Christmas Traditions in Britain and Germany

Christmas traditions are among the things which make life worthwhile. However, although we may not realise it, there are big similarities, as well as contrasts, even among Christian countries such as Germany and Britain. Countries “borrow” from each other and traditions evolve over time.

We December, the Festive Season is in full flow and Christmas is just around the corner, so I have compiled an overview of the main Christmas traditions in Britain and Germany. I have written this post in the form of a table to illustrate the similarities and contrasts.

I am a bit surprised by the outcome. I always knew that there were many similarities but I have now realised just how much Britain has borrowed from Germany. However, each country has its own traditions, which is a wonderful thing. I enjoy Christmas and New Year regardless of which country I am celebrating in!



Advent Calendar: Advent marks the start of the Christmas season. Advent calendars allow a day by day count-down to Christmas day and are usually for children. They are usually made of cardboard and have 24 small windows or flaps, one of which is opened on each day leading up to Christmas. Although advent calendars are known, it is not much of a tradition to buy them and use them in Britain, though this may yet change in the future (see Christmas Tree below). Adventskalendar: Advent calendars are a Germany invention and are a tradition which is very much part and parcel of Christmas. It was originally designed to involve children in the festivities leading up to Christmas. All households have advent calendars in the form of cards, books and surprise boxes with numbered windows containing pictures, chocolates, toys, etc. It is not unusual children to have several advent calendars, which they open one window per day. Adults often make their own advent calendars made of little sacks and fill them with themes such as teas, chocolates, etc. All German households have them.
Advent Wreath: The advent wreath is traditionally a circle to symbolise eternal life. It is usually in the form of four red candles and sometimes a fifth, central candle is lit on Christmas day. The advent wreath is known but rarely used in Britain. AdventskranzEach household makes its own advent wreath using a ring of fir branches or buys one. The first candle is lit on the first Advent (the Sunday closest to 30th of November or St Andrew’s day) and the last candle is lit on the fourth Sunday. All German households have them.
Saint Nicholas’ Day: This is the day when Saint Nicolas comes and provides a small present for children that have been good during the year. This wonderful tradition, for children small and large, is not a tradition in Britain. I predict that this will change in the next 5-10 years. Nikolaustag: Nicholaustag is always on the 6th of December and every child cleans their shoes/boots (real ones) place them by their door during the previous evening. Der Nikolaus brings small gifts, such as sweets, chocolates and perhaps a small toy. It is a wonderful way to kick off the Festive Season and breaks up the long wait until the 24/25 of December. German households typically follow this tradition, children or no.
Christmas Tree: This is the essential decoration in all homes. The tree is usually an artificial one and they can be remarkably similar to the real thing, but obviously much easier to take out, decorate and pack-away to be reused the following year. The decorations are usually in the form of colourful fairy lights, tinsel and baubles or ornaments. The look is to make them bright, colourful and diverse. Christmas trees became popular in 1841 when Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband, a German) brought a Christmas tree over from Germany. The tradition of decorating Christmas Trees became established. The Royal Family was photographed around the tree and voila, a new Christmas tradition was established in Britain. Christmas trees are taken down on the 5th of January. The large Christmas tree on Trafalgar Square is an annual gift from the people of Oslo. Tannenbaum: Christmas Trees are extremely important in German culture and are thought to have been first used during the Middle Ages. They are almost always real fir / spruce trees and great care is taken to select a nicely shaped tree. It is often put-up and decorated on Christmas Eve, though some start earlier. They are often decorated with tinsel, glass baubles, straw ornaments and sweets. Fairly lights are almost always white. Candles are often added and lit but watched over because of the risk of fire. Families often read the Bible and/or sing Christmas songs such as “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night). The presents are usually placed around the tree. The Tannenbaum is taken down either on New Year’s Day or on January 6th (Three Kings’ Day).
Christmas Cards: Sending and receiving Christmas Cards is and remains a key element of Christmas in the digital age. People make the effort to send cards (traditional ones such as nativity scenes, Christmas trees, etc. or funny ones such as Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer) to friends and family. Households typically receive a large number of cards which form a key part of the Christmas decorations, usually on the walls. Weihnachtskarten: These are not very popular in Germany, though they are exchanged, for example in the business context. Unlike Britain, it is not unusual not to have cards on display in the home.
Home decorations: In addition to Christmas cards, there will often be colourful decorations, which people hang in their homes about two weeks before Christmas. The decorations are usually made of paper or foil, often in the form of long garlands or strings, bells, etc. The predominant colours used are red (symbolising blood shed by Jesus), gold (one of the gifts to Jesus from the wise men) and green (evergreens or eternal life). British homes become much colourful and cheerful overnight. Innendekoration: Germans tend to decorate their homes in a less colourful manner. The predominant colour is while (symbolising purity and peace), though this is slowly changing. The main form is in the shape of Christmas triangles (Adventsbogen), which are often visible on more or less every available window of the home. Nativity scenes, hand-carved wooden nutcrackers (Nussknacker), pyramids (Weihnachtspyramiden) and other carved and painted smokers, arches, angels, etc. are much in evidence.
Exterior decorations: The trend is towards the American style external decorations with multi-coloured fairy lights and displays. Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe are also sometimes used to decorate homes or public buildings. The nationally famous external decorations are the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, London. Außendekoration: In Germany the emphasis remains very much on homogeneous white fairy lights on trees, roofs, car ports, etc. In addition to strings, there are often fairy light nets around trees and shapes (reindeer, Father Christmas, etc.). The external decorations are increasingly more colourful over time.
Nativity play: Almost all primary schools a nativity play which is the story of Mary and Joseph as well as baby Jesus’ birth in a stable, where he was visited by the Shepherds and Wise Men. All the parts are played by the children in front of proud parents. KrippenspielThis is usually performed at Church during the services, but also in Kindergartens and Primary Schools.
Carol Singing: Caroling, singing carols (songs about the birth of Jesus such as Silent Night, O Come all ye Faithful, etc.) in public places is a long-standing customs going back to the Middle Ages. In the past, the poor collected money from singing carols. People still go caroling from 21 December until Christmas morning to collect money but these days it is for all sorts of good causes. Sternsinger: The tradition of Sternsinger dates back to the 16th century but has now become a fundraising custom. The participants are youngsters dressed in costumes resembling the Three Kings that visited the baby Jesus, with one carrying a star. The Star Singers go from home to home on January 6 (Epiphany) singing carols and soliciting donations for charities.
Christmas Market: Christmas markets were very popular until Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas and the fashion died out. There has been no tradition of Christmas markets until recent years but they are rapidly growing in popularity in many cities. Weihnachtsmarkt: Christmas would simply not be Christmas without the Weihnachtsmärkte. They date back the 14th Century and that people bought decorations, candles and toys. As soon as Advent begins, Christmas markets spring up everywhere like wild mushrooms in settlements small and large. The streets and squares are bustling with activity as adults and children listen to music, drink beer or hot mulled wine (Glühwein) or eat gingerbread hearts, sugar-roasted almonds, crepes, cookies, stollen and all sorts of sweet things. Christmas tree decorations, seasonal items and handicrafts are also available.
Christmas Eve This is the time when Father Christmas (Santa) comes, so children are usually very excited. They may leave mince pies (see below) and brandy for him and a carrot for the reindeer. They hang-up large Christmas stockings or pillowcases, so that Father Christmas can fill them with presents, but only if they have been good, of course. As in Germany, many attend midnight mass. HeiligabendChristmas Eve is a workday but businesses close early for the celebration of what is the most important day of the Advent in Germany. After the traditional Christmas meal (see below), families sing Christmas carols and exchange gifts, with children the focal point. German families, including less regular church-goers attend mass. The main service traditionally takes at midnight but it is not unusual for it to be earlier. Frohe Weihnachten!
Christmas Day: This is the day when the presents are opened in Britain. When the children wake-up, they rush for their Christmas stockings or pillowcases, which hopefully were filled by Father Christmas. Normally they unwrap the presents before breakfast. Merry Christmas! Erster WeihnachtsfeiertagThis is the day to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. Over time, it has evolved into a family-oriented celebration when shops are closed and people visit the extended family.
Queen’s Christmas Message: A key feature of Christmas is the Queen’s Christmas Message to the country at 15:00. The Christmas Message is broadcast on radio, television and YouTube. It is widely anticipated and many families ensure that they listen to the Queen’s Christmas Message. Weihnachtsansprache, Neujahrsansprache: There are two equivalents in Germany, though not particularly popular. The first is the Christmas Speech by the German President and the second the New Year’s Speech by the German Chancellor. Neither is so established a tradition as the Queen’s Christmas Message.
Christmas Meal: The main meal is eaten at lunchtime/early afternoon on Christmas Day. It is nowadays roast turkey (previously roast beef or goose), and ‘all the trimmings’ such as carrots, peas and Brussel sprouts, stuffing and sometimes bacon and sausages, together with cranberry sauce and bread sauce. Weihnachtsessen: In Germany the typical Christmas meal is carp or Frankfurters with potato salad. It can also be goose, duck or some other roast accompanied by traditional fare such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage and potato dumplings.
Christmas Crackers: Christmas Crackers are extremely popular part of Christmas meals and are ubiquitous on Christmas Day. It is basically a colourfully decorated paper tube, which is twisted at both ends. Two people pull on each end of the cracker until it pops. It typically contains a paper crown, a token gift and a joke. Everyone willingly wears the paper crown as part of the Christmas meal. Weihnachtsknallbonbons: There is no equivalent in Germany.
Christmas cake, pudding and mince piesChristmas pudding is a steamed brown pudding with raisins, nuts and cherries. It traditionally contained a “six pence” or a silver coin which brings good fortune to the lucky finder. Brandy may be poured over it and set alight. Mince pies are an important part of Christmas. They are small pies filled with minced fruit (e.g. raisins, cherries, citrus peel but certainly not meat!) nuts and spices (e.g. nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon). Christmas cake is a rich fruit cake covered with marzipan and icing. These are rarely baked at home as part of the preparations for Christmas. Christstollen, Kipferle, Lebkuchen, etc.: Baking is a key part of Christmas, with children also involved both at school and at home. Germans often bake beautifully decorated cookies (Plätzchen). Stollen, a fruited yeast bread, is the oldest and most famous Christmas treat but there are many others. Gingerbread is baked without yeast and is sweetened with honey and spices are added. Lebkuchen also takes the form of the edible witch’s houses (Hexenhaus), also known as Hansel and Gretel’s house (from Grimm’s fairy tale). They are often made from scratch and beautifully decorated.
Boxing Day: Boxing Day is celebrated on the day after Christmas (26 December) and it is a public holiday. It is called Boxing Day because churches placed an ‘Alms Box’ on Christmas Day for gifts for the poor. These Alms boxes were opened the day after Christmas, hence Boxing Day. Sport is increasingly to the forefront on Boxing day. Zweiter WeihnachtsfeiertagThe second Christmas day, as it is known in Germany, and is typically a quieter time. It is a day for peaceful contemplation, testing out the new toys and gadgets, reading all the new books, etc. and basically relaxing.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog,

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