Christmas in Germany. It's after sunset on Christmas Eve, Heiligabend (Holy Evening). Suddenly the sound of small bell ringing echoes through the air, the door into "das Weihnachtszimmer" swings open and children rush through, coming to a halt by a newly decorated Christmas tree.
All light in the Christmas Room is from the tree, usually a real conifer with wax candles, and a pile of presents lie by the Weihnachtskrippe. A nativity tableau with stable and figures, perhaps under the Christmas tree or on a specially decorated table.
A window is slightly open and angel hair, or maybe a feather, hangs from a curtain. Outside a lamp glimmers.
Advent has come to an end, the twelve days of Weihnachten have begun and "Christkind", the Christ Child, has made his annual visit to their home but yet again they have just missed him.
Christkind with angel's wings, a creation of Martin Luther the protestant reformer in 16th century Germany, was intended to be an alternative bringer of gifts on Heiligabend instead of the saints days of St. Nicholas, December 6th, or St. Martin on November 11th, when presents had been traditionally exchanged.
As time passed Christkind was adopted by Catholic families, so luckily he doesn't work on his own as bands of angels from the Heavenly Workshop, Himmelswerkstatt, are there to help him.
Now Germany's Weihnachten celebrations are followed by many of the country's non-Christians, as well as having spread world wide, and are a rich colorful mixture of religious, secular, folk and food traditions, which often vary slightly from region to region.
Although Christkind, who as the Christ Child is the son of God, is always seen as a young girl.
Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday means it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent and the celebrations begin at sundown, but on any other day stores and businesses shut at 1 pm throughout the country because the afternoon is filled with preparations for the evening.
Protestant church services take place during the afternoon before presents passed out, while a Catholic mass will be late in the evening, "Midnight Mass" and always filled to overflowing.
In homes where 'the Christkind brings the Christmas tree' it is decorated secretly with Speculatuis and Lebkuchen cookies, traditional hand crafted glass, wooden and straw ornaments, nuts and apples, and often wax candles, while children are kept occupied somewhere far away.
Perhaps at a children's church service with a nativity play and Christmas carols.
They don't see who brings their gifts on December 24th and are told these are brought by Christkind, mainly in the Southern part of the country, or by the Weihnachtsmann, Santa Claus, and the evening is a time spent together with close family when presents are exchanged. This is the "Bescherung", and it is followed by a traditional meal.
Although the Fast that used to take place during Advent has few followers these days the Christmas Eve menu, for what would have been its last evening, remains simple.
Probably fish or some of the many different types of sausage with potato salad.
December 25th, the "First Day of Christmas" - der erste Weihnachtstag, is spent with relatives, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends, and as a complete contrast to the simplicity of Christmas Eve there is an enormous amount of food on offer, with roast goose and all its traditional side dishes perhaps the most popular.
Germans then have a "Second Day of Christmas" - der zweite Weihnachtstag, to enjoy. It's another public holiday with family outings and reunions and, as it is officially the saints day of St. Stephen the patron saint of horses, is a day with a mixture of horse events and customs. Including in rural areas all the local horses, from thoroughbreds to work horses, led in procession through the neighborhood to be blessed.
Meanwhile, despite the lack of weeks of strict fasting in the lead up to Weihnachten, it is another day filled with vast amounts of traditional food specialties and treats.
In fact the festive fun continues because there are twelve Weihnachtstage, Christmas days, in Germany, with celebrations and traditions leading to Epiphany, "Twelfth Night".
There is one age old custom that is rarely followed these days. The Bavarian tradition of The Twelve Quiet Days, when the women of the family were not allowed to do any baking, washing, cleaning or spinning for the duration.
This was not because they deserved a well earned rest after all their work with Weihnachten preparations and throughout the rest of the year, but because it was believed to bring bad luck.
With Epiphany the celebrations finally come to an end for another year, until once again it is time for Advent to begin on the Sunday closest to 30th November, St. Andrews Day.
A Merry Christmas............Happy Holidays
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For young and old, to bring the atmosphere of a Frohliche Weihnachten both for those who have experienced one and those who would like to. Filled with Songs, Traditions and Stories, this German Book & Audio CD Edition has easy to follow translations throughout.
Weihnachten Christkind 1893 Catholic Newspaper via commons.wikimedia.org