The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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December 22, 2000 Issue

Germans follow own traditions

Some Christmas customs are like those in the U.S., but others are different

By Rebecca Weiss

"Sweeter the bells don't sound than in the time of Christmas." This first line of a cherished German Christmas song ("Süßer die Glocken nie klingen") may still ring true, but the bells are certainly of a different kind today.

In Germany, Christmas is increasingly subject to the influence of commerce, though families and churches work at keeping their culture from neglecting the true significance of the "Holy Nights," as the German Weihnachten translates.

Industry does its best to divert attention to the secular joys of Christmas. Despite controversy, shops in Germany have introduced December opening hours that a few years ago were unheard of: as late as 8 p.m. on week days and 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Some businesses are even open certain Sundays.

Right after Christmas, shops have one of their semi-annual sales: literally the "winter-end-sale." (Didn't winter just start?)

Then there are the more traditional German customs that have a bit more charm. Toward the end of November, the annual Weihnachtsmarkt comes to life. The little huts of the Christmas market - more numerous every year - occupy the old centers of German towns, mostly pedestrian zones nowadays. Here, for a month, the streets are incessantly filled with natives and tourists, who come to shop and take in the atmosphere.

The smell of the traditional seasonal foods sold in the wooden booths makes one's mouth water in memory of Christmases past: pungent mushrooms in creamy sauce, baked potatoes with dill dressing, roasted almonds and chestnuts, herb candies, Poffertjes (little pockets of fried dough caked with sugar) and Reibekuchen (fried mashed potatoes) in apple sauce. Most eagerly awaited each year is the famous Glühwein: steaming red wine enriched with seasonal spices and sugar.

Seasonal decorations are used moderately. The tree is usually not put up earlier than Christmas Eve or the day before. People make Adventskränze: pine wreaths adorned by four candles, lit separately on consecutive Sundays of Advent. Also, there are the Adventskalender, calendars with 24 little doors hiding treats for kids every day from Dec. 1 until Christmas Eve.

Other typical decorative items are the Lebkuchenhäuser, little houses made entirely out of a special kind of honey-dough, covered with frosting and candy.

Germans don't use stockings for the presents. But children do leave their shoes out the night of Dec 5. The next day, wake to find the shoes filled with nuts and candy in celebration of St. Nicholas (in medieval times, gifts were opened Dec. 6).

Now, on Christmas Eve, after the customary goose dinner, the presents are opened. Children believe the gifts are brought by the Christ Child. There is a "Christmas Man," but he is rather modern. He is supposed to be accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who is understood to beat naughty children with a staff, instead of giving them gifts.

Reindeer Rudolf is somewhat familiar to Germans, but you can as yet impress people with the ability to recite the lyrics to his song. There are many traditional German songs that have also been popular in the U.S., for example "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") and "Oh Tannenbaum" ("Oh Christmas Tree").

Though some of these customs are uniquely German, the actual Christmas party ends up the way it probably does wherever Christmas is celebrated: having to deal with hoards of relatives, eating way too much and drowning in wrapping paper. However, the Germans are fortunate to have an extra day to recover: Dec. 26 is an official holiday.

(Frau Weiss, an American, lives in Dusseldorf where she is a graduate university student. She was a Compass intern during September.)

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