Monday, December 05, 2011

A Lothringen Christmas

Nativity Scene at the 2009 Christmas market in Metz, Lorraine, France
Photo by Josiane of  Lorraine

In today's world of rapid transportation, we would  consider eastern French Lorraine - which was known to my ancestors as Lothringen - a "stone throw" away from my Kreis Saarburg ancestors' villages.  It is not surprising, given the proximity to the French border, that some of the Christmas customs in Lothringen were much the same as those in Kreis Saarburg.

In a book by Josef Ollinger called "Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel, the author includes French Lorraine as a part of the above-named German regions, with Christmas customs that would have been very familiar to my Kreis Saarburg ancestors.  Since many of the traditions, whether from Lothringen or Kreis Saarburg, were unfamiliar to me, I thought it would be fun to share them for this post.

Christmas Preparations

The Midnight mass was the most important part of the Christmas time, and a true family celebration.  In the days before Christmas, in order to get ready for the Midnight mass, everyone in the family gathered together to practice the church hymns so that the singing would be especially beautiful on the holy night.

Christ Child baking Christmas cookies 
During Advent, the children kept an eye on the evening sky.  If there was a red sky when the sun set, they knew that the Christkind was busy baking Christmas cookies.

Willow and hazelnut switches were cut by the householder, if possible it was a midnight cutting which gave the branches the best defensive power.   They were bound together and meant to defend against trouble-making spirits who wanted to do evil on the night of the Christ Child's birth.

Christmas Eve

For Lothringen households, the hearth in the kitchen was the heart of the Christmas Eve celebration.  It was the time for the Christbrand, the Christmas fire.  The members of the family dressed in their Sunday/holiday best and spent Christmas eve in the kitchen, sitting close to the hearth.  Two men of the family brought the Obstbaumstamm, the fruit tree log, inside.  It had been cut in summer so that it would be thoroughly dry.  The log was laid on the hearth, and the mother and daughters of the family carefully wound ivy tendrils around the log.  After the log was decorated, the father said a blessing over the log. One end of the log was pushed firmly into the glowing embers, so that the log would burn down from that end to the other.

Modern children's book of Christmas carols
After these ritual ceremonies had been performed, everyone gathered around the hearth to eat Christmas Kuchen and drink hot mulled wine, the Glühwein.  Until it was time to leave the house for the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, the family sang familiar Christmas carols, "Ihr Kinderlein, kommet," "Es ist ein Rose entsprungen," "Morgen, Kinder, wird's was geben,""Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her," "Christkindelein, Christkindelein."

They also shared familiar Christmas stories.  In some areas of Lothringen, three stools were placed near the hearth so that, if the Holy Family should arrive, they would have a place to sit and warm themselves.  It was strongly forbidden to sit on the non-burning end of the log, which would surely lead to calamity in the future ( a matter of common sense as well as a superstition in my opinion).

The appearance in the hallway of the house of the Christ child with his silver wings was the high point of the Christmas Eve celebration for the young ones.  Dressed in white, the Christ Child walked into the Stube (good room) and asked each child to sing a Christmas song or say a prayer, admonished them to be good children, gave them some sweets - and disappeared.

In families where the Christkind did not appear in person, the children put their largest shoes around the edge of the hearth on Christmas Eve.  In the morning the shoes were filled with apples and nuts.


Before going to the Midnight Mass, the householder went out to wake his bees in their basket hives.  He said, in blessing, "the Savior has been born."  It was believed that the bees hummed/sang all during the time of the Midnight mass.  The householder also went to the stable to spread a thick layer of straw beneath the animals to protect them from predator's teeth and claws during the upcoming year.  Another legend said that at midnight, in honor of Christ's birth, the animals were given the gift of speech.

It was also believed that if someone wanted to learn who in the village would die within the next year, he or she must be in the cemetery when the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve.  Then the faces of those who would not live to see the next Christmas would appear.  If there was a face that could not be recognized, it meant that the person who stood in the cemetery would die that year.

The Midnight Mass was the holiest and most important experience of the Christmas religious experience.  In addition, because it was believed to bring good luck, some families attended all three Christmas masses to give them special blessings in the coming year.

Christmas Day

The house held a jug with the Barbara
Zweige which had been cut about Dec. 4. Usually these were cherry branches that had budded, the flowers meant to open by Christmas Eve. The cherry branches (Kirschzweig
) or other fruit tree cuttings were placed in water and kept in a warm room after they were cut. If all went well, on Christmas day the sprig displayed blossoms. If  the branch bloomed precisely on December 25th, it was regarded as a particularly good sign for the future.

December flowering cherry tree branches,
Wikipedia Commons 
After the Midnight Mass, there was a special "night meal" at which meat was a special part of the repast, a treat that was not very often a part of a meal, no matter what time of day or year.

Other Superstitions

After the Christmas Eve log had been completely burned, the fire was left to die out, since the ash and charcoal had gained a wonderful power of blesssing. The wife carefully saved what was left of the Christmas Eve fire.The charcoal would be placed under the bed of the man of the house and on the timberwork of the storeroom stall and of the stable.  This protected all from lightening, fire, and sickness.

The Christmas log's ashes were spread on the fields to make them fertile for the next year's crops, to destroy weeds and vermin, and to protect the land from hexes and any evil enchantments which resided in the earth.

The dreams of the 12 days of Christmas, der Losnächte which lasted from the 24th of December until January 6, were thought to foretell a person's future in the coming year, each night representing one month.

Preparing this month's blog post has put me in the Christmas mood much earlier than usual.  Yesterday, St. Barbara's feast day, I cut three small apple tree branches with buds and brought them inside - in the hope that on Christmas day, they will show at least one flower and good luck will follow me in the new year.

Josef Ollinger, Geschichten und Sagen Von Saar Und Mosel, 2005
Anne Diekmann and Willi Gohl, Das Große Liederbuch, 1975


  1. I know most of these customs from the Lower Rhineland.
    We put the Barbara Zweige into cool places indoors, not in warm ones as your source says.

    I too have a book of Advent and Christmas customs from my part of Germany. i try to keep a few of them for my own pleasure, although a yule log would be asking too much. Pity really, I'd love to be in Germany at this time of year; perhaps it's not quite so festive there nowadays as I seem to remember from my early days.

    Memories aways add a rosy glimmer.

  2. Kathy, your Blog banner photo is just beautiful . . . reminds me of Augsburg, Germany. Just love German towns and cities . . . very much enjoy reading your blog and all about your Germany heritage.

  3. Gini, I love that picture too. It is such a symbol of all the beautiful places that our ancestors knew and then left. If you haven't seen them, I have more "village in snow" pictures in my picture blog,

  4. Anonymous2:01 PM

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  5. Great post - very interesting.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)