Update: I also love this post about the Elf on the Shelf! It really made me laugh (like almost everything she writes!).
But as I thought about the Elf thing this morning I was wondering what you know about our Christmas traditions? Maybe you are interested to know so I will tell you a bit about it.
The time before Christmas is called Advent. It starts on the fourth Sunday before December 24. I would say that almost every household has a traditional Advent wreath or something more modern including four candles and some winter decoration like small Christmas tree balls, pine branches, small pine cones, and stuff like that. We light the first candle on the fourth Sunday, then the first and the second on the third Sunday before Christmas etc. Generally speaking, the Advent wreath symbolises the increase of light as an expression of the rising expectation of the birth of Jesus.
In most families with small children it is a tradition to bake a variety of home-made Christmas cookies together with the kids. These are special cookies only baked for the Advent and Christmas time and many families use recipes that have been handed down from one generation to the other. They are beautifully adorned and some are really small works of art.
We love our Christmas markets! The booths are enchantingly decorated and you can buy anything there: gloves, handmade socks, hats, tableware, candles, Christmas decorations, belts, and a lot of yummy things to eat ... One of the most important things there is to enjoy some hot spiced wine (Glühwein) and a bratwurst (at least that is our MUST when we visit the Christmas markets!).
We celebrate St. Nicholas on December 6. He comes to your house the night before if you want him to (you can rent one for your kids) together with Knecht Ruprecht. St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht are a bit like the good and the bad cop. Knecht Ruprecht is the "servant" of St. Nicholas. He carries a rood with him which is meant as a threat to punish badly behaved children (but, of course, he does not punish anyone!) and also a bag with the presents. St. Nicholas summarises the good and bad things the kids did in the course of the year (he reads all of these things from a golden book) and gives them some small presents, nuts, and tangerines.
The Christmas tree usually is set up on December 24, not before. The kids have to stay outside of the room where the Christmas tree is put up. The parents decorate the tree and put the presents under it (all the while trying not to be discovered by the kids!). When they are finished a small bell is rung which means that the Christ Child was there and brought some presents. This is when the child is allowed to enter the room, see the beautifully adorned and lit tree and the presents. We do not have stockings for the presents. We wrap them up in wrapping paper and put them under the tree.
Historically, we celebrate the Christ Child on the evening of December 24 (it is the one bringing the presents) but it becomes more and more common to celebrate Santa instead. Unfortunately, we like to adopt a lot of traditions from the US (obviously we like you guys very much ;-) ) which is something I am not too excited about. My opinion is that we have our own culture and traditions and should not forget about them. A lot of families visit church for Christmas masses in the early evening or late at night. December 25 and 26 are national holidays most commonly spent with family, enjoying good food and each other's company.
If you want to know more about our traditions or if you have questions please let me know in the comments. I hope that wasn't boring! :-)