Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

The origin of Christmas gift giving

March 24, 2013

The first gifts given to honor the birth of the Christ child came from a group of men called wise men or magi. The Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were. Most people assume there were three because of the three gifts mentioned, but there could have been more. These gifts were expensive and reflected the wise men’s perception of Jesus’ station in life. But those gifts were not the first Christmas gifts. The first Christmas gift came from God Himself. This is the origin of Christmas gift giving: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Gifts had been exchanged during the midwinter season for many years before Christ was born. The Romans are credited with starting the custom of giving gifts during their midwinter festivals. The first festival, Saturnalia, occurred in mid to late December. Gifts of wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls were exchanged between social peers. Gifts and good wishes were given to friends and family during the New Year festival Kalends.

As the Roman empire grew gift giving spread throughout Europe. As time went on the celebration of Saturnalia died out but gift giving during the New Year’s celebration continued. In many places, like England, gift giving was reserved for those within the social hierarchy. Peasants gave gifts of farm produce to their lord who then provided a Christmas feast. Nobles gave gifts to the king and queen who also gave gifts to their court. This practice occurred not on Christmas day but on New Year’s day. It was still considered to be a part of the Christmas because the Christmas season, during the medieval period lasted for twelve days. There is no record of gift giving between friends or family members during this time.

The first recorded occurrence of Christmas gift giving between family and friends comes from 16th century Germany. Children received “Christ-bundles” consisting of coins, sugarplums, nuts, apples, dolls, clothing, school books, religious books, or writing materials. Parents told their children that the Christkind, or Christ child, brought their gifts. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the tradition spread throughout Europe and England. Popular gifts included food items, warm clothing, accessories, jewelry, pens, watches, and books for children.

Eventually, by early 19th century, New Year’s gift giving was absorbed by Christmas gift giving. Partly this was due to the number of days within the Christmas season where gifts were exchanged. Some European countries honored St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, on his day by giving gifts to children, a practice that some say was started by nuns in central France who left packages of nuts, oranges, and other “good things to eat” on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas’s eve. Others exchanged gifts on St. Martin’s (Martinmas) eve in honor of the saint’s practice of riding through the countryside giving treats to children. And still others exchanged gifts on St. Stephen’s Day. On this day during the Middle Ages parish priests opened up church alms boxes and distributed the coins found inside to the needy. This practice grew to include boxed gifts of food, money, and clothing given by the affluent in society to those in the working class who served them in some fashion during the year. St. Stephen’s Day soon lost its identity to these gift boxes and became Boxing Day.

The custom of exchanging gifts between friends and family members became widespread during the 19th century. This was aided by the spread of the German Christmas tree as the repository for Christmas gifts and the popularity of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, as the giver of Christmas gifts.

Today people all over the world spend billions of dollars every year for Christmas gifts. For some Christmas gift giving is a bother trying to out-give one another, remembering everyone from whom a gift may be received, or facing the high cost of the Christmas season. For others Christmas gift giving is a joy a chance to express appreciation and love to others, a chance to give of oneself to those who cannot give back, and a time to honor the One whose birthday is being celebrated. Which group do you belong? I hope it is the latter.

Christmas in Germany

February 14, 2012

English: Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in...

Image via Wikipedia

Christmas celebrations in Germany start on November 11 with the celebration of St. Martin’s Day.  St. Martin’s Day remembers Martin, a Roman soldier, who, when riding through the countryside on a cold day, met a beggar asking for alms.  Martin had nothing on him to give but, noticing that the beggar was cold, took his cloak and cut it in two pieces and gave one piece to the beggar.  That night, after Christ appeared to him in a dream, Martin devoted his life to service to God.

On St. Martin’s Day children receive small gifts and eat treats, mainly currant buns.  They make homemade lanterns out of cardboard and transparent colored paper.  Some of these lanterns are quite intricate.  They hang the lanterns on long poles and march through town.  After the procession the people reenact the legend of St. Martin.

On November 30, St. Andrew’s Night is celebrated.  Young girls, before retiring for the night, may perform rituals to predict the identity of their future husbands.

About four weeks before Christmas, approximately December 1, many Germans observe the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a time of introspection and preparation looking forward to the birthday of the Christ child.  It is observed during the four Sundays before Christmas.

On St. Barbara’s Day, December 4, early budding cherry branches are cut and put in a warm place to bloom for Christmas.

Children look forward to December 6, St. Nicholas’s Day.  St. Nicholas visits all the children of Germany along with an assistant, either Black Peter or Krampus.  St. Nicholas arrives riding a white horse not a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and is a stern man not jolly.  St. Nicholas gives gifts, candy, and treats to all the good children while Black Peter or Krampus gives switches to the naughty children.

On the 13th of December children gather and parade through town singing carols.  At the end of the parade route they perform a play about the Nativity.

On December 21, St. Thomas’s Day, the air is filled with the aroma of rich fruitcakes baking.  After all the baking is finished the people gather to dance the night away.

The big Christmas celebration begins on December 23, the Eve of the Eve.  It is said that the Virgin Mary and flights of angels fly overhead bringing advanced word of the Christ child’s birth.  On Christmas Eve, December 24, the Christmas baking is done, presents are wrapped and distributed, and the Christmas tree is decorated.  Children leave lists of gifts they wish to receive on the window sills for the Christ child, the Christmas gift giver in Germany.  The main dish for supper on December 24 is carp.  Brass bands serenade passersby with Christmas carols, and people attend midnight church services.  On Christmas day Catholic and Lutheran families attend church services.  Goose is the meal of choice, and families spend time with each other.

December 26 is St. Stephen’s Day, and December 28 is Holy Innocent’s Day.  Holy Innocent’s Day remembers the slaughter of the children of the Bethlehem area by King Herod.  On that day children pretend to swat adults with switches and are placated with small presents.

Traditional foods served on December 31, New Year’s Eve, are carp, a hot spiced punch called sylvesterabend served with pfannkuchen (doughnuts), and balbauschen, a fried cake stuffed with raisins and currants.  People also attend early evening church services.

Epiphany (January 6), also known as Twelfth Night or Festival of the Three Kings, is celebrated by eating Kings cakes.  Kings cakes are baked with a bean inside.  The one who finds the bean becomes king of the feast and is allowed to give ridiculous orders to those around him or her.

The final night of the Christmas season comes on January 13 and is known as Octave of Epiphany.  Groups of four boys each march around town singing “star songs.”  One boy carries a lighted star on a pole while the others are dressed as the three kings.  Some groups carry a crib filled with good things to leave with a needy family.

%d bloggers like this: