‘Tis the season when it becomes obvious yet again: Germans just do Christmas better. If Christmas were a team sport, the Germans would be the tinsel-covered, carol-singing, fairy-light-swinging champions of the world. And that is not a new observation. As one British travel writer pointed out in 1911: “There is no country in the world where Christmas is so intensely ‘Christmassy’ as in the Fatherland.”
A British expat living in Berlin today agrees: “Christmas in Germany is as Christmas in the UK used to be, 40 years ago. Back home, everything is based on Christmas day. The only rituals around it involve shopping before and after.”
In Germany, by contrast, shopping is secondary, and the festive spirit stretches over a whole month, and sometimes longer. Feeling cosy indoors; drinking hot, spiced alcohol; enjoying colorful lights on a gloomy afternoon – the German Weihnachten is about all that and more.
The Nazis attacked those they saw as enemies – Jews, Communists and Socialists – for violating the sanctity of Christmas.
A lot of the world’s contemporary Christmas traditions were invented in Germany. The Christmas tree is probably the country’s most successful seasonal export. Germans also made the first glass Christmas-tree baubles and the first tinsel. Many of the most popular Christmas carols have German roots. Even Santa Claus has German ancestry. He was first popularized in drawings by an American political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, between 1863 and 1886 in Harper’s Weekly. Nast, however, was a German immigrant and his drawings of Santa, inspired by his European childhood, combined two figures from the German fest: Saint Nicholas in his bishop’s robes and the woolly-bearded pagan god Odin, as he rides through the night on a wild mid-winter hunt.
“The German version of the holiday fused pagan and Christian beliefs and had ‘deep roots in primordial German soil’,” writes Joseph Perry, a professor of modern German history at Georgia State University and author of “Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History.” These national idiosyncrasies in the German style of celebrating became important in the 19th century, with the rise of romanticism and nationalism. “Germany’s late unification in 1871 created an urgent need for some sort of celebration that might appeal to broad yet diverse groups,” Mr Perry told Handelsblatt Global. Christmas was that celebration. That’s how it became “the most German of German holidays.”
That is also why Christmas was useful to the Nazis in the 20th century. They “could build on the scholarly literature that cast Christmas as particularly German,” Mr. Perry explains. They also attacked those they saw as enemies – Jews, Communists and Socialists – for violating the sanctity of Christmas. The Nazis placed great emphasis on a truly “authentic” celebration.
Sociologically speaking, Christmas is infectious. “The lights and candles in winter have an obvious appeal. And people orient themselves toward other people,” explains Christian Stegbauer, a sociology professor at the University of Frankfurt, who has previously studied patterns in local gift giving. “That’s how culture develops. So if your neighbour puts up Christmas lights, you may do so too. Every family has their own rituals and over generations, they stabilize. Then, because of the many small rules around the rituals, and the fact that so many people are involved, it becomes hard to change them.”
Germany’s festive styles today vary between regions, and between Catholics and Protestants. Nonetheless most Germans start celebrating what used to be Yuletide from the beginning of December, or even earlier if you count November’s “lantern festival” as a prelude. Each Sunday in December, they light an additional candle on a decorative wreath. They receive visits from Saint Nicholas in early December, and from the dreaded Krampus, a demonic figure who keeps track of whether children have been naughty or nice. Many Germans go to dedicated church services, bake cookies and cakes and visit Christmas markets.
“As a parent, I would say Christmas here is so big because there are so many little rituals and they’re all jammed into one month,” says a New York native, who has lived in Germany for over a decade and has three children. “When you have kids, you just go from one Christmas event to another. In the US, some people might do some of the things – but here everybody does everything. You can’t escape it.”
Despite religious overtones, the inadvertent focus of most of these German rituals is community and family, not consumerism. It’s also about a “German version of public sociability and a culture of politeness,” says Mr. Perry, of a sort that Americans, in his opinion, do not share.
“Christmas is bound up with the feeling that ‘we’ have always celebrated Christmas this way,” writes Daniel Miller, a British anthropologist, in his German-language book, “Christmas: The Global Celebration.” Germans are convinced that they should celebrate the way they did when they were children. So once a year, all of Germany turns into a nostalgic fairy tale.
And yet, this wouldn’t be Germany without regular soul-searching essays in the German media about whether all these small, family-focussed rituals have become inherently meaningless. But meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And this week, as every year, millions of beholders, German and foreign alike, in the middle of Europe, are in search of that elusive nostalgic joy. They know that Germany – more than any manger in Bethlehem – is the true home of the modern Christmas.
Cathrin Schaer is an editor at Handelsblatt Global.