I want to be German for Christmas
Although there are many different types of Christmas around the world, you would be hard pressed to find a country with a more iconic influence on the festive period than Germany. America might have given the world Rudolph and Bing Crosby, but as we are so often told, it was Germany that popularised the Christmas tree, advent calendars, the humble Christingle, nutcrackers and the carol Silent Night. At this point it would be churlish to argue that Germany is not the official capital of Christmas.
In fairness, Finland have a strong claim to the crown of Christmas capital, due to the popularity of Lapland. Should the Finns come looking for the title, I for one will not stand in their way given the Finnish proclivity for vodka and being harder than a sack of graphene nails. Until they do, though, Germany sits atop the Christmas throne, dispensing fun between mouthfuls of gingerbread.
One might imagine that after all the success Germany has had promoting its brand of festive cheer, they might have run out of traditions to share with the world, yet there are still some spare observances that have been kept out of the hands of global popular culture. If you really want to do German Christmas right, you may need to follow some lesser known traditions.
Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Productivity!
Christmas might be synonymous with Germany, but continued high levels of productivity are just as much a German tradition as Glühwein. Unlike other countries, where the week before Christmas is a haze of Christmas jumper competitions, parties and general shirking of day to day responsibilities, the Germans I work with on are unnervingly consistent with their working output. I had hoped that my week would slowly evaporate as classes were cancelled and people found better things to do with their time than learn grammar, but my hopes were dashed as I found that offices are still full, factories are still producing, and I’m still stood in front of a group of eager students explaining how to correctly use an adjective. Even more worrying for those countries seeking to overtake Germany in the productivity stakes, is the amount of people who are planning to work during the week between Christmas and New Year. When questioned on the rationale of staying in the office during the festive period, I have been told that it is a little quieter and more work can be done. If Germans really do “work hard and play hard” I can only assume that the party they have at New Year will be visible from the ISS.
When I ask German acquaintances what they plan to do on Christmas day, the most common response is “Which one?”. At first that might seem confusing, but once you realise that German Christmas is spread over three days, it makes sense. 24th (First Christmas Day), 25th (Second Christmas Day) and 26th (Third Christmas Day) December are all equally important. By spreading Christmas over three days, Germans experience a Christmas marathon rather than the usual English speaking world’s Christmas sprint on 25th December. How much of a good idea this is depends entirely on what your traditions are or what your family is like. If, like my wife, you happen to have an idyllic family akin to The Walton’s, then Christmas is all carolling, eating and making merry. If like many people you have a slightly racist uncle, ungrateful teenagers or a surly drunken grandma then maybe it’s better to just pack your hell into one day, instead of the torture of three.
Every family has their own Christmas tree traditions, my personal tradition is to buy my tree from a cheery Russian man called Anatoly in an Ikea car park on 1st December. My mother puts her tree up a week before Christmas and leaves it there until 6th January. Most Germans, however, go about things in a slightly different manner. If I look out my kitchen window, which overlooks the apartments behind mine, almost all of them have a tree sitting on the balcony. Not a decorated tree mind you, but a tree still in its plastic mesh, sitting forlornly waiting for some attention. They will sit there until 24th December, when trees are welcomed into German homes and decorated.
Christmas dinner is the fulcrum of the festive period and if it is done right, possibly the only moments of true silence in the whole day. Traditionally goose and Turkey with all the trimmings is the main event of dinner, but speaking to Germans I have found that some prefer a more austere option. Around Nürnberg and the Oberpfalz, many people have said that instead of sitting down to a giant cooked bird, they much prefer to have some traditional sausages instead. I can understand the attraction; easy to make, little preparation required and no mountainous piles of washing up. I asked my brother about whether we might try this tradition and he politely told me that “There is no fucking way you are getting out of peeling Brussel sprouts again this year, I don’t care how German you think you are. You can do it in lederhosen for all I care, but you are still peeling them sprouts!”. Maybe next year then.
You might think it is only a carol, but Silent Night (Heilige Abend) is an actual day, the 24th December to be exact. Interestingly though, despite it being called Heilige Abend, some Germans choose to spend it drinking with friends. Given the rural culture that many Germans come from, returning to their home villages is a chance to catch up with old school friends and people that they might only see once a year. Of course, this being Germany, the best place to celebrate the coming together of friends is in the local pub. My wife and her friends follow this tradition and it is one of the few times a year that she eschews her modest two drink limit. This is why I spend Christmas in Newcastle, I love my wife but she is frankly terrifying when she’s on the sauce.
Sausages, forgotten trees and continued productivity might seem less than festive, but since Germany has been doing Christmas right for so long, perhaps we should take some of their lesser known traditions on board. So, get ready for the marathon, I’ll join you once I finish all this paperwork.