Christmas is especially beautiful and atmospheric when the days get shorter and on long, dark evenings candlelight falls from illuminated windows on thickly snow-covered streets. This gives Christmas a special, Nordic feel, and in fact many beautiful customs that are also appreciated in Germany come from the far north.
Where does Santa Claus come from?
Christmas includes the Christmas tree, the presents, Santa Claus – undoubtedly all elements that have nothing to do with the manger in Bethlehem. But where do they come from? Santa Claus or St. Nicholas is derived from the figure of the actual bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, St. Nicholas. Already during his lifetime legends began to grow around the saint, who is also considered the patron saint of children. The name feast of the saint was already celebrated relatively early in the Catholic church and was already early the cause for the "Christmas" Bescherung, which later, driven by the rejection of the saint cult in the Protestant churches, was shifted to Christmas.
The fact that Santa Claus brings presents possibly goes back to much older customs – namely the festivities of today’s All Saints’ Day, when according to Celtic belief the door between the worlds was open. Sacrifices were made to the gods and the table was laid for the deceased, but gifts were also given to the living. The Icelandic Christmas trolls and the All Saints’ Day "Bescherung" that used to be common in Italy are likely remnants of these customs. The fir tree and the many candles are also taken from pre-Christian and non-Christian ideas, and symbolize the permanence of life through the evergreen of the fir tree and the return of light after the shortest day of the year.
Christmas in the far north: Where pagan and Christian customs meet
In the Scandinavian countries, white Christmas is quite common, and many interesting Christmas traditions originate from here. Since in Sweden, Finland, Norway or Iceland the days in winter are short to barely noticeable, the desire for more light plays an important role in the festivities. In Sweden, Christmas is celebrated on 13. December the feast of St. Lucia – with a procession held throughout the country and in every settlement. The actress of Lucia, dressed in white, wears on her head a hoop with lighted candles and with her walk she brings light into the darkness.
In Finland, you don’t have a Queen of Lights, but you do have Santa’s official residence, in Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle. Here, hardworking helpers answer the mail that reaches St. Nicholas from all over the world, and rejoice in the importance of the small town.
Norwegians help themselves to their neighbors’ Christmas traditions and create their own, such as the ever-expanding miniature city of gingerbread houses in Bergen, which is now the world’s largest crunchy settlement and open for tours. Together with the Swedes, Danes and Finns, they have other specialties, such as the Jule-Bock, a total work of art made of straw in the shape of an animal, which is supposed to keep the fertility of the earth alive during the darkest time of the year.
Trolls instead of Knecht Ruprecht exist in Iceland, and they move from house to house like in the round on Halloween. That seems familiar – less familiar is the Icelandic Christmas roast, namely Gammel ray. The meat of the seafood, which is highly enriched with urea, must be heavily seasoned and then cooked down almost to the consistency of jelly. Whoever is invited by Icelanders must therefore have a robust constitution!
Christmas on the German North Sea coast
Also on the coast and on the Frisian islands special Christmas traditions have been preserved, which still show the references to Scandinavia – the Christmas feast formerly called Jul or Juul is the occasion to put up the Juulbuum, not a green fir tree, but a vertical wooden pole with horizontal crossbars, which is decorated with Christmas elements. And moving from house to house in disguise also takes place, but only before New Year’s Eve and assigned different names on the islands. Bribing hooded visitors with candy spares typical mocking songs used to charge miserly people. And like everywhere in the north, people on the North Sea coast appreciate the contemplation of the holiday in the beautifully decorated home, when outside a rough North Sea storm is blowing.
On duty as a lighthouse keeper at Christmas
As you can guess, there is no or partial time off for some professions at Christmas as well. Doctors, nursing professions, policemen and rescue workers, but lighthouse keepers do not take time off. For lighthouse keepers, the job entailed a great deal of responsibility for the safety of mariners, who had to be able to reliably find their way to port through the beacons, even over the holidays. That meant lonely days for the crew in the lighthouse when others were celebrating.
In the Roter Sand lighthouse, located far out in the outer Weser, the three lighthouse keepers were exposed to the waves, the wind and the darkness in the middle of the sea, and still performed their duties reliably for a long time – sometimes for weeks without contact with the outside world in rough seas.
Christmas in Germany – Merry Christmas 2021 to our readers
In Germany, this Christmas will certainly not be quite as we were used to before the Corona pandemic. In view of the working conditions of the crew in the Red Sand Lighthouse, however, occasional restrictions are still bearable, especially since we can keep in touch with our loved ones by various technological means – something that was unthinkable in the past. Therefore, we wish all our readers a merry Christmas, especially good health, and the certainty that the light will soon return, also in a figurative sense!