What do the Germans eat for Christmas?

German Christmas goose and a dumpling
Traditional German Christmas goose | Image credit: Ginger & Bread

I may be married to a German, and I may have spent nearly eight years living in the country in which he was born and raised, but I’m rather sad to say I’ve never been treated to a proper home-cooked German Christmas dinner.

Before we had children, we’d spend our Christmas Eves in Mainz, celebrating with my husband’s family, and then fly to London the next day to eat turkey with mine.  But even though for the first time we’re staying in Germany for the whole Christmas lineup this year, I still won’t be getting a taste of a traditional German Christmas meal.  My father-in-law finds duck and goose too fatty, and my mother-in-law finds turkey too dry, so every year, my husband and his sisters cook something entirely different – goulash, perhaps, or venison – and the traditional German culinary customs are all evident elsewhere (see: an endless supply of Lebkuchen).  So, as the nights get darker and colder and the scent of Glühwein fills the air, I can’t help but wonder about what other Germans up and down the country will be dishing up for Christmas.

Christmas turkey wrapped in bacon
My bacon-wrapped English Christmas turkey in London

A German Christmas Eve

It’s always seemed to me as if the Germans really celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve (24 December), when – at my in-law’s, at least – the ceremonial erection of the Christmas tree takes place, along with its chaotic festooning with ribbons, wooden ornaments and proper burning candles (don’t me started).  It is following the decorating of the tree, at my husband’s family home, that Christmas gifts are exchanged, in the warm light of the candles and a great, roaring log fire, with platters of Advent cookies before us, and a large glass of wine to hand.

Since good Catholic Germans were traditionally expected to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (and many of course still do), the traditional evening meal that day was a light, meatless dinner, often with fish as the main dish.  This culinary tradition continues today in many families, even if no church going is involved, with carp, salmon or hake often taking centre stage at the table, accompanied by fried potatoes or Kartoffelpuffer (potato fritters) and Sauerkraut.  However, meat has worked its way back onto the menu in many households, perhaps as chunks of beef to dip into a cheese fondu, or – more commonly – sausages served with potato salad.

German potato salad in a bowl
A German potato salad for Christmas Eve

A German Christmas Day breakfast

The benefit of a light(ish) supper on Christmas Eve is, of course, apart from being able to stay awake through Mass, that you can cram more food in the next day.  And in terms of a traditional Christmas Day dinner in Germany, there’s an awful lot of it to get through.

To start with, there’s the relatively low key breakfast and/or lunch, the content of which varies from region to region.  You’ll find cold meats and cheeses on the breakfast table all over Germany, but there are all manner of regional variations to the meal such as the festive breads that might appear alongside them, and in the north you’ll almost certainly be offered fish.  At my in-laws in Rheinland-Pfalz, breakfast’s a late and lengthy affair featuring boiled eggs, bread rolls, cold cuts and chunks of cheese with cornichons and a collection of jams and chutneys.  Throughout the day, there’ll be a plate of spiced biscuits and squidgy-centred Lebkuchen on hand to pick at; and a slice of Stollen for afternoon tea.

A bird for Christmas lunch

Quartered oranges, herbs on a chopping board and a whole raw duck in a roasting tin
A duck prepped for roasting

Despite all the edible goodies around on Christmas Day in Germany, you’ll do well to save a little space for dinner.  At the centre of a German Christmas evening spread you’ll usually find a roasted goose, turkey or duck, traditionally served with lovely plump bread dumplings – the classic round ones, or one great big festive loaf-shaped one, known as a Serviettenknödel (pictured sliced, above), plus braised red cabbage or stewed kale.  To go with all this very rich food, you’ll most likely need a glass of good wine: a Riesling or Gewürztraminer would probably work best.

If you’re considering cooking a traditional German Christmas dinner, Ginger & Bread has shared a wonderful recipe for Serviettenknödel on her blog (just for us!) and you can find a fabulous roast goose recipe on her site as well.  The dumpling recipe is vegetarian, and Ginger has also included considerations for those who need their Christmas dinner to be gluten free.  Have a root around Ginger’s site and amongst plenty of very Christmassy sweet German treats, you’ll also find a recipe for braised red cabbage to go with your goose and dumplings.

Room for dessert?

If you’ve any space for pudding, a classic post-goose sweet might involve festive flavours such as cinnamon, apple or orange, but there’s no one singular classic German Christmas dessert (which may come as a relief after a long day of feasting).  I think I’d remove myself slowly from the table, recline in front of a crackling fire and tuck into a tangerine or two.  I might even consume a small herby German digestif – but after several winters in Germany, I can only advise that you approach that sort of thing with extreme caution!

Lots of tangerines from above

What are your favourite Christmas traditions?  Are there any German ones in there?

22 Comments

  • Thanks for the glimpse at the Christmas table in Germany! My mom is Italian (born in the U.S. though), and Christmas is the one time all year that she goes to the trouble of making lasagna, which she serves alongside meatballs and sausages cooked in more of the tomato gravy. I’m with you on the digestif, though. I rarely have much room left for the obligatory slice of chocolate pecan pie or Christmas cookies, so a shot of Ratzeputz (not sure of the spelling there) would probably help, if I could get it here!

  • Every Christmas Eve we have what my mother has made my whole life. We start the meal with fish and loaf of bread to remember Christ. This is all served as courses.
    Then schintzel, German potatoes salad then German weiner served with German beer. My mother was from Sudetenland and moved to munich during the war: she is going to be 89. I have been making it now for 25 years. I have told my daughters to keep there Oma’s Christmas tradition. We have home made German sweets too.

  • It all Depends in what region in Germany you live in, as far as what is served as a Christmas Dinner. Christmas presents are from my experience under the tree what Americans call Christmas Eve, the 24th. They were never wrapped as in the USA but put under the tree which was usually a smaller tree on top of a table.
    We had Wieners and potato salad on the 24th for Dinner and a goose on the 25th.
    That was at my Grandmothers home where I lived in Sachsen (DDR) back in the 50’s. My Grandmothers was originally from Kaiserslautern and my Grandmothers was from Sachsen.

    • This is exactly what my husband considers to be the classic Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals 🙂 He was born in Koblenz and grew up in Franken and then Mainz. We are trying to share our British and German traditions this year, as it’s the first year we are celebrating without our families, and he refuses to compromise on the Christmas Eve Wienerwürstchen! 🙂

  • I really enjoyed this post, Christie. Thank you! Made me homesick for all my family friends and relatives in Germany. I’ve only been able to experience the traditional Christmas goose once or twice, as it’s not as much of a thing with our circle either. Christmas Eve dinner, however, is always a fish with a butter sauce and boiled potatoes (Pellkartoffeln), per my Oma’s recipe.

    You made me chuckle about the real candles. My Dad and husband, both of whom are American, are always super nervous about this the few times we’ve done it. My Mother and I don’t see it as a problem because it’s not like we leave them lit for an extended period of time, nor do we really leave them unattended. 😉

    • Thank you, I am so glad you enjoyed it! I think fish and butter sauce sounds perfect for Christmas Eve: this year my husband and I are merging our British/German traditions for the first time and I’m trying to crowbar fish in on Christmas Eve, too, but he just keeps on talking about Wienerwürstchen and potato salad! 😉 And I’m afraid that with steadily increasing numbers of toddlers around the Dietz family Christmas tree, the candles terrify me more and more each year! ?

  • I am German and our Christmas dinner was always Sauerbraten with Potato dumplings and Red Cabbage and I still cook this every year

  • I’m afraid Christmas needs to have some sort of roast turkey for me. I’m not interested in the whole bird as I prefer to buy a boneless breast roll (though in Germany I’ve got to do the rolling and binding part myself!). I’ve never found it to be a dry meat and completely love it – though the best part is ALWAYS the left overs. You’ll find me at midnight with my hands around a roast turkey, stuffing, red cabbage and butter laden sandwich. Served slightly warm, of course. 😉

    • As I clicked “approve” on this comment, I was also thinking, “approve” 😂 I don’t find turkey dry either – my mother-in-law has just never had mine or my mum’s 😉 I wouldn’t have a clue how to roll and bind a turkey breast, good on you. I just make sure one lot of stuffing (under the skin) has sausage in, and there’s plenty of bacon on the top. Overdid it on both counts the first year I took over from my mum and it exploded in the oven. Came out looking like it had been ripped apart by a zombie. Happy Christmas! 😂

        • Exploding turkey! Oh my. I hope it still tasted good, despite the horror show worthy appearance. 😀 I’m sure with that much sausage and bacon you wouldn’t go far wrong though. I don’t dare do anything of the sort here – the bacon is far far too salty and the sausages are the wrong type. I’m sure if I was so inclined I could make my own ‘sausage stuffing’ but honestly, I’m just not going to bother for two people. (Sorry, I use Paxo!) And it’s actually pretty easy to bind a turkey breast… it just feels a little bit “50 Shades of Christmas Dinner”. 😀 😀

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