How Did Today’s Christmas Traditions Start in America? Here’s a Hint German Christmas Markets.

Christmas in Germany is my favorite time of year! As a child growing up in the US, I always loved Christmas, and now living in Germany I feel as if I am living inside of a Christmas storybook come to life, since most of the images we Americans have of Christmas have their origins from Germany. That got me thinking, what is the history of Christmas traditions in Germany and how did these customs find their way to America?

First off, the history of German Christmas traditions reach way back in time to the early Middle Ages in Europe. I’m talking like around 500 AD. And, when we think of this time period, we have all seen movies that provide what we think those times looked and felt like for the people.  Small villages with stone houses and thatched roofs.  No pavement, only muddy pathways for people and animals to travel.  Times were hard, and the livelihood of the people were centered around their families, farming, and beliefs.

Most people found symbolism around nature, specifically the changing of the seasons. Spring meant rebirth. Summer meant the growing of crops. Autumn meant the harvesting of these crops to prepare for the long, cold winter months ahead.

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Obviously, this is not in Germany, but rather it is Stonehenge. An example of a site used to celebrate the winter & summer solstice.

And, during this time period, the date of December 21st is significant because this is the winter solstice (the first day of winter – which is also the shortest night).  Therefore, it was very common to have had celebrations to signify this date because with each following day, more daylight would occur.  Celebrations on this date involved hearty feasts, parties, and decorations of evergreen pine trees which were symbolic of sustaining life even through the harsh winter months. (origin of our modern Christmas Tree & pine decorations)

During this time period, there was not a modern day country of Germany, but rather different tribes of people.  It was these tribes that Rome conquered, as its Empire spread north, bringing Christianity (Catholicism) to the tribes.  It was during this time, King Charlemagne ruled what is today France, Belgium, Luxembourg, & western Germany.  He had a goal to unite all of the tribes under his reign. In the year 800 AD, the Pope made Charlemagne the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and it was through this power he was able to “convert” large numbers of people to Catholicism.

Wow!  talk about boiling down a tremendous amount of history in one paragraph!  This is a fascinating time period with a tremendous amount of detail, if you like history that is….but, back to our story of the history of Christmas in Germany…

So, how did December 25th become associated with Christmas?  Let’s go back a little further in history in Rome to the year 221 AD when a Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus wrote the ‘Chronology of Earth’ up until the birth of Jesus Christ.  In the year 221AD, the Spring Equinox was on March 25th.  The Spring Equinox symbolizes new birth in nature. Sextus therefore wrote that Jesus had to have been conceived on a March 25th, and therefore was born 9 months later on December 25th. Being affiliated with the Catholic Church, eventually in 345AD Pope Julius I ordained that December 25th was the birth date of Jesus. (origin of December 25th as Christmas Day).

Today in Germany, another popular date of celebration is December 6th and the feast of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas, lived in the 4th Century in what is modern day Turkey. He was a Bishop of the Catholic Church and became legendary for his generosity and gift giving.  His death on December 6th is honored by the Church as Saint Nicholas Day, celebrated through a large feast with gifts given to children on the night of December 5th by Saint Nicholas.  To the new found German Christians in the Middle Ages, this celebration and figure became very important as a symbol of hope.  The images of Saint Nicholas have blurred into the Santa Claus and Father Christmas figures we see today.   I have another blog post about Saint Nicholas here(origin of Santa Claus).

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A quick recap:

  • We are now in the 15th Century in Germany. Most of the people have been converted to Christianity (Catholicism).
  • Celebrations are occurring on December 6th in honor of Nicholas, a Catholic Saint.
  • Celebrations and traditions are still being carried out on December 21st for the winter solstice.
  • We have the Catholic Christ Mass (origin of the term Christmas) on December 25th in honor of the birth of Jesus.
  • January 6th is celebrated as the Day of the Epiphany, which is 12 days after his birth that Jesus was presented to the Three Wise Men as the Son of God.  (origin of the 12 Days of Christmas).
  • But, we still do not have the true celebrations of Christmas that we think of today on December 25th as being the “big day”!
  • Enter Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation…

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Martin Luther, a German Friar, declared that people can go to God directly without going through the Pope.  Wow! the whole Protestant Reformation summed up in one sentence!  Martin Luther disliked the tradition of the Catholic Church that December 6th was celebrated in honor of a Saint, and disliked the still common traditions of celebrating the winter solstice on December 21st so close to the birth of Jesus. Therefore, he pushed the new (protest) church to emphasize the importance of Christmas Day. And, to compete with the gift giving of Saint Nicholas, instead of a Saint, the Christ Child would deliver gifts to the children. Over time, this celebration grew on December 25th and the symbol of the Christ Child changed to be that of a female, winged angel who gave the gifts in honor of Jesus, the Christ Child. (origin of the angel tree topper, Christmas Day on December 25th, and the giving of gifts).

So, throughout Germany we have celebrations occurring leading up to the four weeks before Christmas Day (the Advent Season).  The celebrations occurred within the churches attracting people from the countryside.  As a result, in the 14th century we start to see vendors setting up stalls near the church and public squares in the villages to sell food, toys, decorations, etc.  And, 700 years later, these Christmas Markets or Weihnachtsmarkt are still found today. (origin of German Christmas Markets).

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But, how did these customs find their way to the United States given the fact that in the 17th Century, the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations because they were viewed as being too wild?  At that time, in the US, Christmas was only celebrated on Christmas Day in the church without any symbolism or celebration.  In the 1800s, Germany’s Prince Albert married England’s Queen Victoria and brought his German traditions of decorating trees for Christmas to England.  In 1848, a picture of the English Royal Family in front of their 40 foot tall Christmas Tree was published in American magazines.  And, this custom quickly caught on in the US, especially with the countless numbers of German immigrants already living in the US.  This picture also started the tradition of giving Christmas Cards with decorative pictures on them to family and friends. (origin of Christmas to the US and Christmas cards).

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Another symbol of Christmas for Americans is the current version of what we think Santa Claus looks like?  Until the 1930s, in the US, there were different versions of what he looked like and wore.  What happened?  In a brilliant marketing ad, Coca-Cola created the image of Santa that we Americans still know today as the fat, jolly man wearing a red suit. There’s no connection to Germany here, but just an interesting side note, and an early precursor to today’s version of Christmas in the US dominated by heavy commercialism.

Obviously, it is hard to summarize a period of history spanning almost two thousand years in one blog post without totally boring the reader.  And, if you have made it this far in reading this blog post, thanks!  There are many other Christmas customs and traditions from Germany that have been brought to the US over time, along with customs from other countries. As someone who likes history + Christmas, I find it totally fascinating.

And, finally….Frohe Weihnachten!  or, Merry Christmas!

One Reply to “How Did Today’s Christmas Traditions Start in America? Here’s a Hint German Christmas Markets.”

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