It’s All the Same, Right?
Christmas is my favorite holiday, and as magical as it is in the States, it’s even more magical here. The Christmas markets, the snow, the castles, the Glühwein – I love it all. But, I was surprised to learn – first through dating my German husband and then with the move to Germany – that some of the most basic details of Christmas and its celebrations are different when it comes to the U.S. and Germany.
Difference #1: Christmas Trees
On one of my husband’s early visits to Texas, he experienced his very first Thanksgiving. As he had no interest in also experiencing his very first Black Friday, we decided it would be nice to put my Christmas tree up together. We wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas together, so it seemed like something really special we could do before he flew back to Germany. I put some Christmas music on, lit the fireplace, and brought out my boxes of decorations. My husband was intrigued by all of this as he didn’t understand why we weren’t getting in the car to drive to a store or Christmas tree farm to buy a tree.
“Oh, I already have a tree. It’s in the garage.”
I don’t know if he was more shocked that it was plastic or that it was white, but, either way, he was thoroughly perplexed. And that’s because in Germany, most people have real Christmas trees. And the few people who buy plastic trees, only buy green ones. He had actually never seen a white Christmas tree before. I remember, after we finished decorating it, he took all of these pictures for family and friends back in Germany because he knew they would find it odd, too. Let’s just say they did not appreciate my pretty white plastic tree as much as I did!
Much to everyone’s delight, I did not bring the tree with me to Germany. Instead, I sold it at a garage sale. But, when we had our first Christmas here, I told my husband we could buy a real tree since that’s the German way. He liked the idea of bringing an “American” tradition into our German Christmas, though, so we actually bought a plastic tree. Green, of course. I have still yet to find a white tree here.
We are definitely the oddballs, though. Most Germans think plastic trees are a little bit tacky, and they don’t like the idea of missing out on the smell of a real tree.
And whereas we, for the most part, put up our Christmas trees on Black Friday or shortly thereafter, Germans usually don’t put up their trees until December 24th. However, they stay up until January 6th.
Difference #2: Decorating the House
Every December, back in Texas, I would take a drive with friends and family through the different neighborhoods to look at all of the Christmas lights on people’s houses. Everybody has different taste, but my favorite houses were the ones that looked like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The more lights, the better! And if there are some kind of animatronics or the lights are synced up to music, I am in Christmas heaven. So, that same year, after putting up my lovely plastic tree, I took my husband on a Christmas light sightseeing drive. Of course, I like the ridiculously over-the-top displays, so that was where I gravitated to. My husband thought they were awful.
“Don’t people in Germany put Christmas lights on their houses?,” I asked.
“Sure. The Americans.”
Germans typically don’t put lights on their houses. Instead, they decorate their windows. There’s usually a wooden manger scene with brilliant white lights, stars, and sometimes even candles. They’re really beautiful, but, if you’ve ever gone shopping for one of those manger scenes yourself, you know that they can also be quite pricey. Much pricier than you would expect. But, they’re very skillfully made, and they light up the dark streets in a lovely way. And while there is almost always something in every window of each house, you won’t often find any color. Germans tend to only decorate with white lights.
I have to admit, we do have a handful of German families in our neighborhood who put lights on their houses last year, but it was extremely minimalistic and still all white. It seems that putting lights on houses might be growing in popularity here, but it’s still overall a very typical American thing to do.
Difference #3: Santa Claus or the Christ Child?
In the States, Santa Claus keeps the list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And, as we all know, he brings the good little children presents on Christmas Eve as they sleep. Well, not in Germany, he doesn’t.
In most parts of Germany – and more specifically here in the Eifel – most parents teach their children that the Christ Child (or the Christkind) brings them gifts on Christmas. It’s the same premise – only those children who have been good receive gifts – just not with Santa Claus. It gets a little bit complicated here.
See, first, there was St. Nicholas (or St. Niklaus), who, as the legend goes, was known for leaving “secret” gifts for those in need. As far back as the middle ages, December 6th was celebrated as St. Nicholas Day, and in remembrance of his “gift giving,” children who had been good received treats or small gifts from St. Nicholas. But, this was a Catholic saint and a Catholic holiday. So, when Martin Luther came along, and the Protestant Reformation took place, he wanted to distance the holiday from Catholicism. So, he moved the date of gift giving to December 24th and replaced St. Nicholas with the Christ Child.
This was also supposed to keep the emphasis on Jesus. However, as time went on, the Christ Child became more like a cherub and the direct connection between the Christ Child and Jesus got a little bit fuzzy. The Eifel is a heavily Catholic area, so how does that work? Well, today the Christ Child is seen less as the baby Jesus and more as a figure that is associated with gift bringing. He’s also been commercialized to an extent – widening that gap even further.
Interesting sidenote – the word “Christkind” is where we get Kris Kringle. And although we sometimes conflate St. Nicholas and Santa Claus in the States, in Germany, Santa Claus as we know him is actually called der Weihnachtsmann (the Christmas man). He is not the same as St. Nicholas.
Difference #4: Opening Presents
This was something my husband and I butted heads about during our first Christmas together. Germans do not open presents on Christmas morning. Instead, they open their presents on Christmas Eve. All of them. Not just one (like my family did when I was a kid), but all of them. They don’t open any gifts at all on Christmas morning. Family time is also on December 24th. I remember, my first Christmas in Germany, I wanted to make the rounds on Christmas Eve to all of our friends’ houses to bring them their gifts. But, no one was home. Everyone was over at family members’ houses having Christmas dinner and opening gifts.
December 25th is then the day that many Germans go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Some Germans have another Christmas dinner at home, but the big family stuff is usually already over by that day. And then they also celebrate December 26th. Some people call it Stephanstag (St. Stephen’s Day) or just der zweite Weihnachtstag (the second Christmas day). When my husband and I first got married, I had several of his friends and family ask me about the American traditions for the second Christmas day. They were always a little shocked and thought it was very sad that we just have one day of Christmas. Most people take it easy on the 26th, eat leftovers, and spend time with friends.
Difference #5: The Christmas Pickle
Marrying into a German family and moving to Germany has been educational in so many ways – especially when it comes to those “typical German” things that turn out not to be German at all.
The Christmas pickle is not a tradition that my family ever celebrated, but I certainly heard about it growing up. If you don’t know this one, the story goes that the Christmas pickle (or Weihnachtsgurke) dates back to 18th or 19th century Germany. Parents would hide a pickle in the Christmas tree, and then the children would rush to find it on Christmas morning. Whichever child found the Christmas pickle would receive an extra, or special, gift from St. Nicholas. The American families in the States who practice this tradition usually have a pickle ornament instead of an actual pickle. However, ask any German about the Weihnachtsgurke, and 9 times out of 10, you’ll get a puzzled face.
That’s because the tradition doesn’t come from Germany. In fact, no one is 100% sure where it comes from, but it definitely isn’t a German thing. My husband looked at me like I was completely insane when I asked if he wanted to add the Weihnachtsgurke to our Christmas traditions after we first got married. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first “typical German” thing I brought up to him only to find out it wasn’t German, but that’s another blog post altogether!