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.