• Munich: dancing at the Oktoberfest
    Munich: dancing at the Oktoberfest ©DZT (Rainer Kiedrowski)
  • Düsseldorf: Funkemarie in fron of the Town Hall
    Düsseldorf: Funkemarie in fron of the Town Hall ©Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourismus GmbH
  • Typical Nuremberg Gingerbread
    Typical Nuremberg Gingerbread ©Bayerisches Staatsministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Forsten
  • Easter decorations
    Easter decorations ©DZT (Eric Eichberger)

German Traditions

Decorating Christmas trees. Hiding Easter eggs. You would be surprised to learn how many common traditions originated in Germany. Especially in parts of North America, England, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe the world seems very German certain times of the year. Discover the “home for the holidays” and learn more about German traditions.
Christmas Time & Traditions in Germany

During the four weeks before Christmas, Germans celebrate Advent, a romantic and delightful time of the year, which is strongly linked to traditional Christmas markets in wonderful settings. You'll find plenty of hand-crafted Christmas decorations, cute little incense burners, wooden-carved toys and nativity scenes to place at the heart of your Christmas display. Germany's first Christmas market was recorded in 1393, and today there are thousands of them all over the country.

Both gingerbread houses and the Nutcracker came from German stories. Before the Nutcracker became a Tchaikovsky ballet, he was the hero of an 1816 story by Berlin's Ernst Theodor Amadeus (E.T.A.) Hoffman. The gingerbread house first appeared in the Grimm brothers' tale of Hänsel and Gretel, then in Humperdinck's short opera which premiered on December 23, 1893. Gingerbread has quite a history on its own. It dates back to ancient Egypt. But it was in Nuremberg in 1643 that gingerbread bakers were first allowed to form their own trade guild. They developed export markets, and today, one Nuremberg exporter produces about three million pieces of gingerbread per day in the months before Christmas, for shipment around the world.

Another Christmas tradition is the Advent calendar, first printed in Germany in 1908. Small treats are hidden behind little paper doors for the 24 days until Christmas. Even St. Nicholas was first recognized in Germany. He became the patron of sailors, merchants, bakers, children and students. In Germany, he makes his appearance on December 6 and leaves his gifts in children's shoes.

Christmas carols such as "Away in a Manger," composed of words by Martin Luther, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," a melody by Felix Mendelssohn, and "Still, Still, Still," are German. "O Christmas Tree" ("O Tannenbaum") was written down in 1799, and "Silent Night" was famously improvised 19 years later, when a church organ broke down. The organist, Franz Gruber, quickly wrote out a song with words by the local curate, Joseph Mohr.

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Karneval: Mardi Gras' German Cousin

Many of Germany's visitors remember this event. It happens about six weeks before Easter, or one week to 10 days leading up to the beginning of Lent. It starts with Cologne's two-and-half hour Rose Monday parade and includes huge "Karneval" floats bearing dozens of citizens dressed up in costumes. They toss fistfuls of candies to the noisy crowds on the sidewalks, exactly the way New Orleans's Mardi Gras crews toss plastic-beaded necklaces and coins.

Like New Orleans, parade-float humor leans toward political satire with a local flavor. And also like New Orleans or Munich (where the pre-Lenten carnival is called Fasching) the best parties are private, organized by the parade societies. Tickets to Karneval and Fasching parties are fairly easy for non-members to obtain, however the comedy performances and speeches given often come in local dialect which even Germans sometimes hardly understand.

Düsseldorf, Mainz and Basel, on the Swiss border, all have pre-Lenten festivals as well. Each carries unique traditions. North Americans craving a taste of the events can find some closer to home. On Long Island, there is the 40-year-old Cologne-style costume ball. It's sponsored by an official New World offshoot of one of the most prominent Cologne Karneval societies. Other cities with Karneval parties include Windsor (Ontario), Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati, Sun City (Arizona) and Indianapolis. Even a delegation from Indianapolis has participated in the Cologne Karneval as honored guests with Cologne, who in turn sent a group to Indianapolis. And a 1999 Karneval Narrentreffen (fools' meeting) in Las Vegas was videotaped by German TV's Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR).

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Oktoberfest - the world’s favorite German fest

Oktoberfest is unmistakably a German tradition. This 16-day festival in Munich attracts over six million visitors per year who consume about 1,320,860 gallons of beer, 400,000 pork sausages and 480,000 roasted chickens. It started October 12, 1810, at the wedding of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Against tradition, the couple invited Munich's locals. The events were held over five days on the fields that today are named Theresienwiese after the bride.

Forty thousand people showed up. A year later, they decided to throw the party all over again as an anniversary tribute to the royal couple. The big event at the first festival were a horse race and an agricultural show. By 1818, events included a carousel and swings, tree-climbing competitions, wheelbarrow and sack races, barrel rolling races and goose chases. Mechanical rides were added in the 1870s. In 1908, the Oktoberfest boasted Germany's first roller coaster.

Makeshift beer and food stands began cropping up by 1818. They were soon replaced by sponsored beer halls, much like today's local brewery-hosted beer tents. The horse races ended in 1960, and the agricultural show now happens once every four years. Over time, the fair's dates were extended and eventually moved forward, to the end of September for better weather. The first Sunday in October marks its finish. It still takes place on the Theresienwiese, known to locals as "Wies'n." The meadow's 103 acres become a metropolis of beer tents, amusements, rides, performers and booths, peddling gastronomic delights and traditional confections. Visiting photographers are amazed by dirndl-sporting waitresses carrying almost six gallons of beer at a time—the equivalent of 66 12-ounce bottles. Munich's mayor traditionally opens the festivities by driving a wooden tap into a barrel of beer, proclaiming "O'zapft is!" ("It's tapped!").

Not surprisingly, Oktoberfest has inspired many similar festivals around the world, including many locations in North America.

The Easter Bunny & the Tale of the Eggs

From the name to the bunny, it's all German. The name Easter was first appropriated by the Christian calendar. First it was the pagan festival Ostara, celebrated on the vernal equinox, around March 21 in the Northern hemisphere. Ostara was named for the pagan goddess of spring, Eostre. According to legend, she once saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could lay eggs. And so it became the Easter Bunny.

The bunny as a symbol for Easter is first mentioned in writings in 16th century Germany. The first edible Easter bunnies, made of pastry and sugar, were also produced in Germany in the early 1800s. Around that time, children made nests of grass and settled them in their parents' spring gardens for the Easter Bunny to fill during the night with brightly decorated eggs.

Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought the Easter bunny to America in the 1700s. Their children, who used their hats or bonnets to make their nests, believed that if they were well behaved, the "Oschter Haws" (literally Easter Hare) would fill their upturned headgear with colored eggs.

The Easter egg hunt remains as much a tradition in German towns and cities as it is on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. Children race to find the Bunny's colorful eggs across the world every year.

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