At the mention of any trip to Germany, the idea immediately conjures up historic streets with dramatic architecture, a Gothic-style castle or two, delicious food and, of course, Oktoberfest. However, not long after this Bavarian celebration comes the holiday season, which includes some of the most endearing traditions in the world, as far as Germany is concerned.
Not only is Austria home to the largest and arguably best Christmas market in Europe, but the entire country is often abuzz with festive cheer the second that December comes around. With traditions that span back centuries with the celebration of Yuletide, Germany has managed to carry on some of the season's most beloved Christmas activities, making it one of the best wintertime destinations.
The Beginning Of Germany's Christmas Season
The festive air picks up during the first week of December in Germany, with the start of St. Nicholas Day, known as Sankt Nikolaus Tag. This is a beloved day for children in Germany because it's the first official sighting of St. Nicholas prior to December 25th. While the idea of St. Nicholas, or Saint Nick, has become the universal idea of 'Santa Claus' for many countries, St. Nicholas is still the most iconic Christmas figure in Germany.
He can be found throughout shops and malls in the country, and also comes at night to stick candy and small gifts in children's shoes - if they remember to leave them outside for the night. Of course, only shoes that have been cleaned well and polished are found to be filled with gifts in the morning!
Krampus, St. Nicholas' Unlikely Counterpart
While St. Nicholas Day is for children in Germany and is full of delight and joy, Krampusnacht is quite the opposite and has grown in popularity for adults, as well. If St. Nicholas is representative of Christmas joy and good children, then Krampus is the devil-like alternative representing punishment and bad children.
This day also happens to fall on December 5th, and it's said that Krampus will come for the 'bad' children who haven't listened to their parents or have misbehaved. The two are said to work in tandem wherever they're needed, and those visiting Bavaria will likely see adults dressed like Krampus wandering the streets, just to ensure that each child is on their best behavior. Much of it is in good fun!
The Advent Wreath And Christmas Markets
Starting four Sundays prior to Christmas, many families set out their Advent wreath. This flat wreath has a holder for four candles, each of which is lit one by one until all four are lit during the week of December 25th. In the time before Christmas, many will do their holiday shopping at the country's Christmas markets, which are said to have originated during the Middle Ages in German-speaking parts of Europe.
Therefore, it's no surprise that Austria is home to the largest market of them all. Visitors to these markets will be delighted to find all manner of things, from foods made especially for the holiday season, to festive drinks, and many local wares and items sold by vendors up until Christmas Eve. These markets are illuminated with glittering holiday lights and even include entertainment at times, making it so much more than just a shopping trip.
Booths at the market often showcase delicately-made Christmas ornaments, hand-carved nutcrackers, and decorations, as well as Germany-specific gifts that aren't found anywhere else in the world. Traditional cookies, such as lebkuchen, stollen, gingerbread, and marzipan join fruit cake, and spiced bread can be found (and smelled!), and each bakery will have its own version of each that line the windows.
Christmas Eve And The Days Following
In Germany, similar to many Eastern European countries, Christmas Eve is the biggest day of the holiday season. This is when family and friends gather to exchange gifts and is also when the Christmas tree is finally decorated. Most trees in Germany are adorned with an angel at the time rather than a star, with ornaments carved from wood and made of colored glass adorning the middle and bottom of most trees. Later on, children are brought in to witness the tree in all of its festive joy and observe the nativity, if a family chooses to put one out. They then lead carols and poems which are recited while sitting around the tree, before sitting down to a dinner of roasted goose, duck, or turkey. Most Christmas gifts are also exchanged on Christmas Eve, leaving Christmas Day for relaxation and contemplation.
The Celebration Continues After Christmas
The holiday season doesn't just end in December in Germany. On Christmas Day, the last candle of Advent is lit, and it's a quiet and peaceful day spent at home with family. In the week following - the Twelve Days of Christmas - visitors will likely hear drums in the streets, which are said to ward off evil spirits. January 6th marks the day of Epiphany, where people dress up as the Three Kings depicted in the Bible and walk around town carrying a star on a pole while singing Christmas carols.