A Less Commercial Christmas

Rather fortunately, my very first Northern Hemisphere Christmas was white. Thick, marsipan-like snow, covering everything in sight has been such a wondefullybizarre novelty, that I almost forgot to observe the other ways in which Christmas in Germany differs to Christmas back home and, frankly, I would have let it all pass me by in a haze of gluehwein, slippery pathways and pink cheeks if not for being (gently) reprimanded for wishing someone a Merry Christmas too early. Swept up in the general cheer of the moment on Christmas Eve, at around 5pm, I grabbed my German Mama and said, somewhat effusively, ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ to which she responded, ‘not yet …’ I asked when I would be able to bestow my wishes upon her and she said ‘after church.’

It was then I started thinking … haaaaang on a minute, I haven’t really heard anyone say Frohe Weihnachten at any stage to anyone for the entire month – a month in which, at home, Merry Christmas is thrown about with gay abandon, particularly by shop assistants (not necessarily with great pep, but said nevertheless). Could it be that Christmas just isn’t as merry in this part of the world? Surely not, I have been haunting the (very large and very merry) Christmas Markets for an entire month and drinking the volume of the Pacific Ocean in mulled wine. Advent wreaths and beautifully decorated trees were well and truly in place by December 1. Men in ill-fitting Santa Claus suits have been pacing up and down Prinzipalmarkt ringing bells. There has definitely been merriness.

The way Germans celebrate Christmas is the way in which they do most things; without excess, with sincerity and with a respectful adherance to tradition. There isn’t the commerical emphasis placed on the season, the way there is in the English speaking Western countries. Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely aspects of commercialisation (Santas suits and the like) and the retail sector benefits tremendously because Germans love to give presents – but  overall, Germany’s Christmas retains this feeling of it really being about one, precious night, not a six week shopping frenzy to the soundtrack of a celebrity’s carol stylings.

That one precious night is Christmas Eve. The Germans do everything on Christmas Eve including the big Christmas dinner and exchanging gifts. There is no Christmas Day visit from Santa Claus – in fact, there isn’t really Santa Claus at all. There is the Weihnachtsmann (who is, in effect, Santa Claus) but he’s not really of any great significance. By Christmas Eve, German children have already been visited by Nikolaus (St. Nicholas). He leaves treats in little boots or socks the children have put out for him, and checks up on them to make sure they are behaving. And he, daringly, does it when the children are awake. They just always happen to miss him.

Christkind (Child of Christ) an angelic little figure, delivers the presents on 24th, also usually when the kids are awake. One minute there are no presents under the tree, the next there are. The kids have once again blinked and missed the gift-bearer. The German parents are evidently more cunning than their English speaking counterparts, who at least have the darkness of the night and safety-net of slumber.

As we all burst out of the church service (no rousing renditions of Oh Holy Night, just the traditional Oh Come All Ye Faithful) into the snow, and wished everyone a Frohe Weihnachten, in a rush, it felt like Christmas. The moment, which I experience multiple incarnations of during the festive season at home, had arrived. It felt like the month of markets and mulled wine and tasteful city decorations was not Christmas itself, but a gentle nod towards what was to come – that moment where you all sit down to dinner, the tree watching over piles of presents and finally wish one another a Merry Christmas … because, now, at around 7pm on the 24th of December it is really Christmas.

It’s more than sand versus snow, Santa Claus versus Nikolaus, Christmas ham versus fondue. We celebrate differently, with varying emphases on different periods of time and individual moments. It feels like we celebrate for longer in Australia, with Christmas being an overarching season with a three day eating/drinking/gift giving frenzy; our Christmas Eve has an entirely different feeling to it than the German Christmas Eve – one  precedes the culmination, the other is the culmination.

Both Christmases feel good. Both involve food and family and gifts. One retains a greater focus on tradition at the expense of commercialisation, the other has embraced commercialisation and almost woven it into its tradition. But both have, at their heart, a table of loved ones and food and that’s all you can ask for.

5 thoughts on “A Less Commercial Christmas

  1. I couldn’t agree more, no matter the differences in celebrating Christmas, it has always brought joy to me then as a kid and now as an adult. I find myself agreeing most especially with the last note about the Christmas dinner, good times or bad times, there will always be Christmas dinner with the family altogether!

    Happy Holidays to you!

  2. In a country where most are below the poverty line, you can imagine the great length that most people over here go to just to be able to celebrate and have a decent Christmas dinner, some even go as far as borrowing money which they end up paying for the whole of the following year!

  3. First, let me congratulate you to your blog – it is simply great! Thoughtful, keenly observed and very well written.
    In this article, you might have incoporated a little misunderstanding, if it is not me, who misread something. You write “Christkind (Child of Christ) an angelic little figure” brings the presents. The point is, the Christkind is not the “child” o f Christ, but it i s Christ as a baby-child. So actually, the idea is, that Christ, in it’s incarnation as a baby does other children good. Which to me always seem a notch more “real” to the concept and idea of christmas than the (Coca-Cola invented? 🙂 ) Santa Claus.
    If one wanted to revel on that topic further, it could be argued, that the gifts that the Christkind brings are symbolic for the actual gift Christ brought (according to christian religion): the forgiving of the original sin and ultimately eternal life in god.
    So, if I could indeed improve on a small detail of your picture of german customs and traditions I would be happy. If I misinterpreted your meaning, that should be my fault entirely.
    Kind regards,
    Arno Birner

  4. I feel like your observations are very dependent on the family you spent Christmas with (obviously). Yes, Christmas Eve is the big day, but there are also 1. and 2. Weihnachtstag. Not many nations get 3 days off over christmas. There is lot’s of celebrating in my family (we are from the north). My grandparents and my sister’s family visit my parents on christmas eve, then the family visits my grandparents on 1. Weihnachtstag and the other grandparents on 2. Weihnachtstag.
    Also, we say Merry Christmas when we first see each other in the morning of the 24th. I have been in Australia for last years christmas and I have found it very ordinary and not very festive. That might be because of the family I was with, but I didn’t experience the nice christmas atmosphere like you get it in Germany. A few decorations in the shops, and that was it.
    Also, Santa Clause is very present! Maybe you didn’t celebrate with little children? Where I am from, it is totally normal to get a Santa Clause to come to your house and bring the presents and that was always a big and important thing for me when I was little. They’re usually university students earning a bit extra over christmas. The Weihnachtsmann won’t come anymore when the child(ren) are older and don’t believe in Santa any more, though. Nikolaus is rather unimportant, to me.

    Alright, I just had to share my “traditions” here, I just had to comment on your post because I felt like what you described is a rather weird and sad christmas, and very different from what I know. just had to show the world that it can be different, in Germany! 😉

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