Christmas Traditions from Germany that are Celebrated in America
No one does Christmas like the Germans, so it’s no great shock that many Christmas Traditions from Germany found their way to America. Still, it’s interesting to see HOW many of the Christmas traditions arrived in the United States… and how they were changed or modified to fit in with their new country. Christmas in America would be quite different if it wasn’t for those persistent Germans!
American Christmas Traditions from Germany
Once upon a time, a German Mother tried to help her son endure the ENDLESS wait for Christmas. She filled 24 little boxes with Lebkuchen, one for each day until Christmas Eve, and the first Advent Calendar was invented. Within a few years, a publishing company created “picture” Advent Calendars, with doors that opened to display a new image every day. Then came the CHOCOLATE Calendars. By the 1950s, Advent Calendars began to spread around the world. In America, a photo of President Eisenhower opening a door with his grandchildren spread their popularity outside the German-American population. Today you find Advent Calendars EVERYWHERE… and they aren’t just for kids. Advent Calendars contain everything from Chocolates to Hot Sauce to Wine. There are even Advent Calendars for pets!
A Wreath decorated with candles, a combination of greenery and light, goes back hundreds of years in German Christian Churches. Both Lutherans and Catholics claim that a version of the Advent Wreath has been a part of the Advent Church services since the 16th century. But, the modern Advent Wreath is relatively recent, and again, we can thank impatient children waiting for Christmas. In 1839, a Protestant Pastor working with orphaned children at a Mission school in Hamburg mounted 4 large white candles and 20 smaller red candles on a wooden ring. The white candles were for Sundays, and the red for the days in between. Each day a candle would be lit, and the children would know they were one day closer to Christmas! Soon the Advent Wreath was adopted by the Lutheran Church, with just the 4 Sunday Candles, and by the 1920s, the Catholic Church created their version too, using 5 candles (the 5th one in the center for Christmas). The Advent Wreath arrived in America around the 1930s. In the United States, they are seen primarily in Churches instead of homes.
Kris Kringle / St Nick / Santa Claus
There are three main Christmas gift-givers in Germany… St Nicholas, the Christkind, and the Weihnachtsmann. When they crossed the Atlantic to America, things got a little mixed up. Kris Kringle, St Nick and Santa Clause are more or less one being with three names.
German St Nicholas arrives on St Nicholas Day, December 6th, bringing treats to fill children’s shoes. (Generally he travels with a companion who hands out punishment). In America, St Nick/ St Nicholas is another name for Santa Claus. But how did that happen? Things got a little mixed up in New York in the 1800s… St Nicholas was made the patron saint of New York, and 1809 Washington Irving wrote a story called “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” which featured a jolly St Nicholas figure called “Sankte Claus”, who dropped gifts down the church’s chimney. Then Clement Clarke Moore who cemented the story with his 1822 poem “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas“. From then on St Nicholas or St Nick, was delivering presents in America down the chimney on December 24th.
“Sankte Claus” first appears in the US in Washington Irving’s 1809 history of New York. But the question is, where did the NAME come from? The Dutch will claim that it stems from “Sinter Klaas”… but, most likely it’s old-German dialect for Saint Nicholas, “Sankte Claas” (Sankt Ni Klaas). And his outfit? Red Suit? Fur trimmed hat? Boots and belt? Once again we can point to Clement Clarke Moores poem for inspiration, but the IMAGE comes from German Immigrant Thomas Nast. Nast was a political cartoonist, working for Harper’s Weekly. Between 1863 and 1886 thirty-three different Santa Claus illustrations, basing the look on his memories of Belsnickl, a St Nicholas companion he remembered from his youth in the Rhineland Palatinate. The Santa Claus figure is most closely related to the German Weihnachtsmann, another non-secular gift giver.
After the Protestant Revolution, Martin Luther wanted to stop the celebration of Saints, including St Nicholas. But, as every parent realizes, you can’t take away a special day with presents from kids, without coming up with a substitution, at least not without things getting loud around the house. Instead of receiving gifts from St Nicholas on December 6th, Lutheran kids would get their presents from the Christkind (or Christ Child) on December 24th. Of course, Catholic families soon took this tradition up as well. When Germans arrived in America, they brought the Christkind along… but somewhere along the way, the name changed to Kris Kringle, another name for Santa Claus.
Decorated Gingerbread or Lebkuchen has been a staple of German Christmas Markets for centuries, but it was the mention of a Gingerbread House in the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, “Hansel and Gretel” that set off the Gingerbread House craze in the early 1800s! (This was actually a Jeopardy question!) Suddenly, bakers were creating amazing fantasy houses with gingerbread and sweets. The Pennsylvania Germans brought recipes for Lebkuchen with them, and built Gingerbread Houses in America.
German Nutcrackers in the shape of Soldiers or Kings have been in use since the 15th century! The unsmiling figures are thought to be lucky, and provide protection for the household as they stand sentry on the mantle. Most came out of the Erzgebirge or Ore Mountains where miners made wooden toys and decorations. These Nutcrackers could actually crack nuts (unlike many of today’s cheap versions). In the 1950s American Soldiers stationed in Germany started visiting the Christmas Markets. They were captivated by these brightly painted wood “Soldier” Nutcrackers, and brought them home. Right around then Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker Suite was becoming a popular Christmas Event, and so demand for Nutcrackers skyrocketed! Now you find Nutcrackers with every imaginable theme from Soldier to Football Player.
Christmas Stockings are most likely a twist on the St Nicholas legend. In Germany children put their shoes out on the night of December 5th, and wake to find them filled with treats on St Nicholas day, December 6th. But WHY? There are a few different theories. One story says that St Nicholas overheard some villagers talking about how their daughters would be able to get married because they had no dowry. That night St Nicholas threw gold bags through the window, and they landed in the stockings hanging by the fire, which meant the girls could marry. Another variation says her threw gold balls… which is why St Nicholas is sometimes represented by three gold balls (and why Oranges, which look like gold balls, get put into stockings). The word spread, and other people put out stockings… and then shoes (maybe filled with some straw for St Nicholas’s horse) to be filled. The tradition traveled across the Atlantic, and because in America, St Nick arrives on Christmas Eve, that’s when the stockings were hung.
Martin Luther gets most of the credit for bringing a Christmas Tree into the house. The story says he was walking home one evening, absolutely awed by the beauty of starlight in the trees, so he brought it inside with him in the form of a fir tree with candles. By the 1550s, most German Protestants set up Christmas Trees in their homes, and even through the early 1800s, Catholics set up Nativity scenes, not indoor trees. When Protestant Germans arrived in America, their Christmas trees weren’t welcome. In fact, they were outlawed as Pagan by early Puritans. Still, Germans persisted (not really surprised, are you?) and by 1830, the first Christmas Tree went up for public display in Pennsylvania. In the late 19th century early 20th century in the US, feelings shifted the Christmas Tree from a “German Tradition” to a universal Christmas tradition. One reason was the push by communities to make the holiday a “family centered” event with gift giving instead of “wassailing” (drinking). Today, Christmas trees are the focus of most Christmas celebrations in private and public.
German Christmas Traditions
Since one in 5 Americans can trace their roots to Germany, it’s no wonder that American Christmas Celebrations are dominated by German Traditions. Thanks to German immigrants and influences, an American Christmas is a family centered Holiday with Christmas Trees, Advent Calendars and good old St Nick!