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German traditions For Members

Four lesser-known German Christmas traditions

James Jackson
James Jackson - [email protected]
Four lesser-known German Christmas traditions
Father Christmas with Knecht Ruprecht. Picture: Nikoläuse feierlich ausgesendetpicture alliance/dpa | Felix Kästle

As the holidays rapidly approach, there are plenty of strange German Christmas traditions that exist in local regions harking back to pagan days. From Santa's henchman to festive prune-sculptures, here's a look at four you may not know.

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Knecht Ruprecht

A somewhat lesser-known Christmas tradition in Germany, Knecht Ruprecht is a companion or servant of Saint Nicholas that plays a role in festivities in some southern German-speaking regions.

In folklore, Knecht Ruprecht is often depicted as a tall, dark, and sometimes hairy figure dressed in tattered clothes.

He carries a bag of ashes, a switch (a bundle of birch twigs), or a rod. Knecht Ruprecht is said to accompany St. Nicholas on his rounds during the Christmas season.

While St. Nicholas rewards well-behaved children with gifts and treats, Knecht Ruprecht is responsible for dealing with those who have been naughty or disobedient. His name means “Servant Ruprecht.”

The idea behind Knecht Ruprecht is to encourage good behavior in children during the holiday season.

The threat of receiving a switch or a bag of ashes serves as a deterrent for misbehavior, reinforcing the importance of being well-behaved and respectful during the Christmas season.

It's a unique and sometimes slightly eerie addition to the festive folklore in southern Germany. 

READ ALSO: How do Germans Celebrate Christmas? 

Christmas pyramid Rostock

The Christmas pyramid on display at the Rostock Christmas Market in University Square. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

Weihnachtspyramide 

Hearing the name pyramids might transport you to ancient Egypt, but this type of pyramid is actually a Saxon tradition from from the Erzgebirge region near the Czech border.

These carved “pyramids” are wooden structures with rotating tiers, typically featuring carved Christmas figures like snowmen or Father Christmas and scenes from the Nativity.

As well as taking prime position at Christmas markets, you can buy toy versions too. The heat generated by candles around the base causes the propeller on top to twist and spin around, creating a festive and visually appealing decoration.

Zwestschenmännle. Picture: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann A seller holds prune figures in his hand at Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt. Photo: DPA/Daniel Karmann

Zwetschgenmännle

In the Franconia region in southern Germany, there is a tradition of making figurines out of dried plums or prunes called Zwetschgenmännle. Some body parts are also made with walnuts and figs.

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It is said that it was invented in the 18th century by a Nuremberg mastermind who wanted to make children happy, but had nothing but wire and a plum tree in front of his house - so he made little figurines out of it. The children enjoyed eating these little men back then.

These little figures, often depicting people or animals, are crafted by hand and used as decorations during the Christmas season.

Rauhnacht: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

Frightening monsters run around the Bavarian town of Sankt Englmar one on of the "rough nights" after Christmas. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

Rauhnächte 

The Rauhnächte, or "rough nights," are the nights between December 25th and January 6th. In some regions of Germany, particularly in Bavaria, people believe that these nights are magical and mystical. Coming from the Middle High German term “Rau” meaning “hairy”.

It is believed that during this time, spirits and magical beings are more active, and townsfolk may dress up as these spirits and go on a pretend rampage.

READ ALSO: Why is Nikolaustag celebrated before Christmas in Germany?

People may engage in customs such as burning incense, blessing their homes, or practicing other rituals to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year, but it is also seen as a time to pause and reflect on the year gone by.

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One farmer’s tradition is the onion oracle, which is often consulted at this time. Separate an onion into 12 onion skins, sprinkle with salt and check the next morning. If there is a lot of water in the bowl, there will supposedly be a lot of rain in the month that corresponds to – but take this with a pinch of salt.

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