German Christmas Traditions That You Need to Try (And How to Make Them Even Better)

It’s here! One of the most beautiful times of the year! And this whole country is ready to celebrate. We know that unless you are a giddy Christmas fanatic (like me) you are probably already overstimulated by the festive season, but let’s put the inner Grinch aside for a second, because Germany really is at its best (or one of its best) during this time. You will be amazed by the wonderful things December brings. Getting to know the traditions is part of your cultural journey when studying abroad, so let’s dive into them! As a bonus, we want to give you tips and ideas of how to make these traditions even more memorable if you decide to try them (just check the tip under each one!).

Reading time: 6 minutes, 13 seconds

Written by: Patricia Bendala
Student Recruitment & Marketing Manager (MSc Programs)

Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmärkte). You can’t talk about Christmas in Germany without constantly referring to the Christmas markets. This tradition dates back to medieval times and continues to be one of the most beautiful and exciting events of the year for Germans and tourists alike. Featuring wooden structures where shops are set up and amazingly decorated with thousands of lights and tons of cute ornaments, the markets are a magical place to walk around and feel the Christmas spirit. What if you are not the “Christmas spirit” type of person? Well, I bet you still have a stomach, right? So, you don’t want to miss out on them, either. The delicatessen change from region to region, but there’s no Christmas market that wouldn’t make you drool like a hungry bear. Sweet and salty, big and small, meat-lover or vegetarian, there are options for all. In Hamburg you should try the grilled bratwurst, the smoked roasted salmon (Flammlachs), the Kaminbrot, the mushrooms with garlic sauce, the Taschen (there are many flavors), and of course, my favorite, Schmalzkuchen!

Tip: One of each! Go with a group of friends to the Christmas markets and distribute yourself to buy one (or two) of the food goodies you want to try. Then split up to buy them and meet again at a specific point (a Glühwein stand can be a great meeting point) to share the food. This way, you get to try many kinds of deliciousness keeping on a budget and without needing to “roll” back home.

Glühwein (and Eierpunsch!). Since we are talking about food, we must of course appropriately accompany it with some drinks. The quintessential drink of German Christmas is Glühwein (mulled wine). Glühwein is a centuries-old alcoholic beverage made with red wine and spices typical of the season, such as cinnamon, citrus, vanilla, star anise and cloves, all of it sweetened with sugar and served hot. Depending on the region other spices are used. It will warm your body (and your mind if you have too much!), and it’s absolutely delicious. If you have Glühwein in a Christmas market, you will be required to pay some extra money (between 1 and 4 euros) called Pfand. This is like a deposit you pay for taking the (wonderful) mug the Glühwein is served in, and it will be given back to you when you return the mug. For those with a sweeter tooth, we would recommend you to also try the Eierpunsch (egg punch), an egg-based super sweet drink, similar to eggnog but four times tastier. It’s the “Starbucks style treat” of the season.

Tip: Start a Christmas mug collection! As mentioned above, you pay a little fee for the mug where you are served your beverage at Christmas markets, and some of them are pure art. If you like it, simply keep it. You paid for it! And you can create your unique mug collection that comes with tons of memories.

Advent Calendar. An absolute classic of Christmas time in Germany. Advent calendars are a way to count down the days until Christmas Eve, starting on December 1st. A festive calendar usually made of cardboard hides small surprises behind 24 “windows”, so you can open one each day and look forward to the next ones. While traditionally containing sweets or chocolates, advent calendars have no rules and can be themed with hundreds of ideas: types of tea, poems, small books, mini toys, jewelry… You name it!

Tip: A super idea if you live in a student dorm is to do a “Glühwein Meetup Advent Calendar.” Each day in December, the students of a specific room are in charge of making or buying some Glühwein for the dorm friends and preparing some snacks. Each person brings their own mugs to have their drinks (to avoid massive cleaning for the hosts), and you meet and chat for a couple of hours in the evening. The next day, another person acts as the host. You’ll get to know new people every day, and the best is that you all live in the same building!

“Sankt Nikolaus” Day. Don’t freak out thinking you are too late with your Christmas shopping if you already see Germans pulling out the wrapping paper the first week of December. Germans like to plan in advance, yes, this is true, but they aren’t preparing for Christmas Day just yet. In Germany, it is a tradition to celebrate the Day of Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus). Children will polish their shoes and go to sleep, and the good Nikolaus will leave them some gifts to wake up to on the morning of December 6th. Does that mean that people don’t get gifts on Christmas day? No way! The Weihnachtsmann (aka Santa Claus) will still come on December 24th with more presents. Double the gifts, double the fun!

Tip: If you live with someone else, buy a little present or some chocolates and surprise your roommates/living partners with an unexpected gift on December 6th. Who doesn’t like surprise presents?

Advent Wreath or Adventkranz. Coming from the Lutheran traditions of the 16th century, the advent wreath is meant to symbolize waiting for the birth of Christ. However, it is also a great piece of decoration, one that will fill out a small space and make it cozy and Christmassy without involving much deco-madness or big budget. Four candles are usually placed on a ring of pine leaves and cones, adorned with dried flowers and typical ornaments of the season. Theoretically, one more candle will be lit each Sunday of Advent, and when Christmas Eve arrives all of them are lit (and their heights will be staggered due to the previous burn).

Tip: Make your own DIY advent wreath and bring your own personality to your Christmas decoration. You can use recycled materials or items you find in nature to build your own. We leave you this Pinterest board for inspiration.

Christmas Pyramids, Nutcrackers, and Other Wooden Decorations. Our last highlight goes to the stunning craftsmanship of wood in Germany. In every Christmas market and in other Christmas decoration stores you will be able to find, among the classic hanging balls for the tree and many other ornaments, some incredible hand-made wooden decorations. They will leave you speechless with their beauty (and their price, too). Some of them cost hundreds or thousands of euros, but the work behind each piece is worth every penny. The most typical piece is the famous nutcracker, but the most astonishing and refined works I have found are the Christmas pyramids. These consist of several “floors” of wooden figurines topped with a slated fan that moves with the heat of burning candles at the bottom. Mesmerizing!

Tip: Just feast your eyes on their beauty. No way to make this any better.

When the Christmas season past the fun is not over! Discover other 10 Best things to do in Hamburg and enjoy the city year-round!

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