Christmas in Germany: A timeline of traditions

Ever wondered what Christmas in Germany is like? Its traditions may go back farther than you think...
For thousands of years, people along the Rhine and Danube rivers have practiced wintertime customs akin to Christmas. From 21 December and into January, early pagans observed Yule — a celebration in honour the winter solstice. You may be familiar with the burning of the Yule log (or the cake of the same name) which has found its way into contemporary Christmas celebrations. In the 1st century BC, the Roman General, Julius Caesar, first crossed the Rhine River and made contact with a group of people he called Germani. In the centuries that followed, the region of Germania would become greatly influenced by Rome and its Saturnalia festival which, like today's holiday, featured many feasts, days off and celebrations focused on children. In fact, for many Romans, the birthday of the god Mithra on 25 December was the pinnacle of the entire festival. Eventually, Christians would adopt this day as their own, and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on what would come to be known as Christmas Day.

With its influences stretching from ancient Rome to the Holy Land, Christmas in present-day Germany encapsulates a wide-range of traditions. Some you will no doubt recognize, as they are practiced across much of the world, while others may require you to visit Europe at Christmastime to truly understand. Starting at the beginning of Advent and finishing in the New Year, here is a helpful timeline of what you can expect at Christmastime in Germany.
Advent begins (27 November - 3 December)
In Germany, Christmastime begins at the start of the Advent season. Commencing on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, it represents a period of waiting and preparation for the birth of Christ. A popular Advent tradition is the use of an Adventskalender (Advent Calendar) to celebrate the progression of the holiday season. Now a popular custom all over the world, Advent Calendars were first used by German Lutherans in the early 19th century. While it's common for today's calendars to feature candy, chocolate or presents for each day, Christians would have originally you used it to simply observe the season and remind them to pray. A few hundred years before the Adventskalender was introduced, Advent Wreaths would be placed in a family's common area or dining room in recognition of the season. Four candles representing each week of Advent are placed in the wreath with one being lit on Sunday of each week. During the Middle Ages, when Advent was associated with fasting, these wreaths helped serve as reminders of the coming feast that awaited the faithful on Christmas Eve. While the calendars have grown to be more synonymous with the Christmas season, many homes throughout Germany and Austria still display Advent Wreaths each year.
Krampus Night (5 December)
While North American versions of Santa Claus have him handing out coal to children who are 'naughty', German Christmas lore contains something a bit more sinister. With its origins believed to have come from pre-Christian Alpine folklore, Krampus is representative of early pagan mythology. Often depicted as a creature with cloven hooves, fur and goat horns, Krampus precedes the arrival of Saint Nicholas and is tasked to punish children who are poorly behaved. While older versions of the myth have him putting such children into his sack and taking them to Hell, modern depictions of Krampus are much more subdued. Nowadays, he spends each Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) going from home to home handing out coal and bundles of birch-wood ahead of the arrival of his counterpart.
St Nicholas Day (6 December)
An early Christian bishop with a reputation for piety and secret gift-giving, it should come as no surprise that Saint Nicholas is the forerunner to Santa Claus. And in Germany, this earlier interpretation of Saint Nick is still widely appreciated. Once Krampusnacht is over, the well-behaved children of Germany and Austria rejoice as Saint Nicholas arrives with gifts. To prepare, children will place a pair of shoes by the fireplace and some hay or a carrot for Saint Nick's horse — when morning comes, they awake to find small presents such as candy, stuffed in their shoes and their offerings gone. This German tradition spawned stories of North America's Santa Claus and the UK's Father Christmas delivering presents on Christmas Eve. Throughout St Nicholas Day, boys traditionally dress up as bishops and ask for donations for the poor before families gather to enjoy a feast celebrating the first week of Advent and the arrival of the holiday's patron saint.
Christmas Eve/Advent ends (24 December)
Throughout Germany, Christmas Eve, or Weihnachten, tends to be the pinnacle of the entire Christmas season. As the end of the Advent season, this day would traditionally be the first major feast of the holiday after a period of fasting. Today, families still might eat very little throughout the day to honour the original Advent fast before feasting in the evening. This is also the time when parents throughout Germany and Austria set up and decorate their Christmas Trees. As this is done, children are forbidden to be in the room and are usually out with their grandparents for the day — they eagerly await returning, however, as it's believed that 'Christkind' (Christ Child or Baby Jesus) comes to place gifts under the tree. Upon their return, families exchange gifts, sing carols and eat the largest meal of the Christmastime holiday.
Christmas Day (25 December)
While not as significant as Weihnachten, Christmas Day in Germany is still a public holiday, and people often gather in the afternoon or early evening for more feasting and celebrating. Known as Erster Feiertag, its mainstays include roast goose or duck stuffed with apples, chestnuts, onions or prunes; potatoes, dumplings and the popular wintertime cake, Christollen.
Stefani Day (26 December)
In some parts of Europe, especially Bavaria and Austria, people gather on this day to celebrate the patron saint of horses, Saint Stephen. For many German Catholics, 'Stephanitag' means attending mass, embarking on ceremonial horseback rides and having priests blessing the local horses.
Epiphany (6 January)
In the Germany, Christmastime doesn't actually end until after the New Year on 6 January. This day celebrates the day when the Three Wise Men of the New Testament arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus Christ. Called Sternsinger, it's common for children on this day to dress up as the Wise Men and go door to door collecting charitable donations (or cookies!) and sing carols. Since this day signals the end of the Christmas season, it's also common for families to take down their decorations and Christmas Tree, enjoy a final mug of Glühwein and settle in to the new year.
Your German Christmas getaway awaits
There's perhaps no better way to uncover the wonders of a German Christmas than by exploring its waterways. Allowing you to visit a variety of bustling cities and medieval towns throughout the region, an Emerald Cruises Christmas Markets River Cruise will introduce you to magic that is Germany's Advent season. 

Looking for a truly authentic Christmas experience? Download your FREE brochure today and  start looking forward to your very own festive adventure.