Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, Christmas trees and Saint Nicholas in costume all over Munich: Christmas is a time of rich traditions and customs. But where do all these customs actually come from?
When it’s cold and dark outside there is nothing lovelier for young and old alike than to sit at home in the warmth in front of an illuminated Christmas tree. Colourfully decorated it conjures up a unique splendour and the perfect atmosphere in every living room. The Christmas tree has become a symbol for the celebration of the birth of Christ. But the tradition is only 200 years old. Christmas trees are sold in various places during Advent in Munich.
The tradition dates back to Saint Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. The feast of Saint Nicholas is still celebrated on the anniversary of his death, 6th December, today. Nicholas was venerated for his benevolence to children, and from the 17th century onwards it became a tradition to give children gifts of nuts, apples and gingerbread. Many costumed Saint Nicholases are out and about in Munich every year, giving presents to well-behaved children. If father or uncle don’t want to dress up then you can even book a visit from Saint Nicholas to your home.
He is the sullen assistant to Saint Nicholas, terrifying people with his rattling chains. On two days, hairy and scary Krampuses will be reviving the 500-year-old tradition again at the Christmas Market on Marienplatz. So if you are going shopping for Christmas presents on this day: be on your guard! Because you may come across one or two scary beings.
The artistically presented groups of figures fascinate both young and old. As well as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there is so much to discover: little sheep, magnificent landscapes, distant towns. You can admire traditional cribs from Bavaria, Tyrol and Italy in the crib collection of the Bavarian National Museum. The Manger Market in Neuhauserstraße offers everything for your crib at home: from magnificent woodcarvings to low-priced plastic figures.
Probably the most celebrated Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, vividly tells how important it is to be kind at Christmas. Christmas is a time of giving - not only in the form of presents for family and friends, but also to help those who cannot afford Christmas presents. However, when donating, it is important to be sure that the money arrives where it is really needed.
"Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt. Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier, dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür." (“Advent, Advent, a little light is burning. First one, then two, then three, then four, then the Christ Child stands before the door.”) On every Advent Sunday, a candle is lit on a wreath made of fir tree branches. The wreaths can be bought at markets and flower shops in Munich ready-made. Or if you prefer to make it yourself, you can buy a simple garland and decorate it yourself. The first Advent wreath was designed as early as 1860 by the theologian Johann Hoinrich Wichern. He had taken in some children living in poverty who kept asking him when it would be Christmas Eve at last. Initially he made a wreath of fir tree branches on which he placed 24 candles: one for each day in December leading up to Christmas. In 1925 the first wreath with 4 candles was hung in a church. The custom of decorating a house during winter with evergreen branches dates back 600 years however: they symbolise the unbroken energy of life. And even then, red candles were regarded as a symbol of hope.
Pictures, chocolate or small presents: From 1st December until Christmas, a little door or sack can be opened every day. The anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child increases. This tradition dates back to the 19th century: during those days, families would hang a picture on the wall, draw lines on wood with chalk or lay a piece of straw in the crib - until they reach the number 24. The first printed Advent calendar came onto the market around 1900. The largest, free-standing Advent calendar in the world is in Leipzig, by the way. On a surface area of 857 cubic metres, a door is opened every day.
On Saint Barabara’s Day, 4th December, it is a tradition to put cherry branches in water: The branches should bloom by Christmas Eve. The blossoms also give off a delightful fragrance. The tradition is in memory of Saint Barbara who was martyred in the 3rd century. After a period of imprisonment she was beheaded by her father, according to legend, because she refused to give up her Christian beliefs. During her time in prison she was comforted by a withered fruit tree branch which began to blossom in her cell.
The Christmas tradition of mistletoe came to us from the USA: two people who stand under a branch of mistletoe are allowed to kiss each other. Mistletoe branches are therefore hung up on ceilings and door frames in apartments or also offices during Christmas. But watch out: you are allowed to kiss, but it is not obligatory - so it’s best to make sure that the other party is in agreement. Mistletoe is also used in Nordic countries: it is said to bring luck during the winter solstice.