Christmastime at our house has always been my favorite time of the year because it is rich with traditions. Many of these traditions come from my German heritage, and specifically, my grandmother. She grew up in the city of Pforzheim, which lies on the northern edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. At the end of 1951, she left her beloved Germany for the United States, bringing with her all of her traditions, then subsequently passing them on to her children, and then down to her grandchildren.
Some of those traditions have changed slightly over the years. When she was a child, my grandmother’s family always got their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and her parents decorated it that afternoon. My grandmother and her brother were allowed to come in and see the tree at 6:00 pm when the church bells of the churches in the city stopped ringing. Then, her father lit the candles. My mother said that when she was little, my grandmother gave in to the American influence and agreed to put the tree up earlier in December.
On January 6th, the Christmas tree was taken down. One of her favorite ornament traditions were little chocolates wrapped to look like gifts, then hung on the tree as ornaments. She was allowed to eat one piece each day and no more.
Growing up my parents always let us help decorate our tree. We would remove each ornament from the box and carefully hang it on the branches, often sharing memories of where the ornament came from or when it was purchased. I always loved the little wooden German ornaments and cutouts.
One of our ornament traditions was adopted when I was little—that of the glass pickle ornament. This was traditionally believed to be a German tradition, though this has since been disproved and is now thought to be an American tradition that began in the late 19th century, possibly developed to coincide with the importation of glass ornaments from Germany, so still German influenced in a way, right?
On Christmas morning, my mom would hide the pickle somewhere on the tree before letting us into the room. When we were finally let in we would rush to find the pickle. The person who found it got to choose the first present for someone else to open. After that person opened a present, they chose a present for someone else, and so on. My children love hunting for that pickle just as much as I did as a child. Who knew a pickle could be so magical?
Another Christmas item that has always been magical for me is the nutcracker. I have vivid memories of my mom carefully unwrapping them each year to set out in the house. These decorative nutcrackers were born in the Erzgebirge region of Germany and have been made since at least the 18th century (though some sources say they’ve existed since at least the 15th century!), and are a good luck symbol in Germany.
I love decorating my mantel with them and there are a ton of nutcrackers to choose from, so I pick a new one each year to add to my collection.
German Christmas cookies are an absolute must. My grandmother said her mother would spend days baking countless different kinds of cookies. She once wrote that she could “still visualize the large tin boxes she stored them in.” My mom has similar memories of days of baking cookies and then putting together plates of cookies to take to neighbors.
When I was growing u,p I always looked forward to Christmastime and to visiting my grandmother. She would always have a big platter of Christmas goodies on hand for us to nibble on. But these weren’t just any Christmas goodies, these were German Christmas goodies—goodies that she had bought at the German deli, or had brought back from one of her trips home to Germany during the year. One of my favorites that was always present was pfeffernüsse (a small spice cookie whose name translates to “pepper nuts” in English).
Now when we assemble our cookie plates, we can bake some of our own and purchase the rest: German gingerbread, spekulatius, pfeffernusse, spekulatius sticks, Dominos…the list goes on! I like to add an extra plate so that the girls can enjoy some cookies after we finish filling all the other plates. And Christmas cookies are always better dunked in a glass of cold milk (especially if the milk is in a fun, festive glass), right?
Stollen is a traditional German Christmas loaf-shaped cake filled with things like fruit, nuts, and spices. Stollen is thought to have originated in Dresden, Germany sometime in the 1400s. My grandmother told me that her mother baked a Christmas stollen every year. There are several different kinds of stollen, many with marzipan in the middle! This year, I’ve already brought home a Hazelnut loaf, which disappeared quickly. Time for a new loaf I think! The only problem is trying to decide which flavor to try next!
My love for marzipan extends beyond stollen, and Christmastime is the perfect time to enjoy it. I remember marzipan from my childhood, shaped to look like small pieces of fruit that were almost too pretty to eat.
I remember one St. Nicholas Day when there were little marzipan filled chocolate Santas left in our shoes. This year my girls will be finding very similar looking Santas in their shoes!
St. Nicholas Day is another wonderful German tradition. On December 5, children set their shoes out on the hearth and St. Nicholas (a saint with the reputation as a bringer of gifts) comes to ask their parents how they’ve been behaving. If they have been good, he leaves treats in their shoes.
My grandmother passed away seven years ago, just before the start of the Christmas season. With her passing, these traditions mean even more to me. As we celebrate each year, I remember not only my heritage, but the woman who loved this time of year so much.