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German Christmas Traditions

December 4, 2011
By Serra Muscatello - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - Some of the old-fashioned German Christmas traditions can warm your heart and make you feel happiness and holiday cheer whether you are two years old or 102.

Life-long New Ulm resident and owner of Domeier's German Store Marlene Domeier enjoys passing along the long-standing German Christmas traditions with others through her weekly radio program on KNUJ Radio 860 AM. She has been doing the radio program for 28 years.

When Domeier, who is of German ancestry, was growing up, the Christmas holiday was a big deal to her family.

Article Photos

Marlene Domeier, owner of Domeier’s German store in New Ulm, stands next to a Christmas Tree in her store.

"My mother was big on Christmas," said Domeier, "She baked cookies. Her favorite was icebox cookies."

Domeier's German Store has been owned by the Domeier family since 1934.

"My dad was a musician and he traveled a lot," said Domeier, "My mother had three children, and then in 1932 the youngest one died. It was just devastating."

Agatha Domeier, her mother, had been raised in a general store in Klossner.

The New Ulm store was started by Marlene's father in 1934 to help Agatha deal with the death of their youngest child.

Marlene was born after the store was opened.

"We couldn't put the (Christmas) tree up until two days before Christmas," said Domeier.

Every year the family would set up Agatha's Christmas village (this was pre-Department 56).

"Here we use cotton for snow in Germany they use moss," said Domeier.

Agatha lived to be almost 102.

The store, which originally was a neighborhood grocery store on South Minnesota Street, has become a marketplace for German imported goods.

Germany's Christmas Markets

"Advent is the start of the Christmas season," Domeier said.

Outdoor Christmas markets are usually held in the town's square in the major cities of Germany. The markets open around the time of the American Thanksgiving holiday and operate until Dec. 23

"Even at the Frankfurt airport they have one (a market), " said Domeier.

Christmas markets are not held in New Ulm and Minnesota due to the colder climate here, Domeier said.

At the Christmas markets Gluehwein (in German literally means "glowing wine") is served in mugs along with Lebkuchen (a spiced cookie) and Stollen (a German Christmas sweet bread with fruits and nuts covered with powdered sugar). Fat pretzels and hot soups are also served to visitors.

Rides are given to the children, and choirs are singing to entertain folks.

The Advent Season and the Advent Wreath

Traditionally in the homes in Germany, an Advent wreath was very important to the family. The wreath was usually homemade from fresh evergreens. It was made at the beginning of the Advent, which consists of the four weeks before the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth on Christmas Eve and Day.

"They would suspend it with wide, red ribbons from the chandelier above the kitchen table or they would set it on the table. It would have four big, red candles," said Domeier.

On the first Sunday of Advent the first candle would be lit. The second Sunday, two candles would be lit. The third and finally the fourth would be lit.

"They would do this (light the candles) at three o' clock in the afternoon every Sunday, and they'd have coffee and some Lebkuchen and Stollen, " said Domeier.

An Advent calendar is often used during the season. For each day of Advent a little window with glittered pictures or Bible verses could be opened and enjoyed. Nowadays, little pieces of chocolate can be found behind the windows.

"Once you've made the mistake of buying a child a chocolate one a paper one will never do," said Domeier, "It's a way of teaching the children the countdown to Christmas."

The chocolate Advent calendars are "big sellers" in her store, she said.

Stollen, a popular Christmas bread

The Stollen, or Christmas sweet bread, originated in Dresden, Germany.

Striezelmarkt, which is a festival at Christmas time in Dresden, Germany, dates back to 1435.

"The highlight (of the festival) is a gigantic Stollen that weighs 3,000 kilograms that's a weight of 6,600 pounds," said Domeier, "This bread is cut with a 5 1/2-foot long knife that alone weighs 27 pounds. The mayor of Dresden samples the first cut of the Stollen. The ceremony is not unlike the sampling of the first keg of beer or wine at other German festivals."

Another popular Christmas treat is "marzipan" candy (with ground almonds and a small amount of sugar forms a paste and usually covered with chocolate).

Nikolaus Day-

celebrated Dec. 6

"Nikolaustag" is the highlight of the Advent, said Domeier. Originally, German children left hay and straw for St. Nikolaus' horses, but now they simply put a shoe or a boot outside their bedroom door, window or by the fireplace.

"The boots are cleaned and polished in the hope to find it full of sweets, biscuits, nuts and fruit the next morning," said Domeier.

In appearance St. Nick is similar to Father Christmas. He is dressed in a long, red coat, has a white beard, wears boots and carries a sack. He often held a mitre to represent the bishop that he was or he would carry a stick. Sometimes he carries a "book of sins" in which individual children's misdeeds were recorded because he not only comes to reward good children but also technically to punish those children who have been naughty, Domeier said.

"Badly behaved children expect to find a stick in their boots," said Domeier.

He usually has a side-kick called "Knecht Ruprecht" with him whose job is to give the punishment to the children where the punishment is due.

German children write letters to the Christkind (who brings gifts at Christmas). There are several places in Germany where they can send letters to the Christkind.

The Christmas Tree

The custom of putting up a decorated, illuminated Christmas tree dates back to the 16th century Germany. Small fir trees were adorned with apples, nuts and paper flowers on Dec. 24. The legend is that church reformist Martin Luther was the first one to put candles on his Christmas tree.

"A lot of people have special silver clips that they clip on a fresh tree and they burn candles," said Domeier, "The secret is that tree isn't put up until Christmas Eve so it is really fresh. They sit and watch the candles burn they don't have the candles burn for hours."

Germans would also sometimes put sparklers on their trees.

Christmas Eve Bus Tours of Cemeteries in Germany

The cemeteries in Germany often have a wall around them, Domeier said.

In some of the bigger cities in Germany they have bus tours to visit cemeteries and to the graves of their loved ones.

"The graves are decorated sometimes with a Christmas tree or lighted candles. It's just beautiful," said Domeier.

Christmas Eve and the Christmas period

The Christmas period celebrating Jesus Christ's birth is celebrated Dec. 24 through Jan. 6 in Germany.

"During that two-week period not much is done," said Domeier, "A lot of factories and offices actually close up during that period because they are enjoying the Christmas season. They are visiting friends, (family) and enjoying their decorations."

Trees were not taken down until Jan. 6 (or the Feast of Epiphany). Children looked forward to eating the chocolates on the tree.

On Dec. 24 the Christkind brings gifts, on Dec. 25 dinner is served and on Dec. 26 people go out visiting their families.

"Customs in northern Germany are often different than in southern Germany," said Domeier.

Domeier's German Store is located at 1020 S. Minnesota St. in New Ulm. The store is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays. Visitors should call for specific hours.

Bernice Morris, Domeier's sister, and Anne Morris, her niece, assist her in the store.

Domeier's KNUJ Radio 860 AM program is called "Music From Germany with Marlene Domeier." It can heard at 4:08 p.m. on Sunday afternoons.



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