Merry Christmas from Europe

Side Street in Metz, France (Photo by Fallon Godwin-Butler)

by Fallon Godwin-Butler

Whether you say “Joyeux Noël,” “Frohe Weihnachten,” or “Merry Christmas,” in many countries, namely Christian nations, there is a grand celebration of Christmas. However, a great difference lies in how the festivities are commenced in each nation. In two highly established European nation, Germany and France, traditions slightly differ, but they share a commonality: Christmas Markets.

In Germany the Weihnachtsmarkt begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and ends somewhere between the third day before and Christmas Eve (Heiligabend). However, it must be noted that these dates are not contingent upon our own aforementioned American holiday, but on the fact that it allows for a month before Christmas Day and the four weeks of the advent season. These markets are known for having: Glühwein (hot spiced wine), stalls selling their wares, lebkuchen (ginger bread), stollen (fruit cake), and food stands that sell bratwurst, käsespätzle, and much more including ice rinks.

Hanging Santa in Stuttgart, Germany (Photo taken by Fallon Godwin-Butler)

Christmas markets truly bring in the spirit of the holiday season. Stuttgart, the city where I live, is known for having a contest. This contest is to see who can decorate the best roof on their individual stalls creating, as many markets do, a sort of hamlet in the town square. Although, the creativity of these vendors is perfectly astounding especially when there is a full scene of Santa and his reindeer, polar bears, or the nativity that has figurines made of wood. Another remarkable market is in Esslingen, Germany. This market is done in medieval style. Namely the differences lie in the dress of the workers, the games, and the festivities. For instance, the music is played with far more bagpipes and lutes.

Weihnachtsmann, or Santa Claus, does not hold the same holiday clout in Germany as he does in the United States. In Germany, as is tied in with the Christmas markets, there is a Christkind (literal translation is “the boy Jesus”). Christkindelsmarkt, or the Christ child market, is another name for the Weihnachtsmarkt. Normally, since the market starts just before the season of Advent, the markets are meant as a welcome to the Christkind and occasionally ceremonies are acted out by a local child to embellish the significance. The Christkind plays a large role in a German Christmas due to the fact that he is thought of as the gift-giver. He portrays the baby Jesus with blond hair, maintaining an angelic visage and figure. According to tradition, children are told that they must wait for the Christkind and not try to spy him or the gifts will not come. Then, through some sign either imaginary or by the sound of a small bell, the gift giving commences on Christmas Eve. It must be noted that there is a version of Santa Claus in Germany; however, since the days of Martin Luther it has been traditional to think of the Christkind in lieu of Santa Claus/Saint Nicolas. Although, due to advertising, Santa Claus and the Christkind seem to be having a bit of a “popularity contest” we will have to see who wins out in the end.

Another wonderful tradition in Germany is a little wooden tree. On Christmas Eve young and old alike place these little wishing trees under their pillows for their Christmas wish to come true. Another critical part to understanding a German Christmas is that whoever the gift comes from determines the day it will be given. An example of this concept is that immediate family (mother, father, siblings) give their gifts on Christmas Eve. Then, the next two days, according to certain families, are split up between the two sets of grandparents. However, the easiest part to remember is that the immediate family gives the gifts first and the rest come later.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg Strasbourg, France (Photo by Fallon Godwin-Butler)

A rather sweet tradition happens just before Three Kings Day (January 6th). Children with a sponsor dress up as the Three Kings and one holds the North Star as they go to houses in the neighborhood, sing carols, and ask for donations. This is done for a specific charity each year. This season, children in Nicaragua were being supported.

A rather universal European trait around Christmas is the decorating. Europeans, in my observation, particularly the Germans and the French, are not terribly ostentatious about their personal décor. Instead, their windows have lovely lights and hanging Santa Clauses.

Consequently, while the houses may not be flashy, the cities are splendid with lights of angels and hanging chandeliers. If you are lucky, you will find yourself in the courtyard of a castle taking in the architectural awe with the snow falling on top of you: the epitome of a Christmas atmosphere.

Now, let’s move to a different country: France, especifically the Alsace region. The markets here are called Marché de Noël. The set up is very much the same with the main differences being the language and the fact that France sells hot red and white wine whereas Germany is known for the red. One of the cities that I visited, a city that I personally love, is Strasbourg. This particular market is known as the Capitale de Noël, and is the premier French market of this region.

This market has been held around the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg since 1570. The cathedral has this majestic way of bringing the true spirit of Christmas into the market. This backdrop gives a beauty and elegance that is practically unseen. France, much like Germany, holds their markets for the Christ child. In fact, historically nativity scenes were enacted in front of the cathedral with a fir tree to symbolize the “paradise tree” decorated with apples and such. It is through these enactments that the market not only has its placement, but the tree also created the l’arbre de Noël and the need for glass and wooden ornaments. However, the nativity scene, while live scenes are enacted in small villages, is now made of wood and placed inside the cathedral as a display.