German families prepare for Christmas throughout cold December. Four Sundays before Christmas, they make an Advent wreath of fir or pine branches with four colored candles. They light a candle on the wreath each Sunday, sing Christmas songs, and eat Christmas cookies. The children count the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar. Each day, they open a little numbered flap on the calendar to see the Christmas picture hidden there.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, homes are filled with the delightful smells of baking loaves of sweet bread, cakes filled with candied fruits, and spicy cookies called lebkuchen.
Bakery windows are filled with displays of lovely marzipan confections in the shape of fruits and animals. Best of all are the famous outdoor Christmas markets. The stalls overflow with all sorts of holiday toys, gifts, decorations, and delicacies.
Many German children write letters to St. Nicholas asking for presents. St. Nicholas Day is December 6. Other German children write their letters to the Christ Child. In some areas, the Christ Child brings gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve and in other areas on Christmas Eve. He is dressed all in white, with golden wings and a golden crown.
Christmas Eve is the most important time of the Christmas season for families. Some even say it is a magical night when animals can speak. The wonderful tradition of the Christmas tree, which started in Germany, is the heart of the celebration. Grown-ups decorate the evergreen tree with beautiful ornaments of colored glass and carved wood, silver stars, and strings of lights. A golden angel is placed at the very top of the tree.
Under the Christmas tree, the family arranges a manger scene to depict the stable that Jesus was born in. Parents may also pile presents from the Christ Child beneath the Christmas tree's richly decorated boughs. Just after dark, a bell rings, and the excited children run into the room to see the beautiful lighted tree in all its glory. The family members exchange gifts, recite poems, and sing Christmas carols. "Silent Night, Holy Night" is an old German favorite. Then everyone enjoys a Christmas feast of roast goose, turkey, or duck.
In some parts of Germany, families still follow an old tradition. The children leave their shoes outside the front door. These shoes are filled with carrots and hay to feed St. Nicholas' horse as he rides by. If the children were good all year, St. Nicholas leaves apples, nuts, and candy for them.
On Christmas Day the white candle of the Advent wreath is lit. This day is quietly focused on family. They attend church together, and then they eat a delicious Christmas dinner together.
But for the following Twelve Days of Christmas, people in some parts of Germany beat drums to drive off spirits. On Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, on January 6, boys dress up like the Three Kings who visited Baby Jesus in the manger so long ago. They carry a star on a pole and go through the town singing Christmas carols. Then the family puts away its Christmas decorations for another year, until December comes around again.