I may be married to a German, and I may have spent several 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. I usually spend Christmas Eve in Mainz, with my husband’s family, and go to London to celebrate with mine on Christmas Day. But even if I stayed in Germany for 25 December, I’m afraid I’d never get a taste of a traditional Christmas meal: my father-in-law finds goose too fatty; and my mother-in-law finds turkey too dry. Instead, every year, my husband and his sisters cook something completely different, and the Christmas traditions all lie elsewhere. 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.
It’s always seemed to me as if the Germans really celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, 24th December, when (at my in-law’s, at least) the ceremonial business of tree erection occurs, along with its festive festooning with ribbons, wooden ornaments and proper, burning candles (don’t me started on health and safety). It’s 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 plate of Lebkuchen 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 still do, of course), the traditional evening meal that day was a light, meatless dinner, often with fish as the centrepiece. These days, this culinary tradition continues in many families, even if no church going is involved, with carp, salmon or hake often taking centre stage at the table, accompanied perhaps by fried potatoes or Kartoffelpuffer (potato fritters) and Sauerkraut. Meat has worked its way back onto the menu in many households however, perhaps as chunks of beef to dip into a cheese fondu, or – more commonly – sausages served with a classic potato salad.
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 food to get through. 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, festive breads that might appear along with them, and in the north you’ll almost certainly also be offered fish. At my in-laws in Rheinland-Pfalz, breakfast’s a very late and lengthy affair made up of boiled eggs, bread rolls, cold cuts and chunks of cheese with pickled gherkins and a collection of jams and chutneys. Throughout the day, there’ll probably be a plate of spiced biscuits and squidgy-centred Lebkuchen around to pick at; and a slice of Stollen for afternoon tea.
But you’ll need 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 above), plus braised red cabbage or stewed kale. To go with all this very rich food, you’ll almost certainly need a glass of good wine, if you’re that way inclined: a Riesling or Gewürztraminer would probably work best.
If you’re considering cooking a traditional German Christmas dinner this year, my German food friend Ginger from Ginger & Bread has shared a wonderful recipe for Serviettenknödel on her blog – just for us! – and you can also 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 serve with your goose and dumplings.
If you’ve any space for pudding, a classic post-goose dessert 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 years spent in Germany, I can only recommend you approach that sort of thing with care!
What are your favourite Christmas traditions? And which German Christmas treats do you enjoy most?