Olli’s Saturday School – A German Christmas

A typical German Christmas differs from the American one in quite a few ways. There’s no stockings. No chimney. No Santa Claus.

The German word for Christmas is Weihnachten.
From Weihen and Nacht.
Basically it translates to Sanctified night. Since Christ is actually an old word meaning anointed or sanctified…go figure.

In case you wondered, –mas is actually coming from mass as in church, not as in “tons of presents”.

The German Christmette is the church service held at night on Christmas Eve or, as we call it Heilig Abend (Holy Evening)

Back to celebrations. Germany usually celebrates on Christmas Eve, despite it actually being a regular working day. Most companies just close anyway, though. And/or give everyone half the day off and deduct a half day from their vacation allowance.

A standard German family (assuming there’s small kids) Christmas means everyone arrives “back home” on Christmas Eve. They oooh and aaah at the family Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) in the living room, hide the presents they brought somewhere and spend the day together, preparing dinner or trying to keep the kids from complaining too much about having to wait. Classic cartoons and Christmas movies and fairy tales showing on TV or DVDs usually help with that.

In the evening, everyone gets herded off to church so someone can stay back, prepare dinner and put the presents under the tree. We all loved that. Nowadays every two years we still go to church. Well, my dad and I, since the orchestra accompagnies the service every other year.
We leave around 5PM play some music at church and get back home.
Woo, dinner’s ready! Almost. Let’s have a drink first!
There are various Christmas Eve dinner traditions around Germany. Some involve a carp or trout. Others revolve around potato salad and sausages ((Yes. Don’t ask, it’s just the way it is)) or a Weihnachtsgans. The Christmas goose is Germany’s Thanksgiving turkey.
In my family we usually just have a fancy dinner with mom, dad, us kids, sometimes my sister’s boyfriend joins us, my aunt and up until last year my grandmother.

Because if Christmas isn’t an occasion for a fancy family dinner, what is? We don’t get all dolled up, though. It’s not shorts n t-shirts, but neither is it tux and dress shoes.

Then, after dinner, we usually talk about random stuff, past years, or about how it was when I was born, etc…at some point it became a game to drag this part out as long as possible, to see how bad my sister would complain about when we were finally getting to open the presents. But we’re both responsible adults now. ((bwahahahaha))
After that’s done – or sometimes even before – we usually call some relatives in another part of Germany, maybe get a call from my mom’s family in France, but not much happens.

Then it’s time for the Bescherung, the gift giving. We all gather in the living room, usually my sister and I give the presents to our parents etc, then we start opening ours. We usually open a bottle of sparkling wine and lounge around until everyone gets tired and we go to bed.
Traditional besides regular presents is usually a plate of chocolate, homemade christmas cookies ((Weihnachtsplätzchen)), maybe oranges and clementines.

A few years ago, we’d have that twice, once upstairs with my parents, once downstairs at my grandma, but when her health got worse, we just held it all upstairs.
Even earlier we’d usually have a second Christmas dinner at my aunt’s place, so we’d go pick up presents there on 25th. Actual Christmas day.
This is called (in our local dialect) Geschenke aufheben which is not at all proper German. In high German that would translate to picking up presents from the floor, in the local dialect it’s going somewhere to get presents that are waiting for you.

The ones not Santa Claus or Father Christmas brought you, but the Christkind. Or Christkindl in some dialects. Nowadays often envisioned as a very young, sort of angelic person of indeterminable Gender, Christkind is short for Christus-Kind. Christ-Child? The annointed child? Yes, right. Baby Jesus brings the presents in Germany.

This year will be the first year with only one fancy-ish Christmas family meal since my aunt has other plans for the day and, well, my grandma isn’t with us anymore.

In larger families or circles of friends there’s also the tradition of Bäumchen gucken (tree-watching).
You visit friends or relations in the days after Christmas Eve, admire their Christmas tree and have a glass of wine, a cup of coffee or a few shots of schnaps.

Hope you all had a good time with the blog, with your friends and relations around the holidays and if you don’t celebrate anything these days at least enjoyed yourself and everyone being a little more amiable than usually. Hopefully. ;-)


Rudolph the Red Shirt Ensign

You know Savik and Chapel and McCoy and Spocky,
Sulu and Chekov , Uhura and Scotty,
But do you recall?
The most famous crewman of all?

Rudolph the red-shirt ensign
Had a very flashy shirt
And if you ever saw it
You would fear he’d bite the dirt
All of the other crewmen
Used to laugh and be right mean
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any away team

Then one boring mission brief,
Jim Kirk came to say,
Rudolph with your shirt so bright,
Won’t you lead my team tonight!

Then all the crewmen loved him,
And they shouted out with glee:
Rudolph the red-shirt ensign
You will soon be history!


Have a long and prosper Christmas!

Olli’s Saturday School – Advent

Advent season – the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas – is filled with various customs in Germany.

Here’s a few:

There’s of course the Christmas markets, where you can eat yourself into a ball of carbs and fat and then get drunk on Glühwein (mulled wine, literally Glow-wine) if you survive the meatpress that most of these are when the weather is even halfway decent.

Another thing is the socalled Adventskalender. The, well… Advent calendar.

It started out as a way to count down the 24 days leading up to Christmas with simple things like hanging 24 religious pictures on a wall or even simpler: erasing 24 chalk markings from a wall, a day each. In the early 20th century, Advent calendars as we know them today came into fashion. A case with 24 doors, behind each you’d find a piece of chocolate or maybe a little cookie or biscuit and a religious picture having to do with Christmas.

Today, these can be bought alreadyfilled up with chocolate, they are a common promotional give-away and can be anything from 5 bucks to loads of money if they are filled with expensive confectionary. Or, common among university students: A case of beer with 24 bottles in it.

Selfmade Advent calendars can have all kinds of appearances and are often used in families or among couples, so you can stuff cute little presents into the bags. That can be anything from candy to lottery tickets or…well, use your imagination.

In many cities or villages there is another´custom related to that. Where I grew up it only started being popular a few years ago, we call it Adventsfenster (advent window).

For each day one family, club or one home is chosen, on that day they host the Adventsfenster. There’s a little food, mostly Christmas-related pastry, maybe Glühwein and something without alcohol for the kids. There’s music and, obviously, decoration. Usually based on a backlit window, hence the name.

Finally the last way of marking time during that season. The Adventskranz (Advent wreath).

Usually a wreath made from fir boughs, but these days pretty much anything that holds four candles can be used.
The wreath is displayed in a prominent place like the coffee table or in the middle of the living room, or even hung from the ceiling. And on each Adventsonntag (I’ll let you translate that for yourself) on more candle is lit, until all four are burning and Christmas has finally come.

That is also the theme of the easiest and best-known poem in Germany, I guess.

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt.
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier.
Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür

Advent, advent, a light is burning (Lichtlein is the diminuative of Licht – light)
First one, then two, then three, then four (I said it was easy. Every kid in Germany will know this)
Then baby Jesus is at the door.

Yes, in German tradition baby Jesus brings the presents. Somehow. I’ll explain that maybe next week.

Olli’s Saturday School – Heiliger Nikolaus

Today is sort of a special day for the kids in Germany. It’s the 6th of December, or Nikolaustag.

Christmastradition here differs somewhat from that in the US or elsewhere.

Santa Claus, the guy from the Coca Cola trucks IS known exactly like that, thanks to the media and commercialising the crap out of everything popular, but over here, Santa Claus is actually Saint Nick. Or der Heilige Nikolaus.
A Catholic saint born in today’s Turkey around 280 AD he was imprisoned and tortured in 310 and later turned bishop. He gave the riches he had inherited to the poor, authorities didn’t like that a whole lot apparently.

In the night leading to the 6th of December Nikolaus visits children in Germany and puts little presents into their boots, usually some chocolate (often in the form of a little Nikolaus, so called Schokonikoläuse), nuts, clementines, gingerbread, cookies and maybe something else.
I guess that’s where the US custom of stuffing stockings with … stuff originated.

In many regions all over Europe (it’s not only a German thing) Nikolaus has a companion. Just like Doctor Who. Except it’s usually something scary to scare the naughty kids, rattle chains, beat them up with his birch or give them coal or rocks instead of presents.

Nikolaus is usually portrayed as a catholic bishop with a staff and robes plus matching headgear. His companion of many names, in my region known as Knecht Ruprecht (Knecht being word for a vassal, servant or farmhand) usually is a darkish figure in very plain jute clothes.

In many families and of course kindergardens and elementary schools a friendly neighbour, uncle or friend will dress up as Nikolaus, don a white beard and scare the crap out of the little beasties, telling them things from his golden books which he’s not supposed to know. Naughty or nice, eh? I’ve done that once, it was kinda fun. No, I don’t have pictures.

Sometimes this ends in hilarity, when a kid realizes: “Look, Nikolaus is wearing sneakers!” or “It’s not Nikolaus, it’s uncle Jim!”

Evolution of the custom created the figure called the Weihnachtsmann (Christmas-Man) which is pretty close to the US Santa Claus and even sometimes brings presents on Christmas Eve nowadays, which I personally think is a little sad, but that’s globalization for you.

And this is what he traditionally looks like in Germany!