German Christmas traditions include Adventskranz, Heiligabend, Plätzchen, and more. If you’re keen to learn about how Weihnachten is celebrated in Germany, this list offers a comprehensive guide to Germany’s top 10 Christmas traditions.
For more German tips, check out my non-alcoholic drinks guide.
In German, “Weihnachten” translates to “Christmas,” signifying the consecrated night. To wish someone “Merry Christmas” in German, you say “fröhliche Weihnachten.”
The Advent season is celebrated with an Adventskranz (Advent wreath) featuring candles for each Sunday during Advent. This festive countdown to Christmas starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Christmas markets in Germany typically start on that day.
2. German Christmas markets
Christmas markets in Germany typically boast a tall Christmas tree in front of the townhouse or city hall, decorated with lights.
Weihnachtsmärkte feature charming wooden huts offering a variety of festive food and drinks. Don’t miss the typical German Christmas market treats like mulled wine, known as “Glühwein,” served in collectible Christmas market mugs, stollen, and delicious sausages.
The Christmas markets feature live performances, such as the captivating nativity scenes called “Krippenspiel,” and carols.
Some of the best German Christmas markets include:
- Nürnberg: Christkindlesmarkt
- Frankfurt: Weihnachtsmarkt Römerberg (started in the 14th century)
- Munich: Christkindl Markt
- Cologne: Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom (biggest market)
- Dresden: Striezelmarkt
- Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Reiterlesmarkt
- Quedlinburg: Altstadt-Markt
3. Plätzchen – German Christmas Cookies
The most popular German Christmas cookies are gingerbread which are called Lebkuchen. The spiced cookies come in many different variations including Elisenlebkuchen, Pfeffernüsse, and Spekulatius.
Other must-try German Christmas cookies – aka Plätzchen – are:
Nikolaus is a beloved tradition in Germany that takes place on December 6th. It is based on the celebration of Saint Nicholas, who is known as the patron saint of children and is often associated with gift-giving.
Children leave out a boot with a wishlist for Nikolaus on the fifth of December. Nikolaus takes the wishlist and fills the boot with sweets and fruits in exchange. His companions, Knecht Ruprecht or the Krampus, accompany him to discipline naughty children.
During the Christmas season, Germans come together to sing carols in various settings, including homes, churches, schools, kindergartens, and Christmas markets.
Popular German carols include “O Tannebaum,” “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night), and “Oh du fröhliche”.
Homes in Germany start to shine with festive decorations from the first Advent, while the Christmas tree is decorated later on Christmas Eve. Traditional decorations include wooden decor including nutcrackers (Nussknacker), Christmas angels (Weihnachtsengel), and hand-carved wooden nativity scenes (Weihnachtskrippe).
German Christmas pyramids, also known as Weihnachtspyramiden, are traditional wooden decorations that have their origins in the Erzgebirge region of Germany. These pyramids are a unique and charming part of German holiday traditions.
Real Christmas trees (Weihnachtsbaum), often Nordmanntanne (Abies nordmanniana), are adorned on Christmas Eve with white lights, real candles, mouth-blown hand-painted baubles, and cherished wooden ornaments passed down through generations. These festive traditions capture the spirit of the season in Germany.
Wichteln, akin to Secret Santa, is a popular way to exchange gifts in larger groups, such as schools, clubs, and workplaces, as a joyful part of celebrating the festive season. The term ‘Wichtel’ refers to a small Christmas gnome or elf.
8. Heiligabend – Christmas Eve
On Christmas Eve, known as Heiligabend, shops close early, and businesses often shut for part or the entire day.
Heiligabend is marked by unique customs, including the lighting of candles on the tree, which is decorated only on this occasion. A Christmas plate known as Weihnachtsteller, filled with festive treats, is placed beneath the tree.
Families gather for a special Christmette church service, followed by singing around the tree. The present opening ceremony, called Bescherung, is thanks to the Christkind (Christ’s child), a figure resembling an angel, instead of Santa Claus. This joyous event is followed by a long family meal.
The day after, known as the first Christmas Day (Erster Feiertag or Weihnachtstag), is centered around family and tends to be quieter, with most shops closed. Subsequently, the second Christmas Day on December 26th (Zweiter Feiertag) provides an opportunity for people to reconnect with extended relatives and family friends.
9. Traditional German Christmas Food
German Christmas cuisine features a delightful array of sweet treats such as Stutenkerl, cookies (Plätzchen), stollen, Glühwein, Baumkuchen, Marzipan, Feuerzangenbowle, and roasted chestnuts (Maronen).
When it comes to main dishes, Heiligabend traditions vary, but favorites include a simple potato salad with sausages, roasted goose or duck with red cabbage and potato dumplings, carp with salad, and raclette fondue.
10. Heilige drei Könige
On January 6th, known as Heilige Drei Könige or Three Kings Day, the holiday season comes to a meaningful close.
It’s a day when the three holy kings, Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar, roam to bless homes. In return, homes receive chalk markings on their entrances, signifying these blessings.
This tradition is often carried out by the local Catholic church communities and their group of singers, known as ‘Sternsinger’ in German, meaning ‘singers or followers of the star.’
Which German Christmas tradition is your favorite?