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I may be married to a German, and I may have made Germany my permanent home, but I’m rather sad to say that unless I do it myself (edit: which I now have!) it’s unlikely I’ll ever be treated to a proper, traditional, home-cooked German Christmas meal.
Before my husband and I had children, we’d spend our Christmas Eves in Mainz, celebrating with his family, and then flying to London the next day to eat a traditional English turkey with mine. But even though we now celebrate full alternative Christmasses in Germany, I still won’t get 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 take turns to cook something entirely different – goulash, perhaps, or roasted venison – and the traditional German culinary customs are all evident elsewhere instead (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 what other Germans up and down the country will be dishing up for Christmas. (Scroll to the end for a short list of the books I like to flick through for inspiration.)
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.
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
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!
If you’re after more ideas for cooking German food at Christmas, you’ll find plenty in these – some of my favourite German cookbooks in English:
Alfons Schuhbeck’s The German Cookbook (Phaidon, 2018): both a beautiful tome and a comprehensive collection of recipes from all around the country.
Luisa Weiss’s gorgeous Classic German Baking (Ten Speed Press, 2016) features a huge range of traditional German recipes for bakes both sweet and savoury, and there’s a lovely selection of Advent cookies, festive fruit breads and cakes for Christmas, too. (Read my full review.)
A solid collection of German dishes just like Oma used to make, Grandma’s German Cookbook (DK, 2012) is a cookbook for those nostalgic about traditional German food. Some great wintery recipes for cold, dark nights.
Culinaria Germany (HF Ullmann, 2015) is an excellent, practical resource for those after a wider understanding of German food. In addition to a comprehensive collection of recipes, there’s lots to read about Germany’s regional cuisines, traditions and histories.
Anja Dunk’s second cookbook, Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings (Fourth Estate, 2018) is a love letter to her German heritage (Anja’s mother is German) and a celebration of simple, wholesome, family-friendly home cooking. Not every recipe is a classic German one, but this modern yet homely take on German food is full of warmth, and the book is as lovely to read as it is to cook from.