The Meaning of Christmas in Germany

December 21, 2016

We decided to stay in Germany for Christmas last year, and—in light of establishing new habits for the festive season—someone told me about a tradition that takes place in the main train station every Christmas Eve. So, I thought I would be going to a brass band concert at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve at the main train station in Hannover, Germany, to bring in Christmas Day. As I made my way to the main hall of the Hauptbanhof, I was impressed by the thousands of people gathered together, a wide array of Hannoverians compressed together on the main floor, peering down from the balconies to listen to the music of the season.

As the music began, I was impressed that people sang along to the melodies being played. In northern Germany, people tend to be a bit reserved (although I find that to be a misnomer, especially while watching football matches). Some of the songs I recognized as tunes to hymns I was familiar with. As the evening progressed, I was surprised with the first moments of quiet. When people bowed their heads, I realized they were praying! And of course this became much more apparent when everyone started reciting the Lord’s Prayer together. Much to my surprise, a few moments after that, someone stood in front of the brass band to give a short message of Christmas hope. This wasn’t simply a Christmas concert, but a worship service!

Not only because of my misunderstanding of the format, but also because of my impression of Christianity in Germany, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed that the city of Hannover would allow a worship service of this type to take place in the main train station on Christmas Eve. Understandably so, German Christians and the church have been wary of anything that might seem like overly vocal or zealous evangelism. Because the church of Germany was so largely complicit in the Nazi regime, they have been very careful to proclaim the Good News in a reserved fashion since the end of World War II. But there is a beautiful history I discovered about this brass band worship service held in the Hauptbanhof of Hannover that made the service more poignant for me afterwards.

Starting in the 1950s when German prisoners of war were released by the Soviet Union, they were met at the train station of Hannover by a brass band playing Christmas carols. Hannover was the first large main train station in the West, and so it became the hub for reunions of many friends and families of prisoners. Because prisoners were often released close to Christmas, it became the habit over a number of years to meet released prisoners with a brass band playing these joyful Christmas songs. I can imagine the joy as families and friends and citizens would greet these men coming off the trains from the east. This post-war event has now become tradition. Every year, Hannoverians gather in the train station to hear the music of the brass band and worship together, bringing in the sacred day of Christmas.

For me, the meaning of Christmas in Hannover, Germany, is a renewed embracing of the message and enthusiasm of Christianity. It is in this time of year that Germans take pride in and celebrate the season of Advent. Many of our Advent and Christmas traditions originate from Germany (the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath, Christmas biscuits, etc.)—simply investigate any travel book or article, and the author will commend the German Christmas markets as world-renowned. This season of recognizing and celebrating Christ’s birth is woven into the fabric of what it means to be German. I believe this gives us permission to announce that Good News with renewed vigor and authenticity each year.

I believe that in the coming decades, Christians of Germany will need to find their voice in creative new ways as they not only balance the historical memory of their complicity to the Nazi regime, but also attempt to integrate over a million refugees, a majority of whom are from a different religion. The meaning of Christmas in Germany, however, gives the church freedom to proclaim the miraculous story of Jesus once again—that Christ was born for all people, that outsiders from the East are welcomed to greet the newborn Savior, and that lowly shepherds can proclaim the Good News of great joy.

About the Author
  • Rev. Dr. Gretchen Schoon Tanis is the recent author of "Making Jesus Attractive: The Ministry and Message of Young Life." She is currently the pastor of the English language congregation of the Reformed Church in Hannover, Germany. She and her family are enjoying the adventure of language acquisition and lessons of cultural exchange.

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