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Christmas in Germany

Magical markets, glowing glühwein & wonderful Weihnachtsmann

Christmas in Germany (c) Rene Schwietzke
© Rene SchwietzkeLicence

Magical markets, festive foods and seasonal sights make Germany one of the best places to prepare for Christmas. Visit in late November or December to get into the Christmas spirit, experience the country's holiday culture, and buy unique gifts for your loved ones.

If you're interested in visiting Germany during the holiday season or already have a festive trip planned, make sure to read our travel guide for must-know information about: 

 German Christmas traditions
 Christmas food and drink in Germany
 What's the weather like in Germany at Christmas?
 Christmas markets in Germany


German Christmas traditions

Germany's Christian heritage has cultivated a number of Christmas traditions, many of which have spread across the world. It is said that Christmas trees, Christmas markets, gingerbread houses, advent calendars and much more originated in Germany. Plus, the classic Christmas song O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum) has German roots.

When do Germans celebrate Christmas?

German advent calendar - public domain

There are lots of important dates in the German Christmas calendar, which are oriented around spending time with loved ones and celebrating religious and cultural traditions. You can read more about them below.

According to the German constitution, "Sundays and the public holidays remain protected as days of rest from work and of spiritual elevation" — this means most locals get to spend the important holidays at home. Tourists will find that stores and attractions are closed or have limited opening hours on these dates.

 

2016

2017

2018

Advent

Advent Sunday/Green Sunday

Grüner Sonntag

27th November

3rd December

2nd December

St Barbara's Day

Barbaratag

4th December

Nicholas Eve

Nikolausabend

5th December

St Nicholas Day

Nikolaustag

6th December

Second Sunday in Advent/Copper Sunday

Kupferner Sonntag

4th December

10th December

9th December

Third Sunday in Advent/Silver Sunday

Silberner Sonntag

11th December

17th December

16th December

Fourth Sunday in Advent/Golden Sunday

Goldener Sonntag

18th December

24th December

23rd December

Christmas Eve/Holy Evening

Heiligabend

24th December

 

First Christmas Day

Erster Weihnachtstag

25th December

 

Second Christmas Day

Zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag

26th December

 

New Year's Eve

Silvester

31st December

 

New Year's Day

Neujahrstag

1st January

 

Epiphany/Three Kings' Day

Heilige Drei Könige

6th January

 

Advent in Germany: Lighting candles and singing songs

Adventskranz - advent wreath - (c)Dirk Vorderstraße
© Dirk VorderstraßeLicence

Germany observes advent (adventszeit), a western Christian season that anticipates the coming of Christ. Advent Sunday marks the beginning of advent and the liturgical year, and lies on the Sunday closest to 30th November. The season ends on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally, families will mark the beginning of advent by lighting the first candle on their advent wreath (adventskranz) and singing festive songs together (like the one below). Advent Sunday is known locally as Grüner Sonntag, which translates to Green Sunday, in reference to the evergreen leaves of the wreath.

An additional candle is lit on each Sunday in advent to symbolise the passing of the season. These second, third and fourth Sundays are respectively known as Kupferner Sonntag (Copper Sunday) lberner Sonntag (Silver Sunday) and Goldener Sonntag (Golden Sunday) in reference to metallic wreath decorations.

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt,

Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier 

Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.

Advent, Advent, a light is burning,

First one, then two, then three, then four,

Then the Christ child is on the doorstep.

 

German children's adventskalender tend to count down from 1st December rather than the first Sunday in advent. Just like British advent calendars, each of the 24 days bears a chocolate treat, small toy or Christmassy image.

Barbara's Day and Barbarazweig: The cherry branch tradition

Barbarazweig - (c) Karl Gruber
© Karl GruberLicence

In Catholic regions of Germany, St Barbara's Day (4th December) is commemorated with a custom known as Barbarazweig. A cherry branch is placed in a vase of water, the idea being that it will blossom on Christmas Day and bring good luck for the following year. It is said that tending to a cherry branch kept St Barbara's spirits up while she was imprisoned.  

St Nicholas Day: Putting your boot out for Nikolaus

St Nicholas Eve and Day in Germany - public domain

On the night of 5th December, Nikolaus (St Nicholas) goes from house to house leaving small treats for good children. Youngsters put a polished Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nicholas boot) out when they go to bed, hoping to find it stuffed with gifts and treats the next morning, on Nikolaustag (St Nicholas Day). 

Nikolaus is a bishop with a long, white beard who is usually depicted wearing a red mitre, red cloak and white alb. He also carries a golden staff, and rides a white horse. Though he looks similar to Santa Claus, it is Christkind or Weihnachtsmann who bring German children gifts on Christmas Eve.

In Bavarian folklore, Nikolaus is accompanied by a threatening character called Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert), who leaves bundles of twigs in the boots of misbehaved children. He is usually depicted with a brown robe and dark beard. 

Christmas Eve in Germany: Putting up the tree & exchanging gifts

Christkind - public domain

Christmas Day and Boxing Day in Germany: A time for eating and relaxing

Germans refer to 25th and 26th December as der erste und zweite Weihnachtstag: the first and second Christmas Day. Both are public holidays across states, so that everyone can spend time at home with their families. 

The gift exchange occurs on Christmas Eve, so the first and second Christmas Day are reserved for eating and relaxing with family. The traditional Christmas dinner in Germany consists of goose, red cabbage, apple and sausage stuffing, and serviettenknödel (potato dumpling). 

New Year's Eve and Day in Germany: Pouring lead and lighting fireworks

New Year's Eve is known as Silvester in Germany, as it is also Saint Sylvester's feast day. When the clock strikes midnight, church bells ring, bottles of sekt (German sparkling wine) are uncorked, and loved ones wish each other a Prosit Neujahr! 

Fireworks are a hugely popular way to celebrate. As stores cannot sell them outside 27th –31st December, and it's illegal to light them on any dates except New Year's Eve and Day, Germans really make the most of their opportunity to light up the skies.

 Bleigiessen (c) Micha L Rieser
© Micha L. RieserLicence

A more unusual custom is lead pouring or molybdomancy (Bleigießen), whereby a small piece of lead is melted in a spoon held over a candle, then poured into cold water. The resulting shape of the hardened lead is said to determine your fortune for the coming year.

Germans will also exchange good luck charms (glücksbringer) like four-leaf clovers and horseshoes. It's also lucky to touch a chimney sweep toy — a vestige from the days when chimney sweeps kept ovens functioning, and so kept food on tables — and eat a lucky marzipan pig (glücksschwein). Other popular Silvester foods include carp, herring, and lentil soup.

Strangely, families will also gather to watch English-language TV comedy Dinner for One on the last day of the year. A line from the sketch show, "Same procedure as every year", is a commonly heard catchphrase in Germany. Another popular televised event is the Chancellor's New Year speech (Neujahrsansprache).

One thing you cannot do on New Year's Eve is hang out your washing, as it's thought the Germanic god Wotan (aka Odin) will get tangled on the clothesline and curse you with bad luck.

New Year's Day (Neujahrstag) is a public holiday in Germany, and a time to relax with your loved ones. Germans may even set themselves resolutions (Neujahrsvorsätzen) for the year ahead.

Epiphany: When the German Christmas season comes to an end

Sternsinger in Dessau-Roßlau
© Thomas GufflerLicence

Heilige Drei Könige (Epiphany or Three Kings' Day) celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, and marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It is a public holiday in the German federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt.

It is traditional for groups of children known as sternsinger to go singing door-to-door. They will also 'chalk the door' as a way of blessing the house, by writing 20*C+M+B+17, where the numbers represent the year. CMB stands for Christus mansionem benedicat (God protect this house).


Christmas food and drink in Germany

Hot drinks and spiced treats are hugely popular during advent in Germany, helping lift everyone's spirits in the cold, dark season. Most cafés and Christmas markets will serve these festive favourites, so make sure you don't miss out when visiting.

Glühwein

Gluhwein at German Christmas market - George Nell
© George NellLicence

Mulled wine — a hot beverage usually made from red wine, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and orange — is a festive favourite across much of Europe. Named glühwein in Germany, this warm and spicy drink is the perfect antidote to a winter's day. It might even come with a shot of brandy mixed in (mit schuss).

At most German Christmas markets, glühwein is served in a festive ceramic mug for which you will pay a few euros' deposit. This can be kept as a souvenir or returned for your deposit back.

Feuerzangenbowle

Feuerzangenbowle - public domain

Feuerzangenbowle is a theatrical drink, whereby a rum-soaked sugar cone (zuckerhut) is set alight and suspended over a bowl of glühwein. The drink is kept warm by a small burner (rechaud), much like a fondue, then ladled into mugs once the sugar has melted.

At Nuremberg Christmas Market, you can drink this delicious concoction from the largest punch bowl in the world, with a capacity of 9,000 litres. 

Weihnachtsstollen

Weihnachtsstollen

Fruit cake is a festive staple across the western world, and in Germany it is known as stollen, Weihnachtsstollen or Christstollen. Made to symbolise the baby Jesus wrapped in blankets, it is a Christmas favourite across Germany — Dresden even hosts a Stollenfest each year, on the Saturday before Kupferner Sonntag (the second Sunday in advent).

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread flavoured with honey, is one of the most popular treats at German Christmas markets. It's available in lots of different varieties — whether plain, iced or filled with almonds, it's a must-have when visiting Germany at Christmastime. Pfefferkuchenhaus, gingerbread houses, are popular festive decorations.

Plätzchen, German Christmas biscuits - public domain

Weihnachtsplätzchen is a term covering a wide variety of biscuits enjoyed during advent. However, the point is not in the eating, but in the baking. Families and friends come together to make recipes featuring cinnamon, vanilla and almonds; use cookie cutters in the shapes of hearts, stars and snowmen; and decorate their biscuits with icing, chocolate and nuts.  

Bethmännchen

Bethmännchen

Bethmännchen is a marzipan-flavoured pastry, which is particularly popular at Frankfurt's Christmas market. Named after the famous banker Simon Moritz von Bethmann for whom they were created, it's said that Bethmännchen were originally studded with four almonds to represent his four sons, but one was removed following one son's death.

Marzipan

Marzipanschwein
© Alice WiegandLicence

Eaten alone or used as decorations, marzipan treats, moulded from a sugar and almond mixture, are extremely popular in Germany during Christmastime. The bar-shaped marzipanbrot and spherical marzipankartoffeln are commonplace, but you can find all kinds of shapes — marzipanschwein (marzipan pigs) are thought to bring good luck on New Year's Eve.

What's the weather like in Germany at Christmas?

German alps

Germany has a temperate seasonal climate, which means relatively mild winters. Temperatures tend to hover around 0°C near Christmas, although you can expect a few extra degrees in western areas like Cologne and Frankfurt. There's around a 50:50 chance of rain on any given day in December.

You might get a dusting of snow at a German Christmas market, but the likelihood of a blanketing is slim. However, mountainous areas like Bavaria offer a very good chance of a white Christmas — especially once you're above 1,500 metres.

Christmas Markets in Germany

Christmas fair in Germany - public domain

German Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) have been exported to countries including the UK, but there's nothing quite like the real thing. Usually open from the week before advent until 23rd December, markets pop up in squares across Germany, spreading festive cheer (gemütlichkeit) far and wide.  

Christmas markets are of course the perfect place to sample festive foods and drinks, which will warm your cockles on a cold winter's day. You won't be able to resist picking up unique handcrafted gifts, either. But they're worth visiting for the atmosphere alone — glittering lights, incredible decorations and smiling faces draw thousands of tourists to Weihnachtsmarkt every year.

Read on for details about some of Germany's best Christmas markets, as well as the other festive attractions you can find nearby.

Rüdesheim Christmas Market

Lebkucken at Christmas market - public domain

At Rüdesheim's Weihnachtsmarkt der Nationen Christmas market, 12 countries are represented across 120 stalls. This gives you the opportunity to enjoy festive delicacies and regional crafts from around the world, all without stepping out of this chocolate-box town. 

However, make sure to try the local speciality: Rüdesheimer kaffee (Rüdesheim coffee). Much like feuerzangenbowle, serving this drink is akin to a theatrical performance. A unique handle-less porcelain cup arrives at the table with cubes of sugar inside. Asbach Uralt cognac is poured on top then set alight, with black coffee and a dollop of whipped cream (complete with chocolate shavings) added afterwards — as this video from Mateusz Mandziara shows.

Open 24th November–23rd December 2016

 Sun–Thu: 11am–8pm 
 Fri–Sat: 11am–9pm 

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Christkindelsmarik Strasbourg - public domain

Strasbourg is located on the French-German border, and has long exchanged hands between the two countries. Although currently classified as French, Strasbourg's history is steeped in German culture, and this is evident in its Christmas market.

Christkindelsmärik is considered to be the oldest Christmas market in Europe, having been founded in the 16th century. You'll find over 300 stalls across the city centre, concentrated in front of the spectacular cathedral. Don't miss the incredible 30-metre tree at Place Kléber.

Open 25th November–31st December 2016

Düsseldorf Christmas Market

Christmas baubles - public domain

There are six major Christmas markets across Düsseldorf's city centre:

 Christmas market on Marketplatz 
 Christmas market on Flinger Straße
 Engelchenmarkt (Little Angel Market) on Heinrich-Heine-Platz 
 Sternchenmarkt (Little Star Market) at Stadtbrückchen
 Christmas market at the Kö-Bogen (Jan-Wellem-Platz)
 Christmas market on Schadowstraße

As well as beautifully decorated huts offering arts and crafts, food and drink, and an incredible festive atmosphere, you can enjoy plenty of other Christmassy attractions. There's a free ice skating rink on Gustaf-Gründgens-Platz, mesmerising lights along the Königsallee and shopping boulevards, and old-fashioned merry-go-rounds that have entertained children for generations. 

Open 17th November–23rd December 2016, closed 20th November

 Sun–Thu: 11am–8pm
 Fri–Sat: 11am–9pm

Cologne Christmas Market

Cologne Christmas market - (c) Superbass
© SuperbassCC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Christmas market in Cologne (Köln) is spread across six main areas.

The Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom (Cathedral Christmas Market) is located in front of the impressive Cologne Cathedral. There are over 150 huts featuring bakers, jewellers and toymakers, centred around the spectacularly lit 25-metre Nordmann fir tree. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

• Sun–Wed: 11am–9pm
• Thu–Fri: 11am–10pm
• Sat: 10am–10pm

Angels Christmas market Cologne - (c) Marco Verch
© Marco VerchLicence

You might see angels sprinkling glitter as you walk through Markt der Engel (Angel's Market), which can be found on the Neumarkt. Strings of star-shaped lights hung from trees make this a particularly beautiful area, and you can pick up all the festive goodies you'd expect. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

• Sun–Thu: 11am–9pm
 Fri–Sat: 11am–10pm

 Nautical Christmas - public domain

The Hafen Weihnachtsmarkt (Harbour Christmas Market), located next to the Chocolate Museum, has a nautical theme — you'll even find stalls inside a brightly lit ship. Over 70 white tipis tempt you with fresh seafood, high-quality gifts and much more. Don't miss the sea shanties and pirate performances. 

Open 18th November–23rd December, closed 20th November

• Sun–Thu: 11am–9pm
Fri–Sat: 11am–10pm

 Heimat der Heinzel Koeln Altermarkt - (c) Superbass
© SuperbassCC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The fairytale-esque Heimat der Heinzel, home of the Heinzelmännchen house gnomes, lies in front of Cologne's town hall on Alter Markt. It's particularly good for children, boasting a grotto, puppet shows, and a carousel. Enjoy ice skating or a game of eisstockschiessen (curling) on Heumarkt's rink. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

 11am–10pm daily

German xmas market decorations - public domain

The Stadtgarten park is taken over by festivities come December, and is the perfect place to find unusual handicrafts, food and drink — look no further for something a bit different. There's also an events programme with storytelling and theatrical performances.  

Open 21st November–23rd December

 Mon–Fri: 4pm–9.30pm
 Sat–Sun: 12pm–9.30pm

 Nikolausdorf Rudolfplatz Cologne - (c) Andreas Nöthen
© Andreas NöthenLicence

When visiting Nikolausdorf (St Nick's Village) on the Rudolfplatz, you'll be transported to a fairytale world. Home to what may be the most beautifully decorated stalls in Germany, this family-oriented destination can't be missed. Make sure to visit St Nicholas's house and the Village Chapel. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

Koblenz Christmas Market

Christmas market decorations - public domain

There will be over 130 traditional Christmas market stalls at Koblenz this year, spread across Münzplatz, Plan, Rathausplatz, Liebfrauenkirche, Jesuitenplatz, and Zentralplatz. All these squares are just a stone's throw away from the famous Schängelbrunnen (spitting boy) fountain, which lies in the heart of the old town.

You can pick up everything from freshly baked stollen to handcrafted decorations. At the weekends, carol singers gather on the squares to add to the festive atmosphere. As Koblenz is located in the Rhineland-Palatinate wine growing region, you can expect the glühwein to be especially good.

You'll also find an ice rink on Zentralplatz, by the Großer Weihnachtsbaum (big Christmas tree). There's the opportunity to enjoy an enchanting carriage ride and visit Nikolaus, too. Don't miss the advent calendar on the historic town hall's roof.

Open 18th November–22nd December 2016

• Mon–Thu: 10am–8pm
 Fri–Sat: 10am–9pm
 Sun: 11am–8pm

Visiting Germany at Christmas

Many of Germany's most Christmassy destinations are located along its rivers, from where you can see snow-capped mountains and beautifully lit towns during late November and December. Going on a German river cruise during advent is a fantastic way to enjoy markets and festivities at multiple destinations — without the hassle.

If you'd like to get into the festive spirit, our German Christmas Markets cruise is perfect. We'll also be visiting magical destinations like Strasbourg in the lead-up to 25th December, so don't miss out.

To celebrate Christmas Day somewhere new, look no further than our 7-day and 8-day Christmas cruises on the Rhine. If you fancy experiencing a German Christmas but can't imagine being away from home on the big day, then hop aboard our Turkey & Tinsel cruise, where you can enjoy a traditional German Christmas Day dinner and much more a month early.

We are also offering a New Year Rhine cruise, where you can join in the party, view spectacular firework shows, and maybe get your very own glücksbringer — what better way to end the year?

Gute Reise und Fröhliche Weihnachten! 

Bon Voyage and Merry Christmas!