beautiful clocks are produced in the Black Forest area of Germany, Cuckoo Clocks are certainly the most well-known and most popular. At first developed as a more accurate way to keep time, they became works of art that people all over the world want to have as part of their collections.