Advent is a special time for Germans.
During Advent, our homes are transformed into cosy refuges filled with candlelight, open fires, and potpourris of homemade biscuits leaving a taste of vanilla, cinnamon and ginger lingering in the air.
The living rooms are filled with the smell of pine from the Adventskranz, a wreath made out of evergreens and 4 candles.
Starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, every Sunday one more candle is lit as a reminder that the weeks are counting down to Christmas.
Every child in Germany knows the tune of “wir sagen Euch an, den lieben Advent …. (we announce to you the time of Advent) in which an extra verse is added every week - and of course also the funny version that counts to 5 – but that would mean you slept through Christmas!
While adults count the weeks, children are counting the days until Christmas with the Advent calendar, opening a little door every morning to find a little chocolate or surprise.
Of course, the 24th December is the big surprise door, but also the 6th December holds a special surprise.
This is because, on the night from 5th to 6th December, the children are awaiting the arrival of Nikolaus - with some apprehension.
With the Mitra, bishop’s staff and cloak, Nikolaus has nothing to do with the red cheeked American Santa from the North Pole who brings the presents on Christmas Eve (did you know the American Santa was invented by Coca Cola?), but dates back to Saint Nicholas of Myra (270 AD), or Nicholas of Bari, who was an early Christian bishop during the time of the Roman Empire.
According to legend, he had a habit of secretly distributing gifts and helping those in need.
On 6th December, the date of his death, Nikolaus comes to have “a serious word” with the children (hence the apprehension): did they behave, listen to their mum and dad, and were they nice to their brothers or sisters?
After a cross-my-heart promise to absolutely behave better in the future, he departs with some small presents or fills the Christmas stockings that children have left outside.
A particular German tradition are the Christmas markets that fill the centres of our towns with the smell of hot mulled wine, spices, waffles, all kinds of food, light Christmas music and an abundance of stalls with handcrafted wood work, knitted socks, scarfs and hats, super warm and cosy sheep wool house shoes, jewellery, roasted almonds, Lebkuchen, kitchenware, wooden children toys, ….
Almost every town and city has its Christmas market and some are more famous than others, e.g, the markets in Nuremberg, Dresden, Leipzig, Munich, Goslar, Cologne, Stuttgart, .... but there are so many that it is better to not start listing them!
Finally, as Advent nearing its end, the Christmas tree is prepared, a truly German tradition that dates back to the 16th century and has since spread across the world.
In Germany, Christmas trees are only put up and decorated on Christmas Eve.
Often, the children are ushered out of the house when the tree is being put up, so that they can be surprised in the evening by the sparkling tree full of lights, when they come back to await the Christkind.
According to legend, it was Martin Luther who walked at night and was so awed by the beauty of the stars, that he went home and added candles to the Christmas tree as a symbol of the star leading the three wise men to Bethlehem.
And of course, with Christmas being typically a family celebration, the dinner plays an important role. In former times, Advent was a time of reflection and fasting that ended with a rich meal after the Christmas mass.
What the turkey is for the Americans at Thanksgiving, is the goose or carp for the Germans at Christmas.
In Germany, Christmas offers two holidays on which mass is held and all shops are closed.
And after all those days of too much food, too many drinks, too many biscuits, too much shopping, too much Christmas music, the days finally become longer again and we leave the special Advent and Christmas time behind us – until the following year!