Christmas

Christmas Traditions in Austria, Germany, Switzerland
Christmas market

A booth at a Berlin Christmas market, just one of about 60 found all across the city in December. More photos… PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Although we often take today’s Christmas celebration customs for granted, most of the so-called “traditional” Christmas practices only date back to the 19th century. Many of these customs originated in Germany and Austria.

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Photos: Christmas in Germany – Berlin
Our photographic tour of just a few of Berlin’s 60 Christmas markets

Tradition, Three Kings, and Kris Kringle
Even the date of the celebration of Christ’s birth has fluctuated. Until the Roman church adopted December 25 in the 4th century, January 6 was the day of celebration — today’s Epiphany or Heilige Drei Könige (the “Wise Men,” “Three Kings,” the Magi) in German. To this day, the initials of the Three Kings — C+M+B (Caspar/Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) — plus the year are inscribed in chalk on or over doorways in German-speaking countries on or before January 6 to protect house and home. (Although historically the three letters are supposed to come from the Latin phrase for “Christ bless this house” — “Christus mansionem benedicat” — few of the people practicing this custom are aware of this fact.) In many parts of Europe, including Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, the Christmas celebration does not end until this date, now considered the arrival of the three “kings of the orient” in Bethlehem — and the end of the “twelve days of Christmas” between Christmas and January 6.

From Santa to “Silent Night”

Santa by Thomas Nast

German-American Thomas Nast’s version of Santa, illustrating Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” in Harper’s Weekly, soon became the American version of the “jolly old elf.”

Many “American” Christmas elements have come from German Europe. “Silent Night” was composed in Austria in 1818. (More in Silent Night (Stille Nacht).) The Advent or Christmas calendar is a German tradition that has become increasingly popular in the U.S. Even some American Christmas words come from German. Kris Kringle is a corruption of Christkindl (“Christ Child” — It is the Christkindl who brings gifts on Christmas Eve in Germany, not Santa!) And it was the German-American political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) who gave us the modern image of Santa Claus in the 1860s. (Nast was born in Germany and came to the US with his family as a young boy.) His Christmas illustrations for Harper’s Weekly were later published in book form and, along with Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” helped establish our “jolly old elf” image of Santa — not to be confused with St. Nikolaus (St. Nicholas). His day, Nikolaustag, is on December 6.

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Christmas from A to Z
Our A-Z guide to Germanic Christmas traditions and terms

Christmas Markets
One colorful German Christmas tradition has found its way to parts of North America and some other regions of the world: the German Christmas market. Beginning in mid or late November, in almost any German city of any size, one or more Christmas markets will pop up on the local square and often in several other locations. These Christmas fairs – offering warm drinks, roasted chestnuts, and local crafts – usually continue through the four December weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. Sometimes called a Christkindlmarkt, these special markets are an integral part of the Christmas season in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
MORE > Christmas Markets in Germany and Europe

One German Christmas custom the US has yet to adopt is the two-day celebration. The day after Christmas Day — der zweite Weihnachtstag, known as Boxing Day in Britain — is also a holiday in Germany. There are many other Christmas customs and traditions — national, regional, and local — unique to German-speaking Europe. You can learn about them by reading our numerous pages about a German Christmas. (See “Related Pages” below.)

Next | Advent and Christmas