Advent and Christmas Spirit in Berlin

I know the title is about Berlin, but I have a few photos of my visit to Hamburg last weekend that I wanted to share as well. Same theme, different (beautiful) city.

I’ve been meaning to post for some time now and just found myself overwhelmed by school, work, work for school, applying for scholarships, trying to get some social life in… not to mention, exercise, eat, and sleep–it’s all a bit much. But I figured I’d relieve some of the pressure that I’ve put on myself by making a short post about Christmas in Germany, round 2.0 (see the archives for Round 1.0 in Hamburg in Dec 2014). That way, I can decide to tune-in a few times through the rest of the year with photos and maybe an end-of-year post that probably is too self-reflective anyway to be super interesting, but I won’t feel bad if I remain tuned-out of WordPress and tuned-in into the rest of my world.

That aside, there are two things that make the holiday season unique in Germany:

  1. Advent
  2. Christmas markets

img_2013Now, I think it’s pretty clear that Germany is developing into a recognizably multi-cultural, -ethnic, -religious space. However, its social life is still heavily framed by a Christian (mostly Lutheran in the north and catholic in the south) background and traditions, and these traditions play out in various corners of the social spheres. One way that Advent is noticeable by living in Germany is the sale of wreaths and evergreen arrangements with four candles, one for each Sunday of the waiting for the baby Jesus. People wish each other a happy Advent Sunday and it’s assumed that households will have a candle set of some kind in their homes and light one more candle each Sunday as the 24th draws near with their inner family circle or with friends and extended family. It’s a time of togetherness, quiet, and reflection… and a lot of goodies: Lebkuchen, Domino Steine, Zimtsterne… the baked goods in Germany are delicious anyway, but around December they are especially good.


Since Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, the Advent season is as long as it can ever be: 5 weeks. Starting the weekend after Thanksgiving (good thing most Germans don’t celebrate both!) and carrying through the 24th, Advent is a chance to feel legitimately festive all through the month.


Included in Advent are the Advent calendars. One sees these boxes with little doors for each day of December in US stores now too-most notably Trader Joes, Aldi (both German, btw) and The Fresh Market. However, in Germany they can get a lot more elaborate, there’s many more brands to chose from, and many people make their own for their loved ones.

Still, while people may not have heard of German Advent customs, they most likely have heard of the Christmas markets. Nuremberg is an extremely popular one in the US, but each German town will have one or more, and while some are just a place to get Christmas-y festival food and drink (basically every other stand has waffles or crepes or candied almonds or mulled wine [Glühwein]), a lot are still special with hand-made crafts, carol singing, and unique items for sale that may make a good gift after a mulled wine or three. A few larger markets will have amusement rides, which aren’t really my thing, or ice-skating rinks… which I wouldn’t mind visiting!

So I leave you with a few choice images of Adventszeit in Berlin, and I wish you a healthy, safe, and as-stressfree-as-possible holiday season.

–  Dorothea

Vorweihnachtszeit: St. Nikolaustag und Advent

I’m heard from a few people that when one thinks of Christmas, one cannot avoid thinking of the Germans. This is because so many of the world’s Christmas traditions originated in Germany. There’s the Christmas tree, coal for bad children, coming on a sleigh…

Yet, I’ve discovered that a lot of what makes Christmas in Germany special is that it is really a whole season, not just a day or two for Holy Night and Christmas Day. It actually starts on the first day of Advent, which is the first of four Sundays before the 25th of December. As the word describes, Advent recognizes the waiting for the birth of Christ. It is, of course, observed in church, but many German households also host an Adventskranz and sit around the table on the Sundays before Christmas with traditional German Christmas cakes and pastries, such as Stollen, Spekulatius, Lebkuchen…


Photo from an article in the Hamburger Aberndblatt paper describing the Hanseatic origins of this tradition.

Another way Germans spread out the season over the whole month is with Adventskalendern. Throughout the month of November, I saw these calendars all over Hamburg. Nearly every store had a collection of them somewhere. I’ve seen these in U.S. stores too, but not nearly with as much variety (or quality) as they are in Germany. One can put out forty Euro or more for a calendar of especially good chocolate or creative design. Yet most calendars are in the 10 to twenty range, and are usually filled with chocolate. Tasty. Yet they can also be filled with cereal, perfume, lotion samples… I also like how various German establishments (like the university of Hamburg) hosts a web-based, interactive calendar.

The terrific online German-English dictionary also supports an Advent calendar each year, and I look forward to opening the calendar each day to read a slightly off-beat poem or story.

So the calendars and Sunday celebration of Advent herald the Christmas season. There’s the Weihnachtsmaerkte to go to and Christmas shopping stress to get through. Yet another German tradition that I think makes the season in Germany especially special is the observance of St. Nikolaus Day. Celebrated on the 6th of December, St, Nikolaus is known world-wide for his charity and for being the precursor to the modern day Santa Claus. His feast day is celebrated differently all over Europe, even differently within Germany, but the way I’ve learned it (the north German way) is that he comes overnight to all the children and puts something in their boot (Nikolaus-Stiefel), which is placed outside. If the child was good, s/he gets sweets or other things like “Apfelmuss and Mandelkern, essen kleine Kinder gern.” If s/he was bad, s/he gets coal (or a stick, Rute).

I didn’t get a Rute. Greeted by the women’s club of Nuremberg during my stay for the second VDAC seminar, I got a huge bag of an assortment of chocolates, and traditional German treats like Lebkuchen (gingerbread, but not) and Dominosteine (one of the most delicious things ever) given to me out of St. Nikolaus’ bag. Then, on the morning of the 6th, I opened the door of my room that I shared with three other students (alum of the program) to find four little chocolate santas with our names on them. It was very cute, made me feel like a kid again, and started the day in Nuernberg just right. Thank you, Nuernberger Frauenklub, and thank you Germany for making the pre-Christmas season fun to participate in, despite being away from home.

Not that I can complain about that anymore, since I am writing my post from my room in the States. It’s good to be back with my family and our traditions, but now I can see that no one does Christmas like the Germans.


A Winter Wonderland

Everyone is preparing for Christmas:

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In the universitaet Mensa (one of the many cafeterias at the Uni Hamburg)2014-11-27 18.48.00

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in the hall of the main university building

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one of the stands at one of Hamburg’s smaller Christmas markets

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the windows of the major department stores look exactly like how I’ve always imagined them in novels.

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life-size Weihnachtspyramide at the Spitaler Weihnachtsmarkt. One could get all the holiday drinks here… egg nog (Eierpunsch), Gluehwine (a sort of warm, mulled, spiced wine) Gluehwein with some extra pep, but no beer 🙂

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EVERYTHING gets decorated, even the standard outside bench

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inside of the Hauptbahnhof


my room: I am now a proper Hamburger with my “forgotten to return” Gluehwein mug. I read that almost 25 million Tassen get “lost” each year. Even though the stands charge an extra 1-2 Euro Pfand for the mugs, many people (like me :/) just pack them as a souvenir. However, the stands see this as a worthy trade (and perhaps therefore also charge 2-3 Euro for a cup), and they don’t blame the customers. I’ll do it once, because having this mug brings me a certain amount of happiness drinking out of it at home, now, but next time I want my Pfand back! (although there may be no next time because I was only told later that the Gluehwein is mixed sugar, something I’ve been trying to avoid consuming. 😦

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