The Christmas season in Germany has already begun. Last Sunday, Nov. 30, marked the first day of Advent, the four weeks leading up to the arrival of das Christkind, or the Christ child, on Dec. 25. Each Sunday evening during Advent, it is traditional to light one of the four candles on the Adventskranz or Advent wreath. While you may not have an Advent wreath in your home, many Americans are familiar with another tradition of Advent: opening a door per day in a candy-filled Adventskalender or Advent calendar. Traditionally, these calendars were on post-card like paper and opening the 24 doors leading to Heiligabend revealed a picture instead of a piece of chocolate, but the candy treats inside have unsurprisingly caught on both in Germany and elsewhere.
The beginning of Advent is also a time when Christmas markets open all over Germany, selling hand-crafted goods such as wooden toys and tree decorations, and fragrant with the smell of spiced mulled wine, sausages and gingerbread, traditional treats of the season. The town of Gengenbach claims to have the world’s largest Advent calendar, housed in its town hall, whose 24 windows are opened one-per-day at 6 p.m. each night over Advent.
The next big day of the season comes just after the beginning of Advent, on Dec. 6 when Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated. This day is most important in Catholic regions of Germany and in predominantly Catholic Austria. Considered in some regions as important as Christmas day itself, on the night of Dec. 5, children put out a boot for Saint Nicholas in hopes that he’ll fill it with sweets, treats and in some regions, peanuts. He is sometimes said to be accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, also called Krampus, who plays the bad cop in the pair, asking children if they’ve been good and said their prayers. He carries a bag of ashes and a switch or eine Rute which he uses to punish them if he hears that they’ve not been good.
But, you may be wondering, who is the real Saint Nicholas? The mythic character who visits good children’s homes with gifts has little to do with the real historical figure for whom he’s named. Saint Nicholas of Myra lived in the 3rd-4th century A.D. in Patara, now part of present-day Turkey, and was known for helping the poor. He later became associated with gift-giving and became known as the patron saint of children and sailors. He is believed to have died on Dec. 6 in 343.