Altarpiece of the Porters Followship of St. Gertrude. C. 1509: Circle of Hening van der Heide. Lübeck. © Medieval Histories

Late Medieval Christmas was a German Invention

In Late Medieval Germany, Christmas turned into a family event. How did this come about and why?

Luthersche-Weyhnacht. Cover of CD 2016
Luthersche Weyhnacht. CD 2016

Up until the 15th century, celebrations and festivities connected with Christmas had been spread out; much like they are today with Thanksgiving, Advent, St. Nicolaus, St. Lucia etc. Christmas seems to have become a gradual synonym for a longer period in midwinter. In fact, however, this seems much like a return to the state of affairs before the 14th and especially 15th centuries.

What happened was that during the 15th century, focus was increasingly on the burgher’s household and the family as opposed to the guilds, villages and noble households, which were the former arenas for the “good life”. A crucial player in this change was the German reformer, Martin Luther, who sought to reform not only the theology, the liturgy and the church, but also the practicalities of living a good life. In this endeavour he sacralised the life at home, with family and children and set this apart from the former idealization of life in religious institutions like monasteries, convents, friaries etc.

To accomplish this, he became in his later life fascinated with working through Genesis, on which he lectured for more than ten years. Through these lectures, he opened up the world of “the good family” through the focus on the fate of Adam and Eve, the joy of Abraham and Sarah late in life etc. Through this intellectual work, Luther sought to define a distinctive holiness of Christian life inside the idealised family and the household. For Martin Luther it was crucial to establish the story of Genesis as opening up to what he considered the arena for the good and hallowed life, home and family.

In the beginning of the 1530s he began to engineer a number of changes in the celebration of Christmas to achieve this end. One element was fostering a renewed interest in the linkage between the late medieval tradition of enacting a Christmas play in the main square in town on the 24th of December, which was the official memorial day for Adam and Eve. Traditionally and as part of the festivities on the day leading up to Christmas on the 25th, many churches staged so-called Paradise-plays. In these, the story of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve took centre stage, serving as a pointer to the main event: the birth of Christ in the upcoming night night.

The earliest reference to a Paradise Play stems from Regensburg in 1194, while the oldest text has been dated to the early 14th century and from somewhere along the Rhine.

These plays were characterised by tracing the history of the human world from its earliest beginning – the creation, fall and expulsion – across the early lives of the prophets reaching the main event the nativity and the epiphany. After the reformation took hold – typically first among townspeople – these plays gained a special symbolic value as leading up to the celebration of the nativity in the family. It is probably significant that the great dramatist, Hans Sachs in Nürnberg, wrote a new version, called the “Empfängnis und Geburt Christi” as well as a number of new Christmas Carols or hymns. Hans Sachs was a professed Lutheran and a known Meistersänger.

At the same time, Luther actively worked to abolish the tradition of celebrating the feast of St. Nicolas on the 6th of December. Tradition was to hand out gifts to children, who were suffering from pangs of hunger during Advent, a period of fasting. Now, with fasting abolished, he collapsed the traditions of St. Nicolaus with those of Christmas by moving the tradition of gift-giving to Christmas night (1531) and by spreading the idea that the gifts came from the Christ-child (Christkind). As part of the celebrations, he also wrote a special childrens’ song, From heaven above to earth I come, to bear good news to every home… (Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her,. Ich bring euch gute neue Mär).

In a general sense, the post-reformation focus on the family and the home (hearth and home) created a new world, where the main event took place in the extended household and no longer in the city square. It also moved focus from the celebrations on Christmas day, to the festivities on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas Tree

Adam and Eve and the first Christmas Tree. Cranch the Elder 1526. Source: Wikipediaing people for erecting Christmas trees in their homes and hang them with figures and sugar. At this point, the Christmas tree seemed to have moved into the heart of the German bourgeois home.
Adam and Eve and the first Christmas Tree. Cranach the Elder 1526. Source: Wikipedia

Little by little, the privatisation of festivities also set its mark on public festivities. Gradually, the paradise-plays were no longer staged in the public; instead, 16th century guilds organised the festivities inside their guildhalls.

One result was that the traditional paradise trees moved indoors. Part of the late-medieval decoration when staging these plays outside had been ever-green trees hung with red apples and set up in the main square in the city in front of the church. Such trees have been documented from the second half of the 15th century from Riga and Tallinn in northeast Livonia to Alsace in the west.

Now they were moved into the guild-halls. In 1579 we read in a chronicle from Bremen how a small tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the children of the guild members. On Christmas day a party was thrown and the small ones were allowed to enjoy the fruit, the candy and the decorations. Likewise is known from Strasburg from 1605 and elsewhere. A little later – in 1642 – we hear a moralist from Alsace criticising people for erecting Christmas trees in their homes and hang them with figures and sugar. At this point, the Christmas tree seemed to have moved into the heart of the German bourgeois home.

This indicates that that the first Christmas trees were the trees of paradise and not – as is occasionally claimed – evolved from the tradition of hanging greenery up to decorate the home as part of the pre-Christian celebrations of solstice.

The Christmas tree is thus a medieval German tradition known from the end of the 15th century. Originally part of the public celebration it became a private tradition in the 16th century. Whether or not, Martin Luther ever had a tree in his house is unknown. But in the 19th century, when Christmas became the symbol par excellence of domestic bliss, this myth was spread. It even entered the Anglo-Saxon world, when it was imported to England by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Christmas for Children

Claus Schack making- dolls and figures 1558 Nuremberg. Source: Wikipedia
Claus Schack making- dolls and figures 1558 Nuremberg. Source: Wikipedia

While New Year continues to be the main event in Western Europe and in the Romance speaking countries – with the celebration of St. Nicolas on the 6th of December as Dutch variant – the German tradition, which was inspired by Luther developed in the 16th century to give presents to children on Christmas day. Thus, in 1565, we learn that the Duchess of Sachsen writes to the “nanny” to organise the following items for her young children: wooden toys figuring “small English dogs” (toy spaniels), knights, horses, and all sorts of arms, such “as are usually cut”. Some years later, she tells her lady of the Bedchamber to have the ladies in waiting sew clothes for puppets in the “Meissnisch” way, that is in the manner of dressing in Meissen, with “small, pleated gowns in damask and silk satin”, which can be taken on and off, and two dresses in all: one fine and another for ordinary wear. In 1573 the duchess paid for a doll kitchen complete with pots and pans in brass, copper, sheet, iron and tin “including all sorts of confect and food made out of sugar”. One of the small princes got 75 animals made from wood – horses, dogs, and deer, all painted and dressed (probably fitted with saddles and harnesses).

Medieval Christmas Markets

Mother and Child visiting a stall at the Christmas Market
Mother and Child visiting a stall at the Christmas Market. This print was originally published on page 29 of Jacob Cats’ “Spiegel vanden Ouden ende Nieuwe Tijd”, which is illustrated with proverbs by Adriaen van de Venne
© The Trustees of the British Museum

It is obvious Anna of Sachsen (1544 -1577) was paying large sums for playthings for her children. Nevertheless, she was not unique in this. From around the same time, we know that the large Christmas markets had stalls offering wooden figures of the same type for sale. However, the tradition was older.

Although most of the larger markets – Bautzen, Frankfurt, Dresden, Augsburg and Nuremberg are first mentioned in the late 14th and 15th century, the earliest mention of a dedicated seems to be Munich in 1310. From here, it appears the tradition moved west into Alsace, Lorraine and Savoy together with the tradition of erecting a Christmas tree in the main market square in the city.

It is around this time – c. 1400 – that Nuremberg lists two doll-makers. Later, in the 16th century, Nuremberg became of the large centres for making toys. This is a position it still retains. Today Nuremberg is home to the world’s largest toy trade-exhibition as well as companies carrying the medieval tradition ahead.

Significantly, such markets are known today as Christkindlmarkts, thus tipping their hat to Martin Luther. It is only in a few places the older names have been preserved , such as in Dresden, where it is called the “Striezelmarkt” (celebrated since 1427). The word Striezel refer to the special cake, the Christstollen. Originally an unpleasant type of bread baked of flour, water, yeast and oil, the Dukes of Saxony obtained a special permit to bake and sell in the market a version made with butter, for which the customer had to pay and extra butter-tax to the church! Hence, the Striezel-Markt. Today the original Chrisstollen is a rich bread-cake which has received the EU quality label and known internationally as the Dresden Stollen.

SOURCES:

Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity
By John A. Maxfield
Truman State University Press 2008

 

 

 

 

Das Weihnachtsfest. Eine Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Weihnachtszeit
By Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann
Bucher C.J. 1993

 

 

 
Das Buch der Weihnachtslieder: 151 deutsche Advents- und Weihnachtslieder – Kulturgeschichte, Noten, Texte, Bilder. Gesang und Klavier (Orgel); Gitarre ad lib.. Liederbuch.
By Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann and Hilger Schallehn
Schott 1985

 

 

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Altarpiece of the Porters Followship of St. Gertrude. C. 1509: Circle of Hening van der Heide. Lübeck. © Medieval Histories

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