In the English-speaking world, it’s not uncommon to hear people speaking about feeling “christmassy” during the festive period, a somewhat clunky term referring to that warm, cosy feeling traditionally associated with the holiday.
The German-speaking world, however, has a far more precise way of describing this feeling. “Gemütlichkeit”, with no direct translation into English, denotes a state of coziness, warmth and contentedness, as well as carrying connotations of belonging. You might use it to describe a scene of sipping hot Glühwein at Christmas, surrounded by your friends and family.
It seems natural that German should have more effective ways of expressing Christmas feeling when you consider that Germany is the birthplace of Christmas celebrations as the world today knows them.
The images and symbols that immediately spring to mind when most people think of Christmas - trees strung with lights, gingerbread, Santa Claus - all have connections to the country that stretch all the way back to the 15th century and still thrive today. It’s no wonder that Breslau historian Willy Cohn once commented that “Christmas was not a Christian but a German holiday”.
A tree in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria on Christmas Eve. Photo: DPA
The medieval roots of Christmas
The Christmas Market is perhaps the most recognizably German of today’s festive traditions, with Germany seeing some 85 million people flocking to visit them each year, and the format replicated in places as far-flung as Japan.
They weren’t always so popular, of course. In fact, the Christmas market’s antecedent was likely the “winter market”, held as far back as the Late Middle Ages in German towns to give locals a chance to stock up on food and handicrafts for the long, cold winter ahead. Though they may have looked a little different to the markets you’ll visit today, you’d still recognize the meat, baked goods, and wooden toys on offer. The exact location of what could be called the first ever “Christmas Market” is still hotly debated, however, with Dresden contesting that their first Christmas market was held in 1434, beating Nuremberg’s first in 1628.
For expat Rebecca Dell, who moved to Berlin from the UK after the Brexit vote in 2016, the traditional Christmas Markets are a large part of what makes celebrating Christmas in Germany so special: “Although a German would probably say that Berlin is a weak example”, she told The Local, “I think the Christmas markets are lovely - they give even me, pretty much a grinch, some Christmas spirit - no pun intended”.
The Local's video of Munich's famous Christkindlmarkt
Though also of contested origins, the roots of the Christmas tree have also been traced back to Germany’s very earliest days. Records have suggested that early German tribes decorated their homes with the evergreen branches of the fir tree during the mid-winter as a pagan ritual, looking hopefully forward to the next spring.
Another popular story casts the Eisleben-born Martin Luther as the inventor, with the 16th-century Protestant reformer supposedly struck with inspiration after looking at the stars through evergreen trees on a walk home and being reminded of the light of Christ. Bringing a tree inside, he recreated the scene for his family by lighting candles on its branches.
However the Christmas tree came into being, it proved a powerful symbol, quickly catching on across the world. British legend suggests that the German Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, popularised Christmas trees among the middle classes of Britain after gifting one to his wife in 1840. Others suggest that “Good Queen Charlotte”, the German wife of George III, set one up in Windsor 40 years prior. By this time, the Christmas tree had already made its way across the Atlantic, with the Brandenburg-born Baroness Frederika Charlotte von Riesdesel supposedly erecting America’s first in 1781.
Germany’s Christmas inventions
Whether Martin Luther can be truly credited for the Christmas tree or not, we do have him to thank for the tradition of gift-giving on December 25th. Before around 1535, present-giving was usually reserved for January 6th- the feast day of St. Nicolas.
As a Protestant with a healthy dose of suspicion for saints, he encouraged a shift December 24th or 25th. A number of countries followed suit, but even today, some historically Catholic countries still do their present-giving on January 6th. We can also thank 16th century German Lutherans for the advent wreaths that adorn our doors during the festive period.
Small Christmas gifts are distributed to homeless at shelter in Hamburg in 2016. Photo: DPA
In fact, it’s difficult to think of any Christmas traditions or staples that don’t have connections to the German-speaking world. Germans invented the advent calendar in the early 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig is credited with the creation of baubles in 1870, and tinsel - whether you love it or hate it - was first conceived in Nuremberg in 1610. And though the figure of St Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus was not a product of Germany itself, his iconic look was first drawn during the American Civil War by cartoonist Thomas Nast: a German refugee to the country.
Christmas as political in Germany
It’s not only Germany’s inventions that have tied the country so closely to Christmas, however. In his book titled “Christmas in Germany”, Joe Perry suggests that the conceptualisation of Christmas as a time for togetherness, warmth and tradition was a means of pulling together the people of Germany during the 19th century, when the country was searching for a nation state.
By the time the Nazi party came around in the early 20th century, the country’s close identification of Christmas with being German posed a problem to their political ideology. Jesus was, after all, Jewish. The party attempted to remold traditions in their image, inserting propaganda into images and songs in order to shift focus away from overtly Christian themes. Thankfully, their efforts failed, and more ancient traditions stuck.
A non-commercial Christmas
Instead, the emphasis on Christmas as a time for relaxing and spending time with loved ones remains of utmost importance in Germany, even while other countries have fallen prey to what many see as over-commercialisation of the holiday.
For Rebecca Dell, this emphasis is one of the reason she prefers Christmas in Germany over her home country, telling The Local “I still find Germany less commercial than the UK. Christmas [here] isn’t just all about presents and how much money you spend, it’s more about food and slowing down to spend quality time with people”.
In Germany, the mad rush of shoppers buying presents on Christmas Eve then venturing out again for Boxing Day sales doesn’t exist: both days are public holidays with few - if any - shops open for business. Perhaps in today’s age of over-consumption, we should turn back to Germany for yet more advice on how to do Christmas right.