Part of my childhood was spent in Germany. I went to a German school for part of that time and we had a German nanny. I was immersed in the culture and language at an early age. And Christmas in Germany became one of my favorite times and some of my best memories.
We celebrated every year Sankt Nikolaus Tag. On the night of December 5, we would place our shoes outside the door. If we had been good that year, Sankt Nikolaus would leave chocolates, fruit, and other goodies in our shoes. If we had been bad, then we would find wood switches in our shoes the next morning. This was the commencement of the Christmas season which would last until Epiphanie (January 6). As Donna Pointkouski has written here, celebrations of this sort are Catholic traditions in Germany, especially in the southern regions such as Bavaria.
The story of Saint Nicholas’s generosity was the certain precursor to the now secularized story of Santa Claus. But today, some German Catholics object to the blurring of the distinction between the holy saint and the jolly elf who slides down chimneys (whom they call “Weihnachtsmann” ["Christmas Man"]). They’re waging a campaign to maintain the dignity of the historical St Nicholas by declaring Weihnachtsmann-free zones. Even the German version of CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (BDKJ) supports the campaign in some areas. See the website Weihnachtsmann-freie Zone at http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/.
Another Catholic tradition that I first became familiar with in Germany is the Advent Calendar. This is a calendar for counting down the days of Advent until Christmas. Frequently, the calendar has little doors to open for each date. There may be a religious message or gift, or a small toy, piece fruit, or candy associated with each opened door. I looked forward to each Advent in Germany to get a new Advent Calendar.
Other countries have embraced the idea of the Advent Calender. American Catholics see the Advent calendar as a way to be reminded daily of the need to prepare for the greatest liturgical event of the year.
As it turns out, the Advent Calendar in reality is neither of Catholic origin nor “traditional” (at least not in German historical terms). The idea dates from about 1850 and originated among German Lutherans!
German Christmas carols, however, are firmly grounded in Catholic tradition. My favorite German carol is this one:
At the German school I attended, we learned that the words were written by an Austrian priest, Father Josef Mohr in 1816. In 1818, Father Mohr asked Franz Joseph Gruber to coompose a melody for the song. Tradition holds that Father Mohr asked Gruber to compose the music for guitar because the piano in his church was not functioning. Some historians today find this story apocryphal. Whatever its origins, it has become a Christmas tradition worldwide. An Episcopalian bishop, John Freeman Young, wrote the widely used English translation in 1859.
The first Christmas song I learned in Germany has also become a classic. The traditional version consists of a melody of an old German folk song and words composed by Ernst Gebhardt Anschutz (1780-1861). Here’s Nat King Cole’s popular rendition: