Day 21: The shortest night ...
North pole

Day 21: The shortest night ...

Today we had the darkest night all year. What does it mean for us?

It means that from this day on, the nights will become shorter again and the light will return to our hemisphere. This time has always been special in history. For example, before Christianity, there was the Yule Festival, the Raunächte, etc.

Here is some background history about Christmas:

History of Christmas customs

Christmas customs were Christianized in the Nativity plays as special spiritual spectacles, and since the 16th century they have been depicted in the Christmas cribs. The scenic representations are first recorded in the 11th century in France.

The Christmas celebration in the family with Christmas tree, Christmas carols, nativity scene, presents and a church service, which is common today in German-speaking countries, is a cultural manifestation of the bourgeois family of the 19th century (Biedermeier). In folkloristic and Germanistic research it was assumed until the first half of the 20th century - among others by the brothers Grimm - that it must be a very old tradition and one tried to construct a continuity up to the Germanic antiquity. Thus, the world ash tree of the Germanic myth or the midwinter tree were seen as direct predecessors of the Christmas tree. This was also in line with National Socialism, which sought to blend Christmas with the Germanic and Scandinavian Jul tradition in order to establish it as a "festival of the national community under a tree of lights" ("German Christmas") (→ National Socialist Christmas cult).


The specific character of Christmas and Advent customs in Central Europe developed mostly in a climatic zone characterized by cold, dark winters. In the southern hemisphere, Christmas falls in the summer, which leads to other customs. The evergreen fir tree has no corresponding symbolic power there.


Christmas on December 25 is preceded by the four-week Advent season. It was originally a period of fasting, which the early church placed in the time between November 11 and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Advent in its present form dates back to the 7th century. There were initially between four and six Sundays in Advent until Pope Gregory finally fixed their number at four for Advent according to the Roman Rite. In the Ambrosian rite, however, Advent is still six weeks long today. Since 1917, the Advent fast is no longer obligatory in Catholic canon law. The Advent season includes numerous customs, such as the Advent calendar, which indicates the remaining days until Christmas, the hanging of a St. Nicholas' boot on the front door on the evening before St. Nicholas' Day, and the Christmas market, which can be found in many cities.

Christmas tree

In Central Europe, the Christmas tree (also called the Christmas tree in some regions) is placed in church and homes, as well as in large squares in towns, and is decorated with fairy lights, candles, glass balls, tinsel, and angel or other figures. The domestic Christmas tree often remains in the room long after Christmas, often until the end of the liturgical Christmas season.

Two candle-decorated fir trees have stood to the right and left of the manger at the Augustinian monastery in Neustift every year since 1621.

The origin of the fir tree may have been the paradise tree of the widespread medieval mystery plays on December 24. From about 1800, the decorated Christmas tree could be found in the upscale bourgeois homes of Zurich, Munich, Vienna and Transylvania. It was initially considered Protestant until it was gradually adopted by Catholics as well. Henriette Alexandrine of Nassau-Weilburg introduced it in Vienna in 1816. The 1870/71 war popularized the Christmas tree in France as well. In 1912, the first "public" tree was in New York.

Today, the decorated Christmas tree is a central element of the family Christmas celebration. Until the 18th century, it was found only at princely courts, then in the bourgeois upper class. It became popular among the petty bourgeoisie not least because the Prussian king had Christmas trees put up in the dugouts and military hospitals during the 1870/71 war against France. After that, the Christmas tree continued to spread and acquired the central role in the ceremonial of the domestic family celebration that is taken for granted today (children stand in front of the closed door, the candles on the tree are lit, the door is opened, singing together, opening presents together, eating together).

Going to church

Attending Christvesper, Christmette or Christnacht together is an integral part of Christmas, and not just for regular churchgoers among Christians. Churches in German-speaking countries are usually very well attended for these services. Services are held on all days of Christmas, often beginning with a children's service on Christmas Eve. The reading of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke and the singing of Christmas carols are part of the liturgy.

Attending a performance of a Christmas oratorio is also common during the period before and after Christmas, especially in the Evangelical Lutheran area.

Nativity scene

The most original Christmas custom is the tradition of the nativity scene, which vividly re-enacts the Christmas story. Family members gather around the nativity scene on Christmas Eve and commemorate the birth of Christ. The history of the nativity scene, which is now a natural part of Christmas celebrations, probably began as early as the 13th century, and the nativity scene was used in church services locally probably as early as the 11th century. In the castle chapel of Hocheppan near Bolzano, the birth of Jesus Christ was first depicted in German-speaking countries around the year 1200. The representation then culminated in the Christmas gift-giving in front of the manger and Christmas tree.

Gift-giving at Christmas time: St. Nicholas, Christ Child, Santa Claus, Secret Santa and the giving of presents

Martin Luther shifted the gift-giving on St. Nicholas' Day (there are household accounts from Luther's house about gifts for the servants and children on St. Nicholas' Day from 1535 and 1536) to Christmas Eve, because the Protestant church does not know any veneration of saints. The Protestant gift-bringer was now no longer St. Nicholas, but the "Holy Christ," as Luther called the baby Jesus. This abstraction gave rise in Thuringia, as elsewhere, to the angelic Christ Child. It has appeared since the 17th century in Christmas pageant customs, in which Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus paraded through the streets - like the carol singers in many places today - accompanied by girls dressed in white with their hair down as angels, led by the veiled "Christ Child." After 1800, Knecht Ruprecht, originally the punishing companion of St. Nicholas and the Christ Child, gradually became Santa Claus.

In 1930, according to the German Atlas of Folklore, Santa Claus (mainly in the Protestant north and northeast) and the Christ Child (mainly in the west and south and in Silesia) brought the presents. The border ran between Westphalia and Friesland, Hesse and Lower Saxony and Thuringia and between Bavaria and Thuringia, went through southern Thuringia, southern Saxony to Silesia. In the 18th century, it had been quite different: St. Nicholas had brought the presents in Catholic areas, the Christ Child in Protestant ones. With the increasing popularity of Christmas and the Christ Child, the gift-giving date was moved from St. Nicholas Day to Christmas Eve in Catholic areas as well, and the Christ Child took over.

Santa Claus is a syncretic figure that mixes elements of St. Nicholas, Knecht Ruprecht, and the rugged Percht in a de-demonized form. A drawing by Moritz von Schwind in the Munich Bilderbogen No. 5 of 1848 under the title "Herr Winter" - who is, however, shunned by the people - is considered an early depiction, but it is not the only one. Older depictions are available in poetic form from North America, here called "Santa Claus". The clothes, which in Germany are mainly depicted in red only after 1945, he took over from Knecht Ruprecht, the flowing beard from common God the Father ideas. In the customs for small children he brings the gifts, bad children however a rod.

The Nordic mythical figure of Nisse (from the Danish Niels for Nicholas), adapted in German as Wichtel, with its red cap is reminiscent of Santa Claus. From it the custom of the Wichtelns is derived in the pre-Christmas season, in which one gives to each other and anonymously in coincidental assignment of gift-giver and gift-receiver.

Already known in ancient times, gifts at New Year's lived on well into the 20th century, locally even to this day, as monetary gratuities to letter carriers, newspaper women, garbage collectors, etc. According to the Börsenblatt, in 2007, one-fifth of intra-family Christmas gifts were also passed on in the form of vouchers or money. Christmas gift-giving, however, goes back to the gift-giving of St. Nicholas. "Lüttenweihnachten" is the term used to describe decorating a Christmas tree for animals in the forest with food.

Christmas caroling

Also in the domestic circle on Christmas Eve and on the first and second feast day much singing and music is played.

In a time of declining knowledge of folk songs and church hymns, German Christmas carols are part of the remnants of traditional German-language caroling for many people in the German-speaking world, where they can still sing along.

In the public sphere, the singing of Christmas carols together by large groups of people has developed into a tradition of its own, for example in Berlin.

Christmas dinner

Christmas usually includes an elaborate Christmas meal on the first holiday, for which certain foods are typical, such as Christmas goose or Christmas carp, as well as Christmas cookies made especially for the Christmas season. In some regions on Christmas Eve - probably because of the simplicity of preparation - there are traditionally dishes such as stew or sausages with potato salad. In the north, potato salad is prepared with mayonnaise, while in the south only vinegar, oil and broth are used. A simple dish can be attributed to the (Lower) Silesian Christmas, the "Breslauer Mehlkloß" (consisting of flour, milk, butter, egg).

In Old Bavaria, the animal fattened for the Christmas feast, usually a pig, more rarely also the Christmas goose, is referred to dialectally as Weihnachter.

In the Vogtland and the Erzgebirge, the so-called Neunerlei, a Christmas menu with nine courses, which is already served on Christmas Eve, is prepared. It usually includes bratwurst, dumplings, sauerkraut, roast goose or pork, nuts and mushrooms. In many families, hard cash is placed under the plates.

Other customs during the Christmas season

Among the rather less contemplative Christmas customs is the telling of traditional scary stories (some of an ironic nature, such as Snowmen at the Bonfire; or not, such as The Man with His Head Under His Arm), for example, while waiting for the presents in the front room on Christmas Eve. This seems to be found mainly in northern and northeastern Germany. In Alpine customs in December and January, Perchten, winter exorcising figures, play a role.

Another custom on Christmas Eve is the Christklotz, also called "Weihnachtsscheit" or "Christblock".

In the Berchtesgaden region, the Christkindl shooting of the Christmas shooters characterizes the last week before Christmas Eve. They shoot every day at 3 o'clock in the afternoon from their stands - on Christmas Eve additionally before the Christmas mass.

A supposedly old German custom imported from the United States refers to a pickle-shaped Christmas tree ornament. The "Christmas cucumber" is attached to the Christmas tree in a concealed manner even before the "Bescherung". The recipients, usually still children or teenagers, search the tree for the hidden ornament before opening their presents. The first person to find the "gherkin" receives a special, additional gift. Since 2009, these Christmas tree ornaments in the form of gherkins can be found at German Christmas markets. The glass blowers offer three different sizes to adapt the level of difficulty to the age of the children.

From nightfall, many home windows are illuminated by candle arches during Advent. This custom originated in the 18th century in the mining regions of the Erzgebirge and is increasingly spreading to neighboring countries.

The German Post Office issues special stamps every year at Christmas.

In many places, Christmas markets, also called Christkindlesmarkt or Glühweinmarkt, have become established in the run-up to Christmas. They are characterized by stalls selling Christmas articles and gifts, mulled wine stands and, in increasing numbers, food stations.

Christmas abstinence

The Reformed churches believed that Christmas originated from pagan customs and was connected with the Catholic Church and therefore rejected it on principle. Thus, in 1550, all non-biblical celebrations were banned in Geneva, which led to serious conflicts. John Calvin was less strict about this. John Knox banned all church festivals in 1560, including Christmas in Scotland. The Scottish Presbyterians adhered to this until the 20th century. The Quakers and the Puritans of the 17th century also rejected Christmas as a holiday and went about their business as usual. The English Christmas celebration in those days included not only worship, but also carousing, boozing, dancing, and gambling. In 1647, Parliament enacted a ban on such festivities. This led to street riots between supporters and opponents of Christmas. After 1660, the ban on festivities was no longer applied. Only in recent times have the regulations adapted to the behavioral patterns of their cultural environment. In the 19th century, Christmas in England took off significantly, possibly under the influence of Prince Albert from Germany, whom Queen Victoria had married. In the United States, the development was similar. In areas where Presbyterians, Mennonites, Quakers, and Puritans predominated (New England, Pennsylvania), there was no Christmas until the 19th century. Further south, English settlers retained their Anglican customs from the 17th century. The Dutch settlers had brought their Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) with them to New York. He later became Santa Claus.

Jehovah's Witnesses also do not celebrate Christmas.

Adoption of Christmas customs by non-Christians


In some Jewish households living as a minority in a Christian environment, it happens to celebrate "Chrismukkah." For the Hanukkah festival, for example, fir trees are set up in living rooms and decorated with baubles engraved with Stars of David.


In some Muslim households, a goose is put on the table at Christmas and children receive gifts. Since the birth of Jesus Christ is described in detail in the Quran, Muslims are no strangers to the origins of Christmas.

Shifting Christmas customs to the Advent season.

A significant change in customs can be observed in Advent since the 20th century. While it was originally celebrated as a time of fasting, in the present day some of the customs of Christmas are already lived out during Advent. A significant part of this is the Christmas markets that are widespread in most German-speaking city centers, some of which have traditions dating back to the Middle Ages.