Did you know that the Germans practically invented Christmas as we know it today? Okay, they clearly didn’t invent the story of the baby in a manger, but many of the symbols and items that we associate with the Christmas season have come directly out of Germany. For proof, take a look at five Christmas traditions we wouldn’t have without our friends in Deutschland.
The Christmas tree
Before the first Christmas occurred, the ancient Gauls in Western Europe decorated their homes with evergreen branches during winter solstice in order to freshen the stale inside air and warding off evil spirits. When Christianity spread to Germany this custom was incorporated into the celebration of Christmas. Christmas trees in Germany can be traced back to the sixteenth century, when faithful Christians began decorating trees with apples to represent the famous tree from the story of Adam and Eve. The decorations eventually grew more elaborate, and the tradition of the Christmas tree spread to England in 1848 when Queen Victoria and her German husband, along with their Christmas tree, were featured in the London news. The popularity of Christmas trees then exploded in England and, subsequently, the United States. Today, Christmas trees are the ubiquitous symbol of the season.
Tinsel consists of long thin strips of metallic material used to emulate icicles. It’s common to hang it on a Christmas tree, but it’s notoriously difficult to remove all the little pieces when it’s time to take the tree down. It was invented in Nuremburg, Germany, in 1910. The first version of tinsel was sturdy and made with real silver, but to keep it from tarnishing, bits of lead were added. Yikes! Eventually the powers that be decided that using lead in the tinsel was unsafe, and the modern-day plastic version was born. They don’t hang as well as the metal ones, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid lead poisoning, right?
This is another one that Germany gets credit for. As Christmas trees started becoming more decorated, small candles on individual branches were used to illuminate them. Naturally, this was a fire hazard, so families didn’t put up the tree until Christmas Eve so as to have fewer days with candles burning and a fresher, less-flammable tree. However, it was an American who came up with a safer version of tree lights. In 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, created a string of electric lights that could be hung on the tree, and it became an immediate hit. People could now keep their tree lit without constantly worrying that it might catch fire.
The multicolored glass spheres that are essential to decorating a Christmas tree came from—you guessed it—Germany. Hans Greiner started to make these spheres in the town of Lauscha in the early 1600s. They were such a hit that it became quite the booming business and other glassmakers in Lauscha jumped on board, exporting thousands of glass balls to the rest of Germany and throughout Europe. In the late 1800s, Americans also began using the colorful spheres, some made in the States and others shipped from Germany. They are still the most common type of Christmas-tree ornament, though now many of the spheres you see are actually made of shatterproof plastic.
Gingerbread was common throughout Europe, and during the seventeenth century, gingerbread bakers were protected by bakers’ guilds that dictated that only they could bake gingerbread, except on Christmas and Easter. The origins of the gingerbread house, however, are exclusively German. Gingerbread houses started appearing in Germany in the early 1800s, and one also showed up in the 1812 story of Hansel and Gretel from Grimm’s fairytales. It’s unclear which came first: Did the gingerbread house in that tale describe something that already existed in Germany, or did bakers in Germany start making houses after the story came out? At any rate, making and decorating gingerbread houses became (and remains) a popular Christmas pastime. It spread to the United States with the German immigrant population in Pennsylvania, and many families today still gather together to make elaborate sugary dwellings.
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