Word of the Week: Lebkuchen

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You’ve probably had it – or know what it is; Lebkuchen is a German delicacy commonly found at German-style Christmas markets, as well as other festivals and events. But do you know the origins of the word Lebkuchen? They can be traced back hundreds of years!

As you may know, Lebkuchen is a German treat that is similar to gingerbread. At Christmas markets, it often takes on a heart-shaped form and is topped with icing that spells out messages of joy. The treats can vary in shape and flavor; some are round, some are spicy and others are sweet.

The origins of the holiday delicacy can be traced to ancient times; the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans believed that honey had magical healing powers, so they created a “honey cake” similar to what we now know as Lebkuchen. Some people wore these honey cakes around their neck as a sort of protection against evil. Honey cake has even been found in the tombs of pharaohs who died 4,000 years ago!

But the German-style Lebkuchen we know today first arose in the 13th century. German monks in Ulm and Nuremberg had heard about the healing powers of the magical honey cakes, so they brought the delicacies into the monasteries. Although the origins of the word Lebkuchen itself remain unclear, it is suspected that it comes from the Latin word libum (Fladen, or “flat bread”) or the German word Laib (loaf).

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And while some Germans refer to it as Lebkuchen, others call the delicacy Pfefferkuchen (“pepper cake”), since many types of spices can be added to the cake (and all spices used to be referred to as types of Pfeffer).

In some regions of Germany, it has also been referred to as Lebenskuchen (“cake for life”), Magenbrot (“bread for the stomach”), Labekuchen or Leckkuchen. In most cases, the words either describe the supposed healing properties of the delicacy or use a more general description of its ingredients or appearance.

But one thing is clear: Lebkuchen has become an important part of German culture. Whether you’re at Oktoberfest or a Christmas market (during normal, non-pandemic times), you’re bound to find rows of Lebkuchen hearts and stars lining the booths of vendors. So when you bring your friends and family a souvenir from Germany, don’t tell them it’s gingerbread; refer to it as Lebkuchen!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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.

© dpa / picture-alliance

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.

© dpa / picture-alliance

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.

© dpa / picture-alliance

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