Cultural Comparisons: Christmas

Christmas Customs in the USA and Germany

Also see Christmas Etiquette in German-speaking Europe (below).

In the charts below you’ll find a simplified comparison of Christmas customs and traditions in the United States and Germany (Deutschland), Austria, and Switzerland. For more details, click on any linked topic. Also see An A-to-Z Guide to Christmas in Germany for much more about German Christmas customs. At the bottom of this page you’ll also find a complete list of USA/Germany cultural comparison topics.

Salzburg Christkindlmarkt

The Christkindlmarkt in Salzburg, Austria. Christmas markets are just one of many Christmas customs found all across Europe.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES: Christmas Customs – Weihnachten

Cultural Differences between the USA and Germany
Christmas vs. Weihnachten
See Christmas in Germany for more
Saint Nicholas (St. Nick, Santa) brings gifts on Christmas Eve. Sankt Nikolaus brings gifts on Dec. 6 or the night of Dec. 5. More…
American children usually open their Christmas presents on Christmas Day (Dec. 25). German children open their Christmas presents on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24). More…
The Christmas tree custom was brought to the US by German immigrants. In England, Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, introduced the same custom. The first written record of the German Christmas tree (Tannenbaum) custom dates back to 1605, but it probably began no later than 1550. More…
The Christmas tree is lighted with strings of colorful electric lights. In traditional families, the Christmas tree is lighted with real candles, but only under strict conditions. More…
German-style Christmas markets are found only in large cities with a German-American tradition (Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, New York, etc.). Almost every larger town has one or more Christmas markets open from the end of November until Christmas. Large cities may have over a dozen such markets. More…
Weihnachtsmarkt – There are various regional German names for a Christmas market: Christkindlesmarkt, Christkindlemarkt, Christkindlmarkt, Adventmarkt, Glühweinmarkt, Striezelmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt. Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is one of Germany’s oldest and best-known Christmas markets. More…
Santa (St. Nick) has a sleigh and “eight tiny reindeer” who take him around the world to bring presents to children. The German gift-bringer is either der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) or the angel-like Christkindl.
Santa Claus and Thomas Nast – The German-American political cartoonist Thomas Nast not only created the traditional jolly, round Santa Claus image in the 1860s, but also the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. More…
More about Christmas in the USA and Germany below.
Free PDF Downloads of these charts!

Christmas Etiquette in German-Speaking Europe
If you are used to Christmas in North America, or even in most other English-speaking parts of the world, you may not be aware of some of the “Rules of Christmas” in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Here is our German Way “Christmas Etiquette” guide:

  • Merry Christmas! | You do NOT wish Germans (or Austrians or Swiss) frohe Weihnachten before the 24th or 25th of December. While Americans and Canadians may cheerfully wish each other “Merry Christmas!” from about December 1 on, that is not the case in German-speaking countries. You wish people a “Happy First Advent!” during the first week of Advent (roughly the first week of December). As the four weeks of Advent progress, you wish “eine frohe Adventszeit” (in general) or “Frohen ersten/zweiten/dritten/vierten Advent!” (“Happy 1st/2nd/3rd/4th Advent”) in the appropriate week of Advent – until Christmas arrives. This is similar to the German prohibition against wishing someone “Happy Birthday” before their birthday. (Bad luck!) – Advent is an important part of the Christmas observance in German-speaking countries.
  • “Stille Nacht” | Austria gave the world “Silent Night” – the most popular Christmas carol of all time, but there are rules to go with it. Because “Stille Nacht” was first sung in a church to guitar accompaniment on Christmas Eve, 1818, it should not be performed publicly in Austria before December 24. Austrians want “Silent Night” to remain silent until Christmas Eve.
  • December 6 | Austria, Bavaria, and southern (Catholic) regions of Germany have two Christmases. In addition to gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes or boots in the hallway for St. Nikolaus to fill with small gifts on the night of Dec. 5, before Nikolaustag on the 6th. He’s not Santa Claus, but he IS Saint Nick. Christmas presents are delivered by either the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) or the Christkind (Christ Child), depending on the region.
  • Christmas Tree | The Weihnachtsbaum or Tannenbaum is often set up later than in North America. It may not appear until Christmas Eve, but it stays up until January 6 (Epiphany). This is also when children sing carols for charity as the “Star Singers” (Sternsinger).

Also see: A German Christmas – from A to Z – A Guide to Christmas customs in Austria, Germany and Switzerland

Christmas 2Weihnachten 2

Cultural Differences between the USA and Germany
Christmas 2 – Weihnachten 2
The American Christmas holiday observance is only one day, Dec. 25. The German Christmas holiday is observed on two days (as in Britain): Dec. 25 and 26.
Few Americans are familiar with Advent and Advent customs, such as the Advent wreath. Even fewer observe such customs. Every German knows about Advent and the Advent season (the four weeks before Christmas) and the Advent wreath custom. More…
Many Americans have adopted one German Advent custom: The chocolate-filled Advent calendar for children. The chocolate-filled Advent calendar for children was invented in Germany in the late 1950s.
In the 1880s the American dime-store magnate F.W. Woolworth discovered Christmas glass ornaments during a visit to Germany. He made a fortune by importing the German decorative glass globes to the US. The glass globes imported by Woolworth were first invented in Germany, probably in the town of Lauscha – then in the Duchy of Sachsen-Coburg, now in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen) – in the late 16th century. More…
Star Singers: Although caroling is popular in the US, the “Star Singers” tradition (during Epiphany, or the 12 Days of Christmas) found in Germany and some other European countries is unknown. Sternsinger: Children in Germany participate in the charitable “Aktion Dreikönigssingen” to raise money for children’s causes by singing carols during Epiphany. A similar program exists in Austria.
The first known performance of “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) in the United States took place near New York City’s Trinity Church in 1839. The very first performance of “Stille Nacht” was with guitar accompaniment in Austria on Christmas Eve in 1818. More…
The “Silent Night” translation that we sing today in English first appeared in 1863 – the year of Franz Gruber’s death. The words to “Stille Nacht” (written by Joseph Mohr) were set to music by Franz Gruber in 1818. More…
“Stille Nacht”
“Silent Night,” the world’s best-known Christmas carol, was composed in Oberndorf, Austria in 1818. Its German lyrics have been translated into more than a hundred other languages. More…
More about these topics:
Christmas | Christmas Tree | “Silent Night” | Advent | St. Nicholas | More…
Advent Calendar with daily German Christmas traditions (in season)
Free PDF Downloads of these charts!

Also see: A German Christmas – from A to Z – A Guide to Christmas customs in
Austria, Germany and Switzerland

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