Skip to main content

Martin Luther and die Reformation transformed Christmas customs Luther didn't invent the Christmas tree, but he did write the carol “Vom Himmel hoch”

“Luther’s winter cheer in the bosom of his family”. Etching, 1847, by Gustav König (1808-1869). (Photo: © epd-bild / akg-images)

It’s cold outside, there’s a carpet of snow and all is dark. Perhaps a Moravian star is hanging in the living room. Candles are lit, the family gets together, there are small snacks, coffee or tea. Carols are sung or at least played electronically. Finally you get to unwrap the presents placed so temptingly under the tree. This is Christmas Eve in many German living rooms. But it was not always so. Here we take a look at German Christmas customs and how they have changed. 

The Christmas tree has been lit up since the end of the sixteenth century

The Christmas tree as we know it today was probably not introduced to Germany until the late sixteenth century. A wounded Swedish officer tended to after the Battle of Lützen is said to have expressed his gratitude by throwing a Christmas party, at which he had a tree decorated with lights, as was common in his homeland. Some claim that it was Martin Luther who made the Christmas tree popular, and there are works of art showing Luther surrounded by his family at Christmas, complete with a fir tree decorated with candles. But these works are from a later date and do not paint an historical picture. The artists were inspired by the ideal of Christmas Eve in their own times.

But the living room in Luther’s era wasn’t entirely without evergreen decoration. As early as 1419 the brotherhood of bakers in Freiburg im Breisgau is said to have decorated a tree with gingerbread, apples, paper and coloured nuts. It is documented that in 1521 the foresters in Schlettstadt (Sélestat) in Alsace were paid to protect the “Meyen”. “Meyen” is a term for the celebratory tree that was decorated at Christmas – not with the lights we have become familiar with, but often with red berries. It was erected out of respect for nature’s constant renewal. Luther has nothing to do with the Christmas tree, then. But what about presents?

Presents are an important aspect of Christmas. (Photo: pixabay)

The Christkind brings Christmas presents

We are used to presents at Christmas time. But that was not always the case. Martin Luther is generally considered to have played a major role here. Christmas was not a general holiday in the German-speaking countries until it was declared one by the Synod of Mainz in 813. For a long time, it was only celebrated in church and not in people’s living rooms. In the sixteenth century it was common for children to receive presents on 6 December, usually small snacks, apples or nuts. These presents were brought by Saint Nicolas on his saint’s day. The figure probably goes back to Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, said to be a particularly convivial churchman and friend to the poor.  

The cult of the saints was a thorn in the side of Martin Luther, and he felt no differently about Saint Nicholas. In a sermon on the feast of St. Nicholas in 1527, he called the legend a “childish thing”. But he considered the giving of gifts an opportunity to educate children. “Just as one teaches small children that the Christkind or St. Nicholas will bring them presents if they fast and pray and spread out their clothes at night. But if they don’t pray, give them nothing or give them a cane or horse droppings.” In Luther’s household St. Nicholas’s presents were bought for the children as late as 1535. It was also the custom in his day to give presents to maids, farmhands and servants. But they were not always given warmly. In many places they were given only the practical things which they were entitled to by law.

Since Luther considered the St. Nicholas cult to be childish and indeed a lie, he would have preferred to have banned it, as some of his supporters later did. Luther introduced another figure to the custom of giving presents however. In his table talk he is reported to have asked his daughter Magdalena: “Lenichen, what will the Holy Christ bring you?” In the opinion of some researchers, the Holy Christ is not the newborn Christ child, which would be the obvious conclusion, but goes back to the angel-like figures in nativity plays and Christmas processions. These figures also correspond to today’s image of the Christkind. The claim that Luther invented the Christkind is a subject of controversy among scholars. What they do agree on is that as the Christkind gained in importance, the more presents were given at Christmas and not on St. Nicholas’ Day. Interestingly, the Christkind also took on the role of bringing presents in the Catholic regions. In contrast, in North Germany and parts of Eastern Germany the figure was largely replaced. In these areas, the Weihnachtsmann has brought the presents since the mid-nineteenth century.

Luther in the bosom of his family”. 1866, painting by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg (1828-1891) (Photo: © epd-bild / akg-images GmbH)

German hymns for a better church service

The third significant aspect of Christmas customs is certainly Christmas carols. Here Luther has left his mark. He was a chorister as a child and learnt several instruments. As a student he taught himself to play the lute. He was, then, somewhat musically educated. This turned out to be of great use, since the Reformation made parishioners part of the church service. Now they had to be able to sing along and understand what they were singing. Luther had introduced the German language to services, but there was a lack of German hymns.

From 1523 onwards, Luther dedicated himself to creating new hymns for parishioners to sing, for the most part putting new words to old ones. His first Christmas carol, “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” appeared in 1524, based on “Grates nunc omnes” from the Latin Midnight Mass. His most famous Christmas carol is “Vom Himmel hoch” of 1535. Having originally written it to a minstrel’s melody, he later composed a choral melody for it, first printed in 1539. He wrote it specifically for the family Christmas festival as a “children’s song to Christmas”. 37 hymns can be confidently attributed to Martin Luther. To this day they can be found in Protestant hymn books and form the beginnings of the ecclesiastical musical culture that culminated in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Information Date:15-12-16
Christmas, Christmas carols, St Nick, Martin Luther

Reformation in the Christmas parlour