Christmas customs and recipes
Christmas customs in Germany and Bavaria
One of the most important symbols that Christmas is approaching are Advent calendars and wreaths. Each Sunday another candle on the Advent wreath is lit so that by Christmas, all four are shining brightly. Theologian Johann Hinrich Wichern is thought to be the originator of this custom. The very first Advent wreath was hung up in 1839 in the orphanage he ran to accompany Advent prayers. In those days it was usual to light a new candle every day until 24th December. Later, just 4 candles – one for each Sunday in Advent - replaced the original 24.
Advent calendars are a truly special way to count down the days to Christmas. Although traditionally religious, as the name suggests, modern calendars now display pictures of all kinds. Unlike Advent which begins on the Sunday, four weeks before Christmas, which can fall anywhere between November 27th and December 3rd Advent calendars always start on the 1st December.
Originating back in the mid 19th century, Advent calendars have long been a way for children to count down the days to Christmas. The calendars are usually rectangular and have 24 “windows” that reveal a picture, poem or even part of a story – often the story of the Nativity - each day through December right up to Christmas Eve when the secret behind the largest window is revealed. More elaborate Advent calendars have a small chocolate, a novelty or a toy behind each window. Homemade calendars with a lovingly created little sack containing a small gift or novelty carefully chosen by mum, dad, grandma or grandpa are particularly popular and, of course, unique.
Christmas markets (Christkindlmärkte) adorn the centre of almost every town and village. The markets in Nuremberg, Munich and Rothenburg are the ones everyone has heard of but smaller local markets also draw crowds of visitors. Most markets open on the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent.
Today richly decorated Christmas trees play a pivotal role in our Christmas celebrations. Way back in the 16th century there is record of the very first Christmas trees being decorated with apples, nuts and paper flowers rather than candles which were not added until later. Since the latter part of the 19th century Christmas trees have become a fixture of our annual festivities. According to the scriptures the Christmas tree represents the "Tree of Knowledge" whilst the decorations and sweets are the forbidden fruit on the tree.
"One of our most popular traditions is “Christbaum-Loben”: we move from friends to relations and praise their Christmas trees as effusively as we can. Before long our eyes are sparkling as brightly as the Christmas lights and tinsel – from the schnapps we are offered! Well it would be rude to refuse, wouldn’t it!"
Find here further information about hand-made Christmas balls from tin which are true artisan masterpieces the like of which have long been used to decorate Christmas trees for Bavaria’s aristocracy
5th/6th December: St Nicholas Day
On the evening of the 5th December St Nicholas visits children in their homes. He opens his golden book and reads about the good acts and naughty deeds the children have done throughout the year adding a word or two of praise, rebuke or reprimand as required. He then reaches into his sack for gifts of apples, nuts, lebkuchen and chocolate.
And many children put their cleaned boots outside the front door on the night of 5 December. St. Nicholas fills the boot with nuts, oranges, gifts and sweets overnight. Sometimes the Nikolaus also visits the children at the kindergarden or in the school and asks them if they have been good...
In addition to the more usual St Nicholas Day celebration Bavaria has a few that really don’t seem to have much in common with the idea of friendly and benevolent St Nicholas:
- "Klausen-Treiben" in the Allgäu – Young men dressed in furs and leather and wearing animal masks or caps with antlers or ox horns take to the narrow streets making a lot of noise with bells and chains to drive away ghosts, goblins and evil spirits. This custom dates way back to pagan times.
- "Buttnmandl" run in Berchtesgadener Land - The Berchtesgadener Land is home to a long-standing and impressively spooky custom – the "Buttnmandl" run. Men clad themselves from head to toe in straw and cover their faces with a fur mask. According to the custom, this terrifying image together with the loud noise made by the cow bells hanging from their waists should free their houses of evil spirits. The name comes from the word "Butt(e)n" meaning to clang or rattle.
1st – 4th Sunday in Advent: gun salutes in the Berchtesgadener Land. Many years ago people wanted to drive out the cold season and awaken nature from its winter slumber by cracking whips, rattling chains, ringing bells. Half an hour before midnight the air is filled with the deafening sound of a thousand guns being fired into the air.
Times: 3 p.m. on each of the four Sundays in Advent; daily at 3 p.m. in the week before Christmas and on Christmas Eve between 11.10 p.m. and midnight.
"One of our most ancient customs is that of “Klöpfelnächte”. On the three Thursdays before Christmas children dress up as shepherds and knock on doors.
The children then reward the home owners by singing songs and heaping blessings on them for future harvests and for the home. In return they receive a small donation for their charity."
The word "Rau" or "Rauchnächte" harks back to a time when there was an attempt to curb activities to drive out evil spirits and incense was used to smoke out both house and stables.
For centuries these "Raunächte" have been thought to be nights on which the future is predicted and more specifically nights on which the weather for the forthcoming year would be forecast.
"Perchten" and "Holzmandl"
Right through the twelve days of Christmas up until Epiphany (6th January) strange figures in scary wooden masks resembling tree roots can be seen particularly in and around the Alps. These are known as "Perchten". According to myth they are followers of Frau Percht (Percht comes from the Old High German word peraht, or brilliant). She symbolises the emerging sun after the winter solstice. If we look at the etymology of the word she should bring joy with her. But in most myths it is her darker meaning that is given more weight. The traditions surround the "Perchten" also include the "Holzmandln". Myth has it that they are elves that are able to take on human form. Yet, if they see a real human being they immediately turn into tree roots.
The first recorded mention of a "Raunacht" being celebrated is from 1725 in Waldkirchen/East Bavaria. Over the past 30 years the tradition has been undergoing a revival and in the Bavarian Forest this rekindling of these ancient customs of "Rauhnächte" and "Losnächte" has a lot of spooky entertainment value. Bavaria and Austria are considered to be the principle homes of these traditions and the "Perchten" can be seen mainly in communities in Upper and Lower Bavaria and Austria. The consecrating of the stables is a more widely spread custom with elements of similar customs found in Switzerland, Bohemia and the South Tirol.
The culinary highlight of Christmas in Franconia is a carp dinner on Christmas Eve. Carp breeding is a Franconian tradition dating back almost a thousand years. Tip: Crispy carp roasted in butter with a nice cold beer! Delicious!
Baking decorated biscuits for Christmas is an old tradition that dates back centuries. Rich, spicy, beautifully decorated biscuits and the sweet aroma of homemade Swabian “Hutzelbrot” (a delicious fruit loaf) –that’s what Bavarian Christmas tastes of!