Popular German Christmas Food and Desserts
It is a cold winter evening, and people are gathering around little wooden stalls of a traditional German Christmas market, wrapping their hands around steaming mugs of mulled wine. The smell of caramel and burnt sugar from candied almonds is everywhere. There is a small choir singing Christmas carols, and everything is decorated with fir branches and fairy lights.
Christmas time starts early in Germany, as these idyllic markets can be found in any big city weeks before Christmas. You can buy traditional wooden toys, candles or ornaments for your Christmas tree and most importantly, many delicious treats to enjoy as you await the arrival of the Weihnachtsmann (German for Father Christmas) or the Christkind (which translates as Christ Child or Baby Jesus).
In Germany, one of these two, depending on personal belief, brings presents and joy to all on the evening of the 24th of December, which is the main celebration of Christmas (called Heiligabend, the Holy Evening or Weihnachten). Families gather for a meal and exchange presents next to a beautifully decorated and illuminated Christmas tree.
While Christmas Eve and the preceding four weeks of Advent are a time of fasting among Christians, it is a time of indulgence in Germany, and many delicious foods and drinks are part of the tradition of celebrating Christmas.
Many of the sweet foods you can find listed below are not only eaten during Advent and on Christmas Eve, but also on the 6th of December, which is known as the day of Nikolaus. This tradition is based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop who had a reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus or Father Christmas in the UK are both based on Saint Nicholas.
However, in Germany there are two celebrations related to him, Christmas on the 24th of December as well as a small celebration earlier in December.
In Germany, children leave a boot outside their house on the evening of the 5th of December to then find it filled with presents the next morning. These presents are often Nikolaus figures made of chocolate, Lebkuchen, oranges, nuts and small toys, which are only a little taster before the big celebration on the 24th.
If you want to find out more about all the delicious treats and traditions surrounding German Christmas, below are the 20 most popular German Christmas foods and drinks for a truly magical Weihnachten.
1. Glühwein and Kinderpunsch
Across the country in all regions of Germany you can find Glühwein (mulled wine), a hot drink of sweetened red wine, spiced with cinnamon, cloves, oranges and star anise. There is nothing better than to warm up on a cold winter day with this delicious drink. The nonalcoholic version, Kinderpunsch (fruit punch for children), is made with different fruit juices and the same spices.
If you get Glühwein or Kinderpunsch from a Christmas market it is often served in a beautifully painted blue mug with winter motive, which you can buy to take the Christmas market feeling home with you.
If you like your Christmas drink to be spectacular (and hard to pronounce) why not try some Feuerzangenbowle? In some areas of Germany, you can get this type of Glühwein, served with a sugar cone soaked in highly alcoholic rum on top of the mug using a contraption called Feuerzange (German for fire tongs), which is set on fire, making the sugary hot rum drip slowly into the mug.
This drink achieved great popularity after the 1944 movie of the same name, starring Heinz Rühmann.
The perfect accompaniment to a mug of Glühwein is a plate full of sweet Lebkuchen. Often sweetened with honey, this cake or cookie tastes similar to gingerbread and comes in various different shapes and flavors: round and glazed with chocolate or sugar icing, heart shaped and filled with apricot jam, star shaped, or rectangular and decorated with almonds, just like the most traditional Lebkuchen from Nuremberg, called Elisenlebkuchen.
These are made with less flour and can only be bought in Nuremberg, often in beautifully decorated tins.
4. Gebrannte Mandeln
Another Christmas market favorite, Gebrannte Mandeln (translates to burnt almonds) are candied almonds, which are made fresh in large pans and taste best when they are still warm and crunchy. You can also find these in Denmark, Sweden and Norway around Christmas.
Another classic sweet delicacy is the Christstollen or Weihnachtsstollen. This cake-like fruit bread is full of marzipan, nuts, raisins or other candied fruit, and covered with a thick layer of icing sugar, making it look like it is covered in snow. The most traditional Stollen can be found in the eastern German city of Dresden, where it was first mentioned in historic records back in 1474.
After all these delicious, sweet treats, it is important to mention that the time of Advent is actually a time of abstinence and fast (the Nativity Fast) in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church. Hence, on Christmas Eve the 40 days of fasting are not over yet and, in some regions, this means that the main dish of the evening is fish, as no meat is allowed.
The Christmas fish of choice is carp, the Weihnachtskarpfen, often coated with breadcrumbs and fried, served with cold potato or cucumber salad, or boiled potatoes and lemon. In some regions of Germany the carp is prepared by boiling the whole fish in a broth of vegetables, parsley, dill, lemon peel, vinegar and white wine, which makes the fish turn blue.
This version of the Christmas carp called Karpfen blau (meaning blue carp) is served with a creamy horseradish sauce and boiled potatoes. An old custom is to keep the scales of the carp, as they are thought to bring money and luck for the coming year.
7. Kartoffelsalat und Würstchen
Similar to the Christmas carp is the tradition of serving cold Kartoffelsalat (potato salad made with a vinegar or mayonnaise dressing) and Würstchen (usually boiled Vienna sausages) on Christmas Eve. This dish is supposed to symbolize a modest meal for the end of the fasting time, and to remember Mary and Joseph living in poverty before Jesus’ birth.
After the modest meal of potato salad and sausages or carp on Christmas Eve, many families celebrate the end of the Nativity Fast on the 25th of December with a large feast.
Traditionally, farmers would raise and fatten a pig especially for this day of celebration and then make a pork roast after slaughtering it. This Schweinebraten (pork roast) is often served on Christmas Day, the 25th, with potatoes, dumplings or sauerkraut.
9. Weihnachtsgans (Christmas Goose)
Legend has it that in the Middle Ages some people didn’t deem serving Christmas carp to be festive enough and claimed that geese could also be regarded as fish, due to their affinity to water. This very generous interpretation of what foods are allowed during fasting led to the Weihnachtsgans (Christmas goose) becoming a popular meal for Christmas Eve.
It is often served with cabbage and dumplings.
10. Weihnachtsente (Christmas Duck)
Another popular indulgent Christmas centerpiece is a delicious roasted duck. Often it will be served with an orange or cherry gravy and dumplings. Many families alternate and have goose one Christmas and duck the Christmas after.
Probably one of the most popular side dishes to any of the aforementioned roasted meats is Rotkohl (cooked red cabbage), as well as Apfelrotkohl (when apple is added). Red cabbage is grated and cooked with onion, grated apple, red wine and/or vinegar, spices such as cloves, star anis, bay leaves and a bit of sugar, turning the cabbage into a soft, sweet and sour side dish. Our recommendation is this amazing recipe for sweet potato and red cabbage gratin.
People from the north of Germany would probably disagree that Rotkohl is the most popular side dish, as here another cabbage is served at Christmas. Grünkohl (which translates to green cabbage in German and is in fact kale in English) is cooked with animal fat (goose or pork fat) and sometimes bacon pieces and mustard. Even some Christmas markets serve Grünkohl-to-go as a snack with sausage or potatoes.
To complete a German Christmas feast we need one more important side dish! And here we are spoilt for choice. Some families do not simply serve boiled or roasted potatoes with their meal, but potato dumplings (Kartoffelknödel), or bread dumplings (Semmelknödel) or even the more intricate version Serviettenknödel, which are dumplings that are not round balls, but wrapped and boiled in a cotton napkin, also known as a serviette, and then cut in slices.
If you find yourself in the situation where you can’t choose what dish to have for Christmas, you should follow the tradition of the region around the Ore mountains along the Czech Republic-German border.
Here families eat Neunerlei for Christmas, meaning in fact nine dishes are served, and each dish will bring something good for the coming year: sausages (to bring power and warmth), sauerkraut (to make sure no one will be sour, meaning angry in German), lentils (to keep the “small” money, meaning coins), dumplings and herring or carp (to keep the “big” money, meaning larger amounts of money/bank notes), goose or pork (to bring luck), fruit compote (to bring joy), milk or buttermilk (to keep healthy), nuts or almonds (to make every day successful) and mushrooms or beetroot (to bring joy, luck and health or a good harvest).
In recent decades a more modern dish has become a popular choice for Christmas Eve in Germany: Fondue.
The Swiss dish of melted cheese and white wine is served in a communal pot into which white bread is dipped with long forks. The novelty and communal aspect of eating together from one pot is probably why many families like to serve Fondue on this occasion.
Editor’s Note: Fondue is also a very popular Christmas dish in the Netherlands.
Another modern Christmas tradition in Germany similar to Fondue is having a large Raclette dinner together. Many families own a special electric grill for this occasion, which is placed in the middle of the table, and each family member or dinner guest has their own little pan in which they melt slices of thick-cut cheese.
The melted cheese is then poured over a number of different accompanying side dishes, such as boiled potatoes, gherkins, pickled onions, and various cold or dried meats, such as salami or dried ham.
These sweet little biscuits or cookies, usually homemade, are integral to the whole Christmas period in Germany and make for a great dessert after a large meal. Buttery dough is cut out with a variety of differently shaped biscuit cutters (stars, Christmas trees, hearts, snowflakes or any animal you can think of), baked and then beautifully decorated with sugar icing, melted chocolate or sandwiched with jam in between.
Christmas Plätzchen first appeared in the 19th century and were used to decorate the Christmas tree. Nowadays many families bake them together at home and then wrap up a selection of different ones in little bags to give to friends as a small present.
A special type of Plätzchen are Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars). Originally from the southwest of Germany, these are made with a dough rich in ground almonds, cinnamon, egg white, sugar and only a little bit of flour. The dough is cut out into stars and covered with a glaze of egg white and sugar, so it looks like the stars are covered in snow and giving them a crispy top.
Another special type of Plätzchen are Vanillekipferl. These crescent-shaped small cookies are originally from Vienna but integral to any mix of Christmas cookies in Germany.
A very crumbly and buttery dough of ground walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts and most importantly vanilla, is shaped into small crescents (a Kipferl, which is also the name for a larger yeast pastry shaped like a croissant) and dusted with a lot of icing sugar.
Dominosteine (which translates to domino tile) were invented in Dresden in 1936 to replace more expensive chocolate pralines. Even though they were designed to overcome food shortages during World War II, this sweet treat consists of several delicious layers and is still very popular today.
The little cubes are made of a layer of Lebkuchen on the bottom, then a layer of jelly (often cherry or apricot), topped by layer of marzipan and completely covered in dark chocolate to make them look like small pralines.
Related: 24 Popular German Foods