If there is one country that is synonymous with Christmas, Germany seems like it. Many of our American Christmas traditions come from there, and they sure know how to celebrate.
Christmas is celebrated for the season of Advent, usually beginning a week before the first Sunday of Advent, often in November. Advent calendars, the paper kind that we all love, originally came from Germany.
Christmas markets are huge all over Europe, but the German markets are some of the best. Almost every town has some sort of market, with stalls selling beer, sweets, ornaments, toys and hot wine. The markets are open for most of December and often have a carnival section with rides. And beer. That’s either a great or terrible combination, depending.
It’s been fun researching the traditions of each European country this month. I’ve given out assignments to help make your Christmas more European. Today, though, I’ll bet you have already done the most German of Christmas tasks. Decorating a Christmas tree.
Christmas trees have been used for winter decorations for centuries, with pagan origins. The Roman (pagan) celebration of Saturnalia possibly used evergreens as a decoration. As an aside, do you know why you give gifts at Christmas? Easter is arguably a more important Christian holiday, so why don’t we exchange gifts then? It’s probably because the Romans exchanged gifts during Saturnalia, which took place right about this time of year. That festival was important, so when the Romans converted to Christianity they converted their holidays too. Jesus is said to have been born in January after all, not December….but I digress.
There is pretty solid evidence that Christmas trees or festive decorating with evergreens comes from ancient Pagan religions. The current manifestation, including your very own tree, is German in origin. Bringing a tree in to decorate goes back to the Middle Ages in the area of Germany (which didn’t exist as a country back then). The original way of using the Christmas tree, recorded in the 1500’s, was not just as a decoration only. The trees were decked out with nuts, fruits and sweets for the kids to eat on Christmas Day. What an idea! How fun to have an edible tree. I think I’d like to steal that one, maybe I’ll hang the Christmas brunch from my tree next year, using bacon instead of icicle ornaments.
The modern Christmas tree is strongly associated with the Lutheran religion, and some stories note that Martin Luther may have been the first one to add candles to a tree. In the 1600-1700’s there was a distinction, Protestant areas would have Christmas trees and Catholic areas would have a Nativity scene. Many families in Germany still use their tree in a more religious context, sitting around it and reading Bible stories.
While the Christmas tree was something found in the town square in the Renaissance, it became something for every house in the 19th century. The custom spread around Europe as a fashion patterned after the noble families of the Prussian court.
The decoration with food and real candles faded away, replaced by electric lights and glass ornaments, for which Germany is famous. I have a glass pickle ornament from Germany that I was told to hide on the tree, that it’s a German tradition for someone to look for it and receive a prize of some kind when it is found. It turns out that this is a German-American thing. I don’t know any German who does it. Oh well, it’s still fun!
If you’re going to trim the tree, why not do it German style- with Glühwein in hand? The popular hot wine is a staple of the Christmas market and should be a staple in your house right now. I like to make a big batch and keep a pitcher in the fridge to warm up as I want it, especially if there are surprise guests or relatives that require a little something to smooth the conversation. It’s also a fantastic way to repurpose a bottle that is cheap or gross. Please don’t waste a really good bottle of wine on this…send it to me instead.
2 bottles cheap red wine or whatever you’ve got, 2 Buck Chuck Merlot is perfect
3 Christmas oranges, sliced thin
1 lemon, sliced thin
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp whole cardamom (or more, I like cardamom)
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns, if you like a zing
1 cup sugar
1 cup liquor of your choice- Bourbon, Gran Marnier, Cognac
Mix all ingredients except for the liquor. Simmer on low until steamy. Add liquor, mix well, adjust flavors to your liking and serve, garnish with more orange slices.
So, your Advent assignment is to sit with your hot wine, enjoy your Christmas tree and quietly thank the Germans for this cozy tradition. Isn’t it strange, how after Christmas when you take down the tree, the house feels weird and empty? Like it’s hollow somehow? The tree feels like an additional soul in the house. Or maybe that’s the Gluhwein talking.