Der Tannenbaum: The German Christmas tree…


The German Tannenbaum or Christmas tree is usually put up and decorated on Christmas Eve. Even until now and in households with young children, the tree is still secretly decorated by the mother of the family and is revealed during Bescherung or gift opening.


Traditionally, Germans use the natural noble fir tree but the spruce tree is also very popular. The first known Tannenbaum was set up in the early 1400s in Freiburg, Germany. However it wasn’t the average family who set up the tree, but the town bakers, who decorated it with fruits, nuts and baked goods, which the children were allowed to remove and eat on New Year’s Day. German Christians were the first to bring the Tannenbaum into their homes to decorate or use a Christmas pyramid or Weihnachtspyramide in regions where there weren’t a lot of trees. Soon, whole Europe caught up with the trend and thanks to the English royalty the Christmas tree soon became even popularized among the wealthy. In the U.S., Christmas trees didn’t arrive until the late 1800s when German immigrants brought it with them across the ocean and introduced it to the general public.

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German Christmas trees tend to be smaller. Trees usually don’t fill the entire room, on the contrary many trees are often just tabletop trees. Growing up I remember we had tabletop trees for years and even when my own family opted for a bigger tree, my grandparents would still have a tabletop tree until I was in college.

Decorations usually include tinsel, glass balls or straw ornaments, even sweets such as gingerbread hearts or stars. And even though some Germans are now using more “electric candles” to lit their trees, many Tannenbäume in Germany and even in Austria and Switzerland continue to glow in the warm light of real wax candles. (Germans use special candle holders and have learned how to do this safely by never leaving the candles burn for too long and without someone in the room who is watching.)


In Germany, the Christmas Tree is generally left up until January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas or Epiphany. Here in the U.S., someone might find a tree on the curb as early as the 26th of December. In Germany, the Christmas holidays are more than December 24th and 25th. Germans usually don’t have to return back to work until December 27th because the 25th and 26th are legal holidays and in fact nothing is open. No grocery store, no bakery, no shopping malls. Even many restaurants are closed for both days. Your best bet is a gas station which charges about three times as much for a dozen eggs.

When the tree is taken down on January 6th, children can “plunder” the tree. Basically, remove and eat all of the edible treats – candies, nuts and fruit – left on the tree. Some communities have bonfires to burn the trees. In my family, the tree usually came down somewhere between the 27th and the 31st because it is bad luck to bring old things into the new year. But that is another story for another blog post.

So, Fröhliche Weihnachten or Merry Christmas!


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