Growing up Catholic, Christmas was a decidedly religious holiday at our house: midnight mass on Christmas Eve, guilt-ridden Advent wreaths with three purple candles representing penance and a pink one that allowed for some rejoicing. And long before my siblings and I could get excited about the approaching holiday, we went to church on December 8th to celebrate Jesus' mother Mary managing to get pregnant with the Messiah without having sinned.
But we also grew up in the United States, where the religious aspect of Christmas was quickly upstaged by kitschy Santa jingles in every store, unfortunate Christmas-themed sweaters, flurries of X-mas sales (kicked off by Black Friday stampedes) and Santas planted in every single mall to mark America's most commercial season.
But when I moved to Berlin nearly 20 years ago, I discovered that my friends - even those raised Catholic - appeared to be more relaxed about religion. There was no obligation to go to church on Sundays, even though shops were closed. And despite the existence of a Christian Democratic Party, I rarely saw open displays of religion north of Bavaria. A laid back kind of atheism seemed the norm amongst my acquaintances.
So I was surprised when even my atheist-leaning German friends had Advent wreaths adorning their tables and they told their children that the Christkind (Christ child) brings the presents, as opposed to the rotund guy in red who squeezes down the chimney.
“Even for people who don't consider themselves religious, going to church belongs to the Christmas tradition in Germany,” Sandra Baron, a German who has lived in the US and includes herself amongst this crowd, told The Local.
German Christmas songs, I discovered, were not simple nursery-like songs about Santa's reindeer but four- to five-versed religious Lieder (songs) that actually require some musical ability.
“Germany is a much more tradition-based culture,” adds American Kim Preiss, originally from Wisconsin.
“In America it is far more commercial. With Black Friday and Amazon Christmas, it's all about making money,” says Preiss, who has lived in Germany for 15 years.
German Christmas markets generate billions of euros annually, according to German industry groups and analysts. But the outdoor stands selling beeswax candles, knit gloves and ceramic vases at Christmas markets in Germany feel less commercial than seeing flat screen TVs propped up next to artificial Christmas trees in the US (which may or may not be green).
“Maybe in an attempt to be religiously tolerant, people say 'Happy Holidays' as opposed to 'Merry Christmas,'” Mandi Althoff, a half-German, half-American who just returned to Germany from a seven-year stint in California, told The Local.
“In Germany you know that Christmas means that Jesus was born.”