2 In Germany/ Holiday/ Travel

Christmas Traditions from Germany: German Christmas Sweets, Decorations, Markets and More

 

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Christmas in Germany is my favorite time in Germany! There’s so much to love – the Christmas markets, traditions, and of course, the desserts and sweets.

I used to live in Germany and have celebrated Christmas there several times. Since my German recipes and travel articles are so popular on IDB, I thought I’d create this guide to Germany at Christmastime.

Whether you’re planning a trip to Germany, are simply interested in how Christmas is celebrated in Germany or want to incorporate some German Christmas traditions into your own home (I’ve got ideas for you on this front – read on), you’re in the right place!

When do Germans celebrate Christmas?

Let’s start with a few basics:

December 24 is German Christmas Eve
December 25 is German Christmas Day
December 26 is the Third Day of Christmas (like Boxing Day in the UK)

Yes, there are 3 days of Christmas in Germany!

For the families I’ve celebrated with, Christmas Eve is celebrated with immediate family, a simple traditional dinner (e.g., sausages and potato salad), and opening presents. Christmas Day is for spending time with extended family and perhaps a more formal meal. The Third Day of Christmas (that’s how it was always called in Germany – der dritte Weihnachtstag) is a relaxed day to see friends or more extended family. It may not be exactly that way for everyone, but that’s how I’ve experienced it.

While those are the official days of the Christmas celebration in Germany, it actually feels like the holidays begins much earlier. The the first Advent, the 4th Sunday before Christmas, seems to kick off the season.  And, of course, there’s St. Niklaus Day on December 6 (when kids leave their shoes by the front door and find candy and gifts in them the next morning). And Silvester (New Year’s) after Christmas!

Christmas Greetings in German

I used to be a German instructor and I still get asked about German Christmas greetings. So I thought I’d include a few important phrases here:

What’s the German word for Christmas? Weihnachten
What’s “Christmas tree” in German? Weihnachtsbaum or Tannenbaum
How do you say Christmas carol? Weihnachtslied
And Santa Claus? Weihnachtsmann
How do you say Merry Christmas in German? Frohe Weihnachten
What about Happy New Year? Frohes neues Jahr or Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr! 

When do the German Christmas Markets start? What are the BEST Christmas markets in Germany?

Visiting Christmas markets is one of my favorite traditions! They typically open at the very end of November or early December, depending on which day the first Advent falls.

Now, which German Christmas market is the best?

Honestly, it’s the one you’re at!

Seriously! Because they’re all good in their own way. Some are big, some are small, but they pretty much all have the same type of food, drink, and craft stalls (though most people selling food, drinks, and crafts are local).

Everyone wants to go to the popular Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt, and if you have the opportunity I recommend you do go. But don’t feel like that’s the market to visit. It can get super crowded and after visiting 100+ markets over the years, I realized that they each have their charms. Smaller markets may be less crowded, which means you might be able to strike up a conversation with a vendor more easily. You may also encounter more locals than tourists.

That said, if you’re looking for something particular in a Christmas market, here are some ideas:

Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt- Oldest, most famous, and often most crowded  
Rothenburg ob der Tauber – Step back in time-iest
Dresden Striezelmarkt  – Famous for Stollen
Stuttgart – One of the largest in Germany
St. Pauli in Hamburg – A Christmas market in the Red Light District
Englischer Garten in Munich – This market is in the beautiful English garden
Essen Christmas Market – An international Christmas market 

Christmas market tips:

  • Dress warmly because the market is entirely outside and it will more than likely be cold, especially if you go at night.
  • Bring cash or check ahead of time to see if you can pay with a credit card.
  • Go at least once during the day and after dark. Evening is my favorite time because all of the lights are turned on and everyone is just hanging out and enjoying themselves.
  • If you don’t like crowds, go on a weekday. Avoid the weekends.
  • Check ahead of time to see if there are any special events scheduled (live music, etc).
  • Christmas mugs, wooden or straw ornaments, and those hard decorated Lebkuchen hearts make great souvenirs and gifts!

What should I eat and drink at a German Christmas market? 

Go hungry because there are so many delicious things to eat and drink! Here are my favorites:

  • Bratwurst (sausage typically served with mustard and on a roll)
  • Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes)
  • Sautéed garlic mushrooms
  • Kartoffelpuffer / Reibekuchen with garlic sauce (potato pancakes)
  • Lebkuchen cookies (German gingerbread)
  • Gebrannte Mandeln (cinnamon sugar almonds)
  • Glühwein (hot mulled wine)

Here’s a great video I found that shows you all the sweet and savory Christmas Market must-tries:

German Christmas Decorations

The Christmas season in Germany is absolutely beautiful! The sun rises late and sets early in December, especially in northern Germany, but the many gorgeous lights and other decorations make everything cozy and bright.

If you’re not in Germany for the holidays, you can bring Germany at Christmastime to you! Here are the best Christmas decorations from Germany to include in your decorating – advent wreath, advent calendars, German Christmas pyramid, German Christmas smokers, and tree ornaments.

German Advent Wreath

This is a popular one! Even though its roots are religious, even people who aren’t the least bit religious will buy an Advent wreath for their family kitchen table or living room coffee table. It makes those long, cold, dark evenings super cozy. In Germany, you can find all kinds of Advent wreaths, from fresh to fake, traditional to modern, cheap to expensive. They’re typically round and have space for four candles.

For years I made my own simple Advent wreath with 4 candles on a festive platter and a few evergreen sprigs cut from my tree. I’d always planned to buy a real German Advent wreath in Germany to bring home but I still haven’t done it (never enough room in my suitcase)! Fortunately, I just found some great options on Amazon. Here’s the one I ordered (I combine it with a fresh wreath, white candles, and a few pine cones):

Click here to check pricing on this silver Advent Wreath.

If you prefer an Advent wreath that’s decorated and ready to go, take a look at this one:

Click here to check pricing on this advent wreath.

German Advent Calendars

I was first introduced to advent calendars when I lived with a German family during my senior year of high school. The tradition in their family was to hang a huge handmade fabric advent calendar on the wall. There were 3 of us kids – me, my older host brother, and my young host brother. Each day one of us got to untie a small cloth bag and get a fun little gift, like chapstick, chocolate, nail polish or a few coins. It was a really fun way to count down to Christmas, and I’m grateful my host brothers gave up some of their Advent calendar days to include me in the tradition!

These days I typically buy a ready made advent calendar. I really like the ones that include some sort of treat, like Kinderschokolade or Haribo gummies. 🙂 Here are this year’s contenders:

Click here to check out this 3-D Advent calendar!

Click here to check out this Haribo gummies calendar!

 

Click here to check out this Kinderschokolade calendar!

 

German Christmas Pyramid

Does this look familiar? Maybe you have one already? These are already fairly popular in the US. If you haven’t seen a Christmas Pyramid before, here’s how it works. First, you add small candles to the candle holders around the bottom of the pyramid. Then, when you light the candles, the smoke spins the fan at the top! You can find these wooden pyramids in a variety of sizes (I found several on Amazon).

Click here to check pricing on this wooden German Christmas Pyramid!

German Christmas Smoker Ornaments

I don’t think I’d seen wooden smoker ornaments until I spent Christmas in Germany. If you’re not familiar with them, each smoker has a little hole in the back where you can place a small incense cone. When you light it, smoke comes out of Santa’s pipe, the Lederhosen wearing guy’s mouth, etc. Not only are these ornaments adorable, they make your house smell so good!


Check out this wooden Weihnachtsmann (Santa) smoker!

 

 

Click here to check out this wooden smoker ornament!

 

The German Christmas Tree

The German Christmas tree tradition is much like it is the US. Everyone I’ve celebrated Christmas with in Germany had a fresh, live tree decorated with family favorite ornaments and twinkling lights. Some people do now prefer fake trees, though.

When I lived with a German host family in high school, we went to a Christmas tree farm a day or two before Christmas Eve to pick out a tree. The farm owner cut the top half of the very tall tree!

Traditionally, Christmas trees aren’t set up or decorated until Christmas Eve. My host mom told me that when she was a kid, it was the adults who decorated the tree as a Christmas Eve gift to the children! They’d get the tree set up, arrange the presents underneath, and then invite the excited kids in to see it.

My second Christmas was when I spent a year at a German university. About 10 people from my study abroad program decided to celebrate the holidays together in Freiburg, Germany. We had a blast doing all of the traditional Christmas stuff as a group of friends living in a German dorm!

A few days before Christmas, a few of us took the tram into the city center, chose a tree, carried it on the tram with us (nobody batted an eye), and then somehow set it up in the 3rd floor common room. We strung pop corn, made paper chains, and had a great time decorating our little tree.

You’ve probably heard that Germans decorate their tree with real candles. Traditionally, yes! And even today, some people still do use real candles. Last time I was in Germany I bought a set of clip-on candle holders and candles for my tree…but then I realized that where I live, I can’t get the kind of tree you need if you want to use candles! You need a tree with strong, sturdy limbs and lots of space between them. My candle holders will have to stay in my Christmas box a little longer. *sigh*

Tip: if you do use real candles on your tree, do as the Germans do: watch the candles carefully and be sure to have a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher next to your tree!

German Christmas Tree Ornaments

When I got married 18 years ago, my husband and I received a Bride’s Set of German Christmas ornaments from my aunt and cousin very similar to the one below. They’re the only decorations we use every single year.

There are 12 ornaments in the set – one for each month of the first year of marriage. Each month represents a wish for the couple. If you know someone who’s getting married or is recently married, this set makes a great gift!

Click here to check out this set of Bride’s Christmas Ornaments!

I also have a set of wooden Christmas ornaments just like this, and they go on my tree every year, too. I got my set in Germany (at a Christmas Market) but you can pick on up on Amazon. How cool is that?

Click here to check out this set of wooden Christmas ornaments!

 

Best German Christmas Desserts

Ok, now to the German Christmas desserts! German Christmas sweets are the best German sweets. If you happen to be in Germany for Christmas (I’m jealous), you can easily try all 10 of these German sweets. If not, you can make some of them, and the others you can probably find at a store near you.

1. Gebrannte Mandeln (Cinnamon Sugar Almonds)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A German Christmas Market staple! Literally translated they’re called burned almonds but really, the almonds are coated in crunchy cinnamon sugar and served warm in paper cones. They smell so good. You’ll find a Gebrannte Mandeln stand at any German Christmas Market, and I’ve been seeing them more frequently in the US. They’re actually quite easy to make at home, too. Click here to get my recipe and step-by-step tutorial!

2. Stollen (German Christmas Bread)

A lot of people mistakenly think German Stollen with fruit cake. Nope!! It’s not fruitcake (even though it’s sometimes called German Christmas cake). Stollen – German Christmas bread – is a delicious buttery bread with nuts, raisins, and sometimes marzipan inside. To make it even more delicious, Stollen is topped with melted butter and powdered sugar. You can buy Stollen at World Market, Trader Joe’s, Aldi and some bakeries…or you can make your own at home! It’s surprisingly easy and so, so, so good. I make this every year now and look forward to it all of autumn. Click here for my easy Stollen recipe and tutorial.

3. German Butter Cookies

These little traditional cookies are simple and so tasty. Perfect for a party or cookie exchange. You can make a batch in no time! I’ve got the recipe for you in my free European Christmas Cookies ebook — click here to download it!

4. Dominosteine

Even after all the years I’ve eaten Dominosteine at Christmas, I’m still not completely sure I like them. Ha! Whenever I’m in Germany I always eat a few, just because they taste like Christmas. Dominosteine are layers of Lebkuchen (German gingerbread), jam, and marzipan, covered in chocolate. I think it’s the marzipan I’m not a fan of. If you like marzipan, you’ll probably love them! Click here to add a package to your Amazon order!

5. Lebkuchen (German Gingerbread)

It’s just not Christmas in Germany without Lebkuchen! It’s everywhere (like in the Dominosteine above). Lebkuchen is like the gingerbread you find in the US but with a stronger and less sweet flavor. Lebkuchen is often covered in chocolate or topped with a sugary glaze. You can pick up an assortment of plain, iced, and chocolate covered (yum!) Lebkuchen here!

6. Baumkuchen Cake

 

Baumkuchen (“tree cake”) is a German Christmas dessert I’ve always heard about and have seen a few times but have never tried. I’m not sure why…it’s just never been part of the holiday celebrations I’ve joined. It’s a really interesting cake, though, because it’s comprised of many thin layers and then covered with chocolate. Watch the video below to see how Baumkuchen is made!

7. Pfeffernüsse

Pfeffernüsse cookies are little round Lebkuchen cookies covered in peppermint glaze. These cookies are super popular in Germany at the holidays. If you have an Aldi or World Market near you, pick up a bag of Pfeffernüsse and give them a try! (Click here to see what other German Christmas treats you can get at Aldi!)

8. Vanillekipferl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These cookies are more like what many US Americans think of when we think Christmas cookies. These tender little cookies are made with ground almonds and are covered in powdered sugar. They’re easy to make and are SO good! I’ve got the recipe for the Austrian version of these cookies in my free European Christmas Cookies ebook — click here to download it!

9. Spekulatius

I love Spekulatius cookies! These crunchy little cookies have a Spekulatius spice blend in them that make them taste like Christmas. You can make your own spice blend (click here for my super easy recipe) that you can use when making your own Spekulatius cookies or you can pick up a bag of Spekulatius at Aldi or World Market. You can often find two variations on Spekulatius cookies – almond and butter. My favorite is the almond version!  (Click here to see what other German Christmas treats you can get at Aldi!)

10. Marzipan

Truth is, I’m not a big fan of marzipan. But it’s a Christmas staple in Germany and lots of people love it! Have you tried marzipan? It’s basically just ground almonds turned into a paste. Sometimes it’s molded into shapes, other times it’s covered in chocolate or included in things like Dominosteine or Stollen. Watch the video above to see how to make simple German Marzipan Balls!

Which German Christmas treat do you most want to try?

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Christine
    January 6, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    My mother would make her own rum balls, with sour cherries rum , oatmeal? farina?chololate and sugar. Do you have a good, similar recipe?

    • Reply
      Cate
      January 9, 2019 at 1:26 pm

      Hi Christine! Are you looking for a German cherry rum ball recipe? I looked through my German cookbooks and didn’t find anything. But searching online I found this recipe: https://lifecurrentsblog.com/boozy-black-forest-rum-balls/ You could try using oatmeal or farina instead of the vanilla wafers listed in the recipe. Let me know how they turn out! 🙂

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