According to legend, on Christmas Eve in Germany rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open up to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea. Of course, only the pure in heart can witness this Christmas magic. All others must content themselves with traditional German celebrating, of which there is plenty. As a matter of fact, there is so much celebrating that is has to begin on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day.
As in many other European countries, on the eve of Dec. 6th children place a shoe or boot by the fireplace. During the night, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, hops from house to house carrying a book of sins in which all of the misdeeds of the children are written. If they have been good, he fills the shoe or boot with delicious holiday edibles. If they have not been good, their shoe is filled with twigs.
December 21st, supposedly the shortest day (longest night) of the year, is dubbed St. Thomas Day. In parts of the Sauerland, whoever wakes up late or arrives late to work on that day is issued the title "Thomas Donkey." They are given a cardboard donkey and are the subject of numerous jokes throughout the day. But this gentle abuse ends deliciously with round, iced currant buns called "Thomasplitzchen."
This is all preliminary to the excitement of Christmas Eve. Prior to the evening feast, is the presentation of the tree. The Christmas tree, as we know it, originated in Germany. It has a mysterious magic for the young because they are not allowed to see it until Christmas Eve. While the children are occupied with another room (usually by Father) Mother brings out the Christmas tree and decorates it with apples, candy, nuts, cookies, cars, trains, angels, tinsel, family treasures and candles or lights. The presents are placed under the tree. Somewhere, close to the bright display are laid brilliantly decorated plates for each family member, loaded with fruits, nuts, marzipan, chocolate and biscuits. When all is ready a bell is rung as a signal for the children to enter this Christmas fantasy room. Carols are sung, sometimes sparklers are lit, the Christmas story is read and gifts are opened.
"Dickbauch" means "fat stomach" and is a name given to the Christmas Eve because of the tradition that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. So the opportunity is given to enjoy dishes such as suckling pig, "reisbrei" (a sweet cinnamon), white sausage, macaroni salad, and many regional dishes.
Christmas Day brings with it a banquet of plump roast goose, "Christstollen" (long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), "Lebkuchen" (spice bars), marzipan, and "Dresden Stollen" ( a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit).
Of Special Note...
The custom of trimming and lighting a Christmas tree had its origin in pre-Christian Germany, the tree symbolizing the Garden of Eden. It was called the "Paradise Baum," or tree of Paradise. Gradually, the custom of decorating the tree with cookies, fruit and eventually candles evolved. Other countries soon adapted the custom. Charles Dickens called it "The Pretty German Toy."
Reisbrei (Rice Porridge)
½ converted rice
1 quart milk
Pinch of salt
4 tbls. sugar
1 tbl. butter
¼ cup raisins, optional
Cook rice in milk with salt and butter, very slowly until kernels are tender but have not lost their shape. If you have patience, do this in the top of a double broiler. It will take 1 ½ to 2 hours but will be worth it. The mixture should be very thick and can be stirred several times during cooking. When done, flavor with sugar, cinnamon and add raisins--if you are using them. This may be served hot or cold.
Lebkuchen (Spice Bars)
2 cups honey
5 ½ cups flour
¾ cup grated unblanched almonds
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. powdered cloves
¾ cup mixed candied fruits (orange, lemon and citron peel)
½ tsp. baking powder
Egg White Icing (see recipe below)
Heat honey until thin; do not boil. Mix in all other ingredients except icing. Turn onto floured board and knead until smooth, adding a little flour if necessary. Roll with a floured rolling pin to ½" thickness. Grease and flour a baking sheet and lay rolled dough on it. Bake in pre-heated 350 degrees oven about 20 minutes. Spread with icing while hot; cool before cutting into rectangles.
Egg White Icing
2 egg whites
1 ¼ cups confectioner's sugar, shifted
1 tbl. lemon juice
Whip egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks. Add sugar and lemon and juice and continue beating until thick and glossy. Spread on cake or cookies with a spatula.