The Germans gave us many of our cherished Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree and Christmas markets like Chicago’s Christkindlmarket. It’s no surprise then, that Christmas is a very important holiday in Germany. Here’s a look at five Christmas traditions that tourists in Germany can enjoy this time of year:
1. St. Nicholas Day
For centuries, German children have placed their shoes or boots outside their front door on the evening of Dec. 5 in the hope that St. Nicholas would come overnight to fill them with goodies like candy, nuts, and fruit.
This tradition (along with our entire Santa Claus mythology) stems from the life of a very real person who lived in what is now Turkey 1,700 years ago. St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop in the city of Myra who was well known for his generosity in helping children and the poor. He died on Dec. 6, 343 and it became customary for Christians to observe the anniversary of his death with the giving of gifts. During the Reformation, Protestants moved the date of gift giving to Christmas day, but today the St. Nicholas tradition is maintained and enjoyed by people of various faiths.
St. Nicholas sometimes visits homes on Dec. 6 to personally inquire whether or not the children who live there have been bad or good. Sometimes he is accompanied by his faithful (and slightly scary) companion Knecht Ruprecht who gives good children treats from the bag he carries over his shoulder. If children have been bad, however, it’s said he will carry them away in the same bag!
2. Christmas markets
If you have been good this year, even if you’re an adult, you might receive a treat from St. Nicholas while walking through a German Christmas market on Dec. 6. While you may have a hard time finding St. Nicholas in a market, you should have no problem whatsoever in finding a market to visit as virtually every city, town, and village has at least one.
In Berlin, there are at least 60 different Christmas markets! One of the most impressive is in front of Charlottenburg Palace, the royal residence of the Hohenzollern family that ruled Prussia and then Germany for several hundred years until the end of World War I. Entrance to the market is free and there’s also free entertainment for children. It’s open from 2-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and noon to 10 on the weekends every day through Dec. 26 with the exception of Christmas Eve, when it is closed.
3. Buttnmandl run
One of the odder traditions related to St. Nicholas is the annual run of the Buttnmandl in Bavaria. The Buttnmandl are men clad from head to toe in straw who run through town on the evening of Dec. 5 clanging cow bells to ward off evil spirits. Typically they are accompanied by Krampus, men wearing scary fur masks carrying switches that they flick at the legs of people who get in their way, particularly young girls. It’s believed this tradition goes back to pagan rituals among Germanic tribes related to fertility rites. In any event, two of the more notable Buttnmandl runs are in Berchtesgaden and Bischofswiesen, a small town on the Austrian border.
4. Christmas concerts
The Germans gave us great classical composers like Bach and Beethoven who wrote music for the Christmas season and the tradition of Christmas musical performances continues in modern Germany. Classictic.com has a list of Christmas concerts and theatrical performances in Berlin, including Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (an Austrian, but to text written by German Emanuel Schikaneder).
5. Christmas trees
The illuminated Christmas tree remains an iconic symbol of the season throughout Germany. One of the largest can be found in Frankfurt’s famous Weihnachtsmarkt in the plaza in front of the Römer, the old city hall that has been in use since 1405. The 90-foot tall fir tree comes from Inzell, another Bavarian town on the Austrian border. The tree has been decorated with more than 5,000 lights and nearly 400 ribbons.
While enjoying the beauty of the tree, tourists can shop the market stalls for unique gifts and sample traditional German holiday fare like lebkuchen (spice bars or cookies) and glühwein (a mulled wine best consumed warm).
Opening day for the market was Monday. It’s open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Dec. 23.
Want to visit Bavaria over St. Nicholas Day? A quick Orbitz search found round-trip airfare from O’Hare and a four-night hotel stay in Munich will cost about $1,500 per person.
See also: Five Scottish Christmas traditions tourists can enjoy
Five London Christmas traditions tourists can enjoy