Christmas in Germany is a little different, compared to Christmas in the US. It already starts with the day of the Celebration.
Today is December the 24th and I am currently having two ducks in the oven, a bag of my red cabbage to thaw on the countertop and the formal dining room is decorated and prepared for things to come. So, while I am waiting for the duck to cook, let me tell you a little bit about German Christmas.
Workdays and Gifts Days
While in America the gifts are found under the Christmas Tree on the morning of December 25th, in Germany they miraculously appear there on the evening of December 24th. Of course, we need to distract our kids a little bit, so they don’t see the parents bringing the gifts in otherwise we need to hire a Santa. Most of the time families simply go to church (“Can dad quickly double check if we turned off the oven?”) and when the family returns. the presents are there and Santa has already moved on to the next house.
Let’s take a closer look at that December 24th
People who work in retail or service are working until noon but most people have the entire day off. Nurses, police, doctors, firefighters, etc. still do their shifts though.
The days before the 24th are absolutely crazy, not only in the gift shops but especially in the groceries. Everything will be closed from noon on the 24th to the morning of the 27th! Yes, 2 and a half days of Christmas! This means one has to plan food for three days. All meals should be feast meals for three days, probably celebrated with parents and in-laws, great-grandparents … unmarried siblings … you get the picture. There is a lot of planning ahead involved … and you thought Thanksgiving is tough, right?
Things become even more complicated if the 27th is a Sunday. On Sundays, German shops are all closed! So this adds another day.
But if you want to experience something really crazy: If the 27th is a Saturday, everyone is out to get food for Sunday, and back in the day, the stores (including groceries) closed on Saturdays at noon! Luckily they are now open longer but it’s still quite a crowd.
Typical German Christmas Meals
There are two different ways to eat on Christmas Eve. Some people avoid the stress and traditionally eat potato salad with Wieners – gets them faster to unwrap the presents. Others go all out and cook a giant meal – that would be me. Typically, Germans eat a Christmas Goose. It’s the most common meal. But having a duck instead (as we do it) or a roast is not uncommon either. In the north of Germany, there is also a tradition of having a Christmas Karp. My stepfather would always have one. We would drive all the way to the lakes, where lots of people choose their Karp from a giant basin. That poor thing he chose would end up in a bucket and drive home with us – alive! Then the Karp would swim in our bathtub for a couple of days, freaking me out every time I had to go to the bathroom and look at it. On Christmas, this fish would be killed, cooked and while the rest of the family was eating meat, my stepfather would enjoy his Karp.
The typical sides of a feast menu are red cabbage and potato dumplings. As a dessert “Eis und heiß” (Ice and Hot) for the kids, is famous: You heat a glass of cherries or raspberries in their juice and pour it over vanilla ice cream. For the parents, it’s Rum Pot instead of the hot fruits (don’t heat the rum pot!).
The days after Christmas Eve are called the first and the second Christmas Day. They are usually used to visiting (or getting visited by) family and exchanging gifts in person. As a child, I loved that. Just imagine, getting gifts three days in a row and having great meals, desserts, and cakes every time family comes together!
Church on Christmas
We Germans don’t take going to church very seriously. Though the majority of Germans consider themselves Christians, this doesn’t include going to church on a regular base. However, on Christmas, the churches are crowded with people and if you don’t get there in time you might have to stand somewhere in the back. Kids are all over the place and some might be participating in a little show – which is rather unusual in German churches during the year. People sing “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” but fewer and fewer people know how this goes and many people just hum a little bit while furiously searching for the right page in the songbook. It’s a colorful bunch of misplaced people, either dressed too warm or too cold, feeling out of their comfort zone barely hearing anything over the crying babies and excited toddler voices but still enjoying it.
This might be different in the Catholic churches though. I can’t tell because I was raised Lutheran.
In bigger cities, one of the larger churches would have a Midnight Sermon. As a teenager, my friends and I used to meet there for exchanging hugs and little gifts afterward, before heading back home in the freezing night.
[Btw: These ducks start to smell delicious!]
The Christmas Tree
While trees start to pop up in everyone’s house here in Texas right after Thanksgiving, we always wait until shortly before Christmas – to the dismay of my daughter. Having an artificial tree is considered a tasteless choice especially if it comes with artificial lights. A German Christmas tree is cut by hand (in the freezing cold), transported in or on the car (with all the needles in the carpet afterward), waits until Christmas on the balcony or patio, and is put up on Christmas Eve. In our house, we sent the kids to watch TV upstairs, while it was my privilege to decorate the tree. Later, when it got dark (around 4 pm), the kids were allowed back into the living room, where the decorated tree and the (real) candles brought a smile to their faces and let their eyes shine. A bucket full of water was close by – one never knows.
Trees are thrown out after January 6th. It’s not just the “Day of the Three Wise Men” (only for the Catholics and ‘yay’ another holiday in Catholic regions), it’s also the day we are tired of the fir needles in our socks.
How we celebrate Christmas in Texas now
Since we are in Texas, we have changed our Christmas a little bit: Yes, we have an artificial tree and I am very happy about it! I miss the scent of the candles but it was so unsafe and I feel much more relaxed with the electric lights. Also, since the kids are older now, my daughter and I are decorating the tree together (we just did it yesterday).
On December 24th we cook something delicious and spend time together as a family. Some Christmas, our oldest daughter comes from Germany, and sometimes my father-in-law but he’s getting too old for the journey. If they can’t make it, we write and skype.
We don’t put the gifts under the tree, yet. The kids are too old to believe in Santa but we kept it alive for quite a long time. We were telling them that if they stop believing, they’ll only get socks and underpants for Christmas. They decided to believe, just to be on the safe side.
The gifts will be under the tree in the morning and we’ll unwrap them (one by one and not everyone at the same time) and we will be in our PJ’s just like the rest of America. We really prefer it in the morning, it makes so much sense since everyone has time to enjoy their gifts for the rest of the day and nobody is tired.
We are having a nice brunch after the gifting and later we’ll eat the second duck (that’s why I bake two), play board games or watch a nice movie together (streamed). We’ll call and text with friends and family in Europe and just enjoy some time off from the usual craziness of our life.
So this is in short how we celebrate Christmas in Germany and how we adjusted to the US. The duck seems to need my attention, soon, and I hope to make some good pictures – poultry is a real challenge when it comes to food photography, most pictures out there in magazines are spray-painted uncooked birds!
Have a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays if you are celebrating something else!