The history of German Christmas markets

If you’ve ever been to Germany in December, you are likely familiar with the Christmas markets that decorate almost every city. Christmas markets can be found in many countries today, but they originated in the German-speaking part of the Roman Empire and remain a big part of German culture today.

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German Christmas markets date back to the Middle Ages, when townspeople held winter markets as an opportunity to stock up on food and supplies to get them through the colder months. These open-air markets were usually only open for a day or a few days – just enough time to allow people to buy what they needed. A famous example of this is Vienna’s Dezembermarkt (“December market”), which was first held between 1294 and 1296 and sold goods for the winter.

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Over time, the wintertime markets began to evolve. Craftsmen began to set up stands selling products such as toys and woodcarvings, which people bought as gifts for Christmas and New Year’s. It is believed that some of the oldest Christmas markets were first held in Dresden in 1434, in Bautzen in 1384, in Frankfurt in 1393 and in Munich in 1310, although some of these may have had more of a resemblance to wintertime markets. The Protestant Reformation also had an impact on the markets. When the markets first came into being, they were often associated with Saint Nicholas (Munich’s first market was called the Nikolausdult). After the Protestant Reformation, the markets gradually became associated with the Christkindl (“Christ child”) instead – and in 1805 Munich changed the name of its market to the Christkindlmarkt. Parents started to tell their children that the Christkindl would deliver gifts on Christmas. As time passed, all of Germany’s winter markets evolved into Christmas markets.

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Today, there are so many Christmas markets in Germany that it is almost impossible not to stumble upon one if you’re there during the Advent season. And even the United States has countless Christmas markets of its own. If you haven’t already, take a look at our list of German-style Christmas markets in the US!

The Legend of Saint Nicholas

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“Ho, ho, ho, have you all been good?” The old man with a long white beard, a bishop’s miter, and a thick red cape stands with his finger raised before  the excited children, his eyes moving from one beaming face to the next.

“Yes!” they all shout in unison, impatiently eyeing the heavy brown sack that Saint Nicholas has carried in from the cold night over his shoulder. What could it possibly hold? Toys, books, or even candy? “Well, that’s good to hear!” Nicholas declares and opens his big golden book, from which he reads the names of the children and presents each of them with a small gift from his sack. They politely thank him, offer homemade cookies to
their peculiar guest, and recite small poems. Finally, they accompany him to the door, where he trots off with a jolly “ho, ho, ho,” disappearing into the dark on his way to the next house.

Diverse origins

Such a visit is not at all unusual in Germany in the pre-Christmas season, for every year on December 6 Saint Nicholas is remembered and celebrated in this way. Like many traditions handed down over the centuries, it is unclear what is true and what has been added over time to the legend of Saint Nicholas.

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Marking the Advent season

Celebrating Advent is an important part of Christmas in Germany. For Christians of both Protestant and Roman Catholic, it is a time of quiet contemplation that begins four Sundays before Christmas Eve.

Advent calendars

This German invention became a custom at the turn of the 20th century and has since advanced to worldwide popularity.

Advent calendars in Germany have 24 small windows or doors that open to reveal a picture, candy or other small gift. Needless to say, it is a favorite with children because it helps them pass the long waiting time until December 24th, called Heiligabend in Germany. That is the evening on which presents are shared in Germany.

Many families put great effort into crafting their own special calendars. Also a seemingly endless variety of calendars can be found in stores—from simple cardboard panels hiding chocolate to elaborate three dimensional structures containing toys.

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Advent wreaths

An Advent wreath—often made of evergreen branches and usually decorated with four candles—is one of the most popular symbols of the season. On the four Sundays in Advent families often gather to light the candles and to sing carols and read Christmas stories together. The evergreen wreath has its roots in the northern city of Hamburg, where in 1839 a wreath was hung in the prayer hall of the Rauhes Haus charity. This arrangement made of pine branches found favor in the homes of Protestant families, particularly those living in northern Germany. In the 1920s, though, Roman Catholics began to adopt the custom too.

Originally decorated with 24 candles, one for each day of Advent, the number has long been reduced to four, symbolizing the four Sundays before Christmas.

Make sure you follow us on social media @germanyinusa for a fun Advent giveaway starting this Sunday!

How the German town Himmelpfort is bringing Christmas joy to kids around the world

Christmas is just over a month away, which means you should start writing your letters to Santa soon! Where should you send them? Well, some people send their letters to the North Pole. And others send them to Himmelpfort.

The tiny German village of Himmelpfort is located 60 miles north of Berlin. Although it has a population of only 500, it has one of the busiest post offices in Germany (relative to its population, at least). For the last 34 years, the town has been receiving letters to Father Christmas.

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This year, the Himmelpfort post office has already received more than 12,000 letters to Santa. Hundreds of thousands of letters come in every holiday season – so this is just the beginning. Father Christmas and his 20 volunteers in Himmelpfort promise to personally answer every letter that arrives before December 16.

But why are these letters arriving in Himmelpfort in the first place?

It all began in 1984, when a few children mistakenly sent their Christmas wish lists to Himmelpfort. The translation of the village’s name is “Heaven’s Gate”, and they kids assumed that this is where Father Christmas lives. When the local postwoman saw the letters, she decided to send back a reply “from Santa”. Once the children received a response, more children excitedly started to send letters to Himmelpfort, starting a trend that continues to this day.

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Today, the Deutsche Post (the German Post Office) sets up an official Christmas Post Office in Himmelpfort for two months each year, bringing in volunteers to answer letters from children in 16 different languages. If you or your children would like a response from Santa, don’t send a letter to the North Pole – send it to Himmelpfort instead!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

The history of Black Friday shopping – in Germany!

It’s Friday! We’re guessing many of our American friends are off work today. You may be reading this while standing in line at a shopping mall because after all, it’s Black Friday and there’s plenty of deals to steal!

But while Thanksgiving is an American holiday, Black Friday is slowly becoming a global phenomenon – and Germans are among those who are participating.

Black Friday is – and always has been – a consumer’s holiday. The Friday after Thanksgiving has always marked the start of the holiday shopping season. But the term “Black Friday” first came to use in a different context: in the 1950s, American factory works used the term because so many of their coworkers called in sick on the day after Thanksgiving. In the 1960s, Philadelphia police were struggling to deal with traffic jams, large crowds and shoplifters on that Friday, also bringing the word “Black Friday” into use. The term was used in a negative context in both of these instances.

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These everyday items were invented by Germans!

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Inventors from around the world are converging on Nürnberg from November 1 to 4 to present their inventions at Germany’s 70th annual trade fair for ideas and inventions (the Ideen- Erfindungen-Neuheiten-Austellung, also known as iENA). The fair is the largest of its kind; since it was first held in 1948, more than 300,000 inventions were presented to the public – including inline skates, wheeled suitcases and folding bicycles. Inventors from 44 countries are expected to display their ideas.

In light of this fair, let’s take a look at some inventions that you may not have known are German!

Aspirin

Many of us depend on aspirin to cure us of our pains. But few may know that aspirin was invented by a German chemist, Felix Hoffman. The Swabian-born chemist initially developed the drug for his aligning father, but got a patent for it in 1899.

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Need a place to celebrate Halloween? Head over to Frankenstein Castle in Germany!

With Halloween just around the corner, let’s take a look at one of Germany’s creepiest places: Frankenstein Castle.

Frankenstein Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Darmstadt. It was constructed sometime before the year 1250 by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg, who founded the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein. Over the coming centuries, the castle was home to various different families and witnessed several territorial conflicts. In 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel – who later became an alchemist – was born in the castle. The structure fell into ruins in the 18th century and was restored in the mid-19th century.

The most famous story is, of course, that of the alchemist who worked in the castle in the 17th century. He was known to experiment with strange potions. He supposedly created an animal oil (which he named “Dippel’s Oil”) that was a so-called “elixir of life”. There are also rumors that the man studied anatomy and conducted experiements on cadavers, some of which he dug up himself from graves. There is no evidence that proves that any of this happened, but local people believe the legends are true.

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Ludwigsburg Castle: Home to the largest pumpkin festival in the world

It’s that time of year again: Halloween season! Although this spooky holiday is predominately celebrated with costumes in the United States, many autumn traditions are also celebrated in Germany. In fact, Germany is home to the largest pumpkin festival in the world!

Each fall, the Ludwigsburg Castle (near Stuttgart) hosts a large exhibition of pumpkins, which are shaped as extravagant sculptures based on a particular theme. This year’s theme is “Pumpkin Forest” and features pumpkin sculptures of woodland creatures like foxes. Typically, more than 450,000 pumpkins in 600 varieties are used to create the pumpkin sculptures that bring tourists from near and far.

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The festival also hosts some unusual activities, such as pumpkin boat races in which people paddle across a lake in a giant pumpkin. There is also an annual competition to find the largest pumpkin and a pumpkin smashing ritual at the end of the season. That makes your typical pumpkin farms look mediocre in comparison!

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Breakdance meets Bach: The Flying Steps perform at the Lincoln Memorial

Four-time break-dance world champions the Flying Steps held a special performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to kick-start our year-long campaign, Wunderbar Together – a celebration of the German-American friendship.

The B-Boy crew, which has been around since 1993, combined break-dancing with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for a one-of-a-kind performance in the nation’s capital.

The Flying Steps combined break-dancing with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. © Nicole Glass / German Embassy

The show took place during the opening week of our Wunderbar Together campaign, which celebrates the transatlantic partnership between the US and Germany through dialogue, experience and exchange.

Crowds at the Lincoln Memorial cheer for the Flying Steps. © Nicole Glass / German Embassy

The Flying Steps crew was formed by Vartan Bassil and Kadir „Amigo” Memis in Berlin, Germany. Currently the group consists of nine members. In 2007, the group established the Flying Steps Academy, which is the largest urban dance school in Germany. The group is currently on tour in the US.

The Flying Steps take a group photo with members of the “Wunderbar Together” team. © Nicole Glass / German Embassy

10 things you should know before going to Berlin

Berlin, Berlin…What can we say about you? To explain it to Americans is to say it is a mix of New York and Washington. It is both a haven for policy wonks and government interns, but also stays up all night and attracts those searching to live an alternative lifestyle. So before you go, here’s what you should know about Germany’s capital.

Carnival of cultures

By any standard, Berlin is an international city. Its population, albeit ever transient, is made up of 13% people of a non-German background. In fact, Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey! Much like New York, Berlin’s collection of cultures is reflected in their food offerings—with Turkish, Japanese, and Greek food as commonly found as traditionally German restaurants.

Berlin wasn’t always the capital

Bonn was the capital of West Germany previous to the fall of the wall. Berlin became the official capital of a reunified Germany in 1990.

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