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How Germany invented Christmas as we know it

Around the world, Christmas is associated with a feeling of coziness and togetherness, and gift giving. The roots of this can arguably be traced back to Germany.

Large baubles on the beach promenade at the Baltic Sea in Baabe on the island of Rügen
Large baubles on the beach promenade at the Baltic Sea in Baabe on the island of Rügen in December 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

In the English-speaking world, it’s not uncommon to hear people speaking about feeling “christmassy” during the festive period, a somewhat clunky term referring to that warm, cosy feeling traditionally associated with the holiday.

The German-speaking world, however, has a far more precise way of describing this feeling. “Gemütlichkeit”, with no direct translation into English, denotes a state of coziness, warmth and contentedness, as well as carrying connotations of belonging. You might use it to describe a scene of sipping hot Glühwein at Christmas, surrounded by your friends and family.

It seems natural that German should have more effective ways of expressing Christmas feeling when you consider that Germany is the birthplace of Christmas celebrations as the world today knows them.

The images and symbols that immediately spring to mind when most people think of Christmas – trees strung with lights, gingerbread, Santa Claus – all have connections to the country that stretch all the way back to the 15th century and still thrive today. It’s no wonder that Breslau historian Willy Cohn once commented that “Christmas was not a Christian but a German holiday”.

A tree in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria on Christmas Eve. Photo: DPA

The medieval roots of Christmas

The Christmas Market is perhaps the most recognizably German of today’s festive traditions, with Germany seeing some 85 million people flocking to visit them each year, and the format replicated in places as far-flung as Japan.

They weren’t always so popular, of course. In fact, the Christmas market’s antecedent was likely the “winter market”, held as far back as the Late Middle Ages in German towns to give locals a chance to stock up on food and handicrafts for the long, cold winter ahead. Though they may have looked a little different to the markets you’ll visit today, you’d still recognize the meat, baked goods, and wooden toys on offer. The exact location of what could be called the first ever “Christmas Market” is still hotly debated, however, with Dresden contesting that their first Christmas market was held in 1434, beating Nuremberg’s first in 1628.

For expat Rebecca Dell, who moved to Berlin from the UK after the Brexit vote in 2016, the traditional Christmas Markets are a large part of what makes celebrating Christmas in Germany so special: “Although a German would probably say that Berlin is a weak example”, she told The Local, “I think the Christmas markets are lovely – they give even me, pretty much a grinch, some Christmas spirit – no pun intended”.

Though also of contested origins, the roots of the Christmas tree have also been traced back to Germany’s very earliest days. Records have suggested that early German tribes decorated their homes with the evergreen branches of the fir tree during the mid-winter as a pagan ritual, looking hopefully forward to the next spring.

Another popular story casts the Eisleben-born Martin Luther as the inventor, with the 16th-century Protestant reformer supposedly struck with inspiration after looking at the stars through evergreen trees on a walk home and being reminded of the light of Christ. Bringing a tree inside, he recreated the scene for his family by lighting candles on its branches.

However the Christmas tree came into being, it proved a powerful symbol, quickly catching on across the world. British legend suggests that the German Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, popularised Christmas trees among the middle classes of Britain after gifting one to his wife in 1840. Others suggest that “Good Queen Charlotte”, the German wife of George III, set one up in Windsor 40 years prior. By this time, the Christmas tree had already made its way across the Atlantic, with the Brandenburg-born Baroness Frederika Charlotte von Riesdesel supposedly erecting America’s first in 1781.

Germany’s Christmas inventions

Whether Martin Luther can be truly credited for the Christmas tree or not, we do have him to thank for the tradition of gift-giving on December 25th. Before around 1535, present-giving was usually reserved for December 8th- the feast day of St. Nikolaus. 

As a Protestant with a healthy dose of suspicion for saints, he encouraged a shift December 24th or 25th. A number of countries followed suit, but even today, some historically Catholic countries still do their present-giving on January 6th. We can also thank 16th century German Lutherans for the advent wreaths that adorn our doors during the festive period.

Small Christmas gifts are distributed to homeless at shelter in Hamburg in 2016. Photo: DPA

In fact, it’s difficult to think of any Christmas traditions or staples that don’t have connections to the German-speaking world. Germans invented the advent calendar in the early 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig is credited with the creation of baubles in 1870, and tinsel – whether you love it or hate it – was first conceived in Nuremberg in 1610. And though the figure of St Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus was not a product of Germany itself, his iconic look was first drawn during the American Civil War by cartoonist Thomas Nast: a German refugee to the country.

Christmas as political in Germany

It’s not only Germany’s inventions that have tied the country so closely to Christmas, however. In his book titled “Christmas in Germany”, Joe Perry suggests that the conceptualisation of Christmas as a time for togetherness, warmth and tradition was a means of pulling together the people of Germany during the 19th century, when the country was searching for a nation state.

By the time the Nazi party came around in the early 20th century, the country’s close identification of Christmas with being German posed a problem to their political ideology. Jesus was, after all, Jewish. The party attempted to remold traditions in their image, inserting propaganda into images and songs in order to shift focus away from overtly Christian themes. Thankfully, their efforts failed, and more ancient traditions stuck.

A non-commercial Christmas

Instead, the emphasis on Christmas as a time for relaxing and spending time with loved ones remains of utmost importance in Germany, even while other countries have fallen prey to what many see as over-commercialisation of the holiday.

For Rebecca Dell, this emphasis is one of the reason she prefers Christmas in Germany over her home country, telling The Local “I still find Germany less commercial than the UK. Christmas [here] isn’t just all about presents and how much money you spend, it’s more about food and slowing down to spend quality time with people”.

In Germany, the mad rush of shoppers buying presents on Christmas Eve then venturing out again for Boxing Day sales doesn’t exist: both days are public holidays with few – if any – shops open for business. Perhaps in today’s age of over-consumption, we should turn back to Germany for yet more advice on how to do Christmas right.

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For members


Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

From major manufacturers like BMW and Volkswagen to the world-famous Autobahn, Germany is said to be a country that loves its cars - but how much truth is there behind the stereotype?

Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

In many ways, Germany is a car lover’s paradise. Not only are some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers based here, but drivers also enjoy numerous rights that they don’t elsewhere, from cheap parking permits to speed-limit-free sections of the Autobahn.

It’s no wonder then that the country has developed a reputation for being somewhat car obsessed. But how true is it really? We take a look at some of the facts. 

The endless Tempolimit row 

It’s a topic that’s almost never out of the news, and a debate that has been rumbling on for years: should Germany finally introduce a hard speed limit on sections of its Autobahn? 

In German politics, the Green Party has been one of the loudest voices calling for so-called Tempolimit in recent years, arguing that the move would prevent accidents and drastically cut carbon emissions on the motorway. However, the liberal FDP were dead-set against the move when the ironically named traffic-light coalition sat down at the negotiating table last year. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems that public opinion in Germany has been swinging towards the Greens. When framed as a solidarity measure in an ARD poll, 60 percent of Germans said they would be in favour of a temporary speed limit on the Autobahn, while just 35 percent were against.

Most surprisingly, even Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) – who’s said to be a huge fan of fast cars – has softened his stance on the measure in recent weeks. In an interview on political podcast Lage der Nation, Lindner signalled his readiness to negotiate on the issue.

“I would immediately be prepared to say that we would impose a speed limit in Germany if the nuclear power plants were to run longer,” he told podcast hosts Ulf Buermeyer and Philip Banse. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany introduce a motorway speed limit?

German car manufacturers 

One of the reasons Germany is so closely associated with cars is the unwavering national pride in its car manufacturers. BMW, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz are all German brands – and politicians in Germany have often been accused of being in the pockets of these big companies over the years. 

Indeed, former chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has been branded the “car Chancellor” for her perceived friendliness towards the car industry – even when it interfered with her environmental aims. And there are endless jokes on German satire shows about Christian Lindner supposedly taking his policy ideas from the CEO of Porsche. 

However, there’s no denying that car manufacturing plays a significant role in the German economy. In 2021, the sector employed almost 790,000 people and turned over a whopping €410 billion – accounting for 24 percent of domestic industry revenue. Seen from that perspective, it’s understandable that successive governments have wanted to keep these heavyweights on-side. 

Angela Merkel BMW

(Former) Chancellor Angela Merkel looks an electric BMW at a car expo in Hannover in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Peter Steffen/dpa | Peter Steffen

Car ownership 

Though driving is clearly close to Germans’ hearts, it may surprise you to know that the Bundesrepublik is by no means at the top of the ranks in Europe when it comes to car ownership.

In a ranking of motor vehicles per capita in the EU, Germany actually ends up somewhere in the lower-middle, with a total of 14 member states – including France, Portugal, Italy and Finland – boasting more cars, vans and freight vehicles per person. (In case you’re interested, the Italian micro-state of San Marino topped this particular chart.) 

However, when you look at the number of motor vehicles in total, rather than just per capita, the stats paint a slightly different story. While Italy and France both have around 45 million motor vehicles in the country, there are 52 million of them in Germany.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with each other?

Average mobility spend

Of course, that’s not to say that the German love affair with driving is entirely a myth. A recent study found that the average German spends a whopping €233 per month on their Auto, which adds up to almost €2,800 per year, compared to just €33 per month on buses and trains. 

That’s not including the outlay for a car in the first place, which can cost well into the tens of thousands. 

Debates over right-of-way

The seemingly unshakeable bond between Germans and their cars has become the subject of heated debate recently as the government tries to encourage people to switch to more climate-friendly options. Some argue that people have become far too attached to convenience and need to make lifestyle changes, while others say the transport network in Germany just isn’t good enough to support this.

In fact, it would probably be fair to say that there are two competing forces in German civil society at the moment: those who are fighting to reshape cities for a more eco-friendly future, and those who are fighting for drivers to maintain their rights and privileges (at least for now). 

Climate activists in Munich

Climate activists glue themselves to the road in Munich’s Karlsplatz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

The latest front for this battle is Berlin, where the Senate has recently been forced to re-open a busy street to cars after a court ruled that there was no valid legal basis to redirect traffic. Friedrichstraße had originally been blocked off the motor vehicles as part of a traffic trial in 2020 – but the cycle paths and pedestrian walkways had simply remained in place ever since.

As the signage redirecting vehicles is removed from Friedrichstraße, it seems that those who wanted cars to return to the busy thoroughfare have won the battle. But with the Senate vowing to push ahead with plans to pedestrianise the street in the long-term, they may not have won the war. 

READ ALSO: How Berlin Friedrichstraße ended up at the centre of the car-free debate