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?