5 Things To Know About Christmas In Germany

1. Everyone is outside.

Definitely not an American.

Definitely not an American.

It may come as a shock to Americans from colder parts of the U.S. that Germans don’t use the cold, dark winter weather as an excuse to settle into their Snuggies and binge-watch “Orange is the New Black.”  Nope, they go outside.  Yes, they go to the Christmas Markets, but they also just go shopping, strolling, sometimes you can even spot people eating ice cream in freezing weather, or sitting outside at a cafe wrapped in a blanket.  The fact is, if the famously outdoorsy Germans waited until the weather was perfect to get outside, they’d only do so 9 days a year!  I’m half-joking - we had actual months of sunshine this year - but grey and cloudy is the Stuttgart norm more often than not, no matter what the season.  So don’t use weather as an excuse - get outdoors!

2. Santa Who?

There’s more than one character in German-speaking countries that may bring gifts to good children.  For instance, the O.G. Santa, St. Nicholas, brings good children small presents and goodies on the evening of December 5th, sometimes left in the children’s shoes which are put outside the front door for this purpose.  In some regions, St. Nick is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, his assistant, who would levy some old-school style punishment on naughty children by beating them with a sack of ashes, but these days he’s more likely to leave coal or sticks in the shoes of kids who have misbehaved.  

What the heck, Germany!

What the heck, Germany!

And if that love isn’t tough enough for you, in some parts of Germany and Austria, St. Nicholas eve is also associated with a scary but fun figure, that of the Krampus. He’s a hairy demon who  rattles rusty chains all around town on the night of December 5th, threatening to kidnap naughty children and take them into the forest or his mountain lair.  

In some families, the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) does bring presents to children on Christmas eve and this figure is closest to the American Santa Claus, deriving from a strange combination of old German paganism and later attempts by Lutherans to stop the vernation of all Saints, including St. Nicholas, while keeping a similar figure around. Similarly introduced during the reformation, the “Christ Child” may be the present-giving figure.  Letters are written to either depending on the family’s tradition.

I’d think if I were still a  kid I’d profess belief in St Nicholas, Father Christmas, and the Christ Child - might as well maximize those presents!  Hopefully that greed wouldn’t put me at risk of a visit from the Krampus!


3. Christmas is more than just one day!

Germans love to celebrate, so it's no surprise that the Christmas season is especially long here.  It starts the last weekend in November with “Advent” in which the countdown to Christmas officially begins, and this is the weekend that the bigger Christmas Markets open.  

The formal Christmas celebrations begin on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, which is traditionally when presents between families are exchanged after a big dinner (goose is traditional!)  But most Christmas markets and even some stores and restaurants begin closing anytime after December 21st, so take note and don’t expect to be doing last minute Christmas shopping on the 24th - nearly everything is shut down.  Christmas Day and the 26th are both official holidays here as well, meaning virtually nothing will be open but gas stations.  Oh,and the 27th is a Saturday, so the next day will be closed too, meaning this year we’ll have nearly 3 ½ days of enforced family time.  Need a break?  Stuttgart Steps tours will be available for private tours during this period.  Starting at just 40 euros (for up to 10 people) this is a great deal and might be a good way to get the in-laws out of the house for a few hours.  

Even then, the season isn’t officially over until January 6th, known as Three King’s Day, or Epiphany, commemorating the day when the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus.  This is also a public holiday so prepare appropriately!  If you ever wondered when exactly the 12 days of Christmas are...that’s your answer.


4. Christmas Markets are Awesome!

Just forget a little about the “market” part as I’ve found that most markets don’t necessarily offer the best shopping.  For practical items like clothes, gloves, and hats, the prices will be higher than in a normal store.  For ornaments and candles and knick-knacks, the selection between markets is often incredibly similar.  What the markets are really about is socializing, enjoying a hot beverage and some of the best festival food ever, and the beautiful decorations.

However, some markets are better than others and those of us who live in Stuttgart are very lucky in that regard.  The Stuttgart Market is incredibly large (and seems to get bigger every year).  Chances are that even if you think you’ve been there, you’ve probably missed parts of it.  There are people who’ve lived here for years who don’t know about the Finnish Christmas Village at the Karlsplatz, for instance - with it’s warm, fire-heated teepees and delicious smoked salmon.  The Stuttgart market is also unique in that every booth has unique and charming roof decorations, each more elaborate than the last!  

The Ludwigsburg Christmas Market

The Ludwigsburg Christmas Market

But we’re truly privileged in that two unique markets are just a short S-Bahn ride away: the Ludwigsburg Baroque Christmas Market, with it’s classy, beautiful white lights, and the Esslingen Medieval Market, which recreates the feel of a middle-ages street festival in the shadow of 700-year old half-timbered buildings.  I’ve traveled extensively to Christmas Markets all over Germany and Austria, and these three markets are still my favorites.  For an insiders view, complete with opinionated recommendations for the best food and gluhwein, take a tour with Stuttgart Steps in Stuttgart or Esslingen in December!


5. There's more to hot beverages than Gluhwein!

Anyone who’s visited Germany during Christmastime knows the traditional Gluhwein, or “glow wine”, a hot, spiced red wine.  But there are literally dozens of other beverages to try.  Did you know that many stands also have white gluhwein?  It’s delicious!  But there’s also apfelwein or gluhmost, which is hot spiced (alcoholic) apple cider.  And let’s not forget about eierpunsch, made with an egg-based liquor, not dissimilar from egg nog.  There is also Gluhbier which is exactly what it sounds like - hot, spiced beer.  (It’s not for everyone!)  You can find gluhwein made from the juice of various berries (look for anything with the word “beere” in it - that means “berry” not “beer”!).  If you’re especially cold, you can ask for your gluhwein “mit schuss” or with a warming shot, typically amaretto, rum, or cherry brandy - but be careful, lest you end up feeling like you’ve been beaten by Knecht Ruprecht the next morning.

That's one classy beverage!

That's one classy beverage!

My favorite hot holiday beverage is the tongue twisting “Feuerzangenbowle” (fire-tongs punch).  The punch is basically gluhwein, but through various devices a rum-soaked sugarcube is lit on fire, allowing the caramelized sugar to drip down into the punch.  With Feuerzangenbowle it’s as much about the spectacle as it is the taste.  The best feuerzangenbowle is in Ludwigsburg, where you are given an elaborate, giant goblet (pfand: 10!) and an individual sugarcube for your own flaming fun.  If you really want to get into the spirit, head to Tubingen on Friday, December 12th, where the now cult-classic German film bearing the name of the drink is shown at the Haagtorplatz while everyone imbibes.  

Looking for more fun Christmas facts, or just want to explore the Christmas markets with a knowledgeable guide?  Sign up for a public or private tour at Stuttgart Steps this season!

The Holy Roman Empire and YOUR Travels!

This is essentially part two of "Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire" - in which I outlined how the HRE began.  But now I'm going to talk to why it matters to you, the expat or tourist in Germany.  But first, a (brief) continuation of the history.

 Within the HRE, there were countless kingdoms, duchies (lands ruled by dukes), counties (lands ruled by counts), and various tracts of land owned directly by the church or the Empire itself.  Kings, dukes, and counts often chafed at the power of the Emperors and many wars were fought as a result.  (For Games of Thrones fans, think of the Emperor as being the guy who sits on the Iron Throne - and the various kings and dukes as being like the Starks of Winterfell in rebellion against them).  Control of the empire passed through several different families in the early centuries, including local Swabians like the Hohenstaufen dynasty.  By 1450, however, the Hapsburg family had gained control of the Empire and didn't relinquish it until Napoleon put an end to the HRE entirely in the early 19th century (which then made the Hapsburgs "only" in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

Enough with the history, though.  Why does this matter to you?  Because of Free Imperial Cities.  Here's my equation for travelers in Germany: Imperial city + economic decline in the 17th century - Allied bombing in WWII = Great place to visit!

Like I mentioned before, while local lords owned much of the land in the HRE, some of it belonged directly to the Empire. These places were known as "Free Imperial Cities" or Freiei Reichstadt in German.  These cities were not beholden to a local petty lord - the only outside power they answered to was the Emperor himself.  As such, the citizenry had much more control over their lives than those living under the thumb of a lord.  Imperial Cities also enjoyed many special privileges as a result of their status, which meant more trade and wealth during the high middle ages, which the townsfolk used to build beautiful buildings and impressive fortifications (important because local lords of neighboring lands often went to war with the Empire, and the wealth of Imperial Cities made them a tempting target.)  Because of the HRE's association with the Roman Catholic Church, they were fertile ground for religious orders, so many of the grandest churches and monasteries were built in Imperial Cities.  

However, eventually most of the Imperial Cities went through a decline, starting with the spread of Martin Luther's Reformation in the 16th century, which meant that in much of Germany, the religious orders were kicked out and many churches vandalized and no longer places of pilgrimage.  Another factor in the decline was the resulting Thirty Years' War and following plagues, which killed off as many as half the population of Germany.  Most cities never fully recovered from that war.  To make matters worse, most Imperial Cities gained importance as market towns because they were on heavily trafficked trade routes, but by the 1700's, overland trade was losing out to sea-based trade.

This was all bad for the citizens of these towns, but great for travelers who want to enter a well-preserved bit of medieval history.  Because the towns became impoverished, they didn't tear down existing buildings to make way for more fashionable and modern Baroque and Classical buildings as in the now-ascendant capital cities like Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart.  The result is a large town center with buildings almost exclusively from the cities' golden period of 1200-1500.  

As for the Allied bombing, well, that's fairly self-explanatory.  But a surprising number of former Imperial Cities did manage to escape WWII relatively unscathed, largely because they hadn't been centers of political or economic power for centuries at that point.  (Cities that retained their importance throughout the centuries, like Frankfurt, weren't so lucky.)

If you look at the list of Imperial Cities, you'll find that they include some of the most famous towns for tourists to visit, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, and Colmar.

But the secret is, nearly all the cities on the list remain beautiful, evocative "hidden gems" that isn't on the typical tourist itinerary.  I'm talking about places like Bad Wimpfen, Ravensburg, and Esslingen, which may be known to people who have lived in Germany for a time but can't be found in a Rick Steves' guidebook. 

Although I've only been to about a third of the Imperial Cities so far, my educated guess is that most of them are well worth a visit by anyone who seeks to get off the beaten path and experience a beautifully-preserved city (just make sure you check the "Allied bombing part before you go - Heilbronn didn't fare so well in that regard.)

And if you'd like to understand more about how Free Imperial status created a dynamic and exciting medieval city, be sure and check out my tour of the Free Imperial City of Esslingen, which debuts next Sunday!