If you've ever been lucky enough to spend Christmas in German Europe, you saw special Christmas lights and decorations on some downtown city streets, in stores, and in Christmas markets. However, you also may have noticed that the North American custom of decorating one's own house with Christmas lights and colorful decorations is still rare in Europe. Many Germans live in apartment houses rather than houses, so they may put some Christmas lights in a window or two (a custom that seems to be on the upswing in the last few years), but house decorations are still rare.
In the late 1990s, a small band of German Christmas-light fans began to introduce Christmas lighting for houses and neighborhoods. Some of them had been inspired by visits to the U.S. and Canada at Christmastime. (Many of the lighting and decorative elements they use are also imported from the U.S.) Even more have been influenced by American Christmas scenes on television and in movies. Another important influence was the many American GI families who lived off base in Germany from the 1960s into the 1980s.
At Christmas in towns all across Germany, these Lichterketten (light-string) enthusiasts amazed their neighbors by decorating their houses with elaborate American-style Christmas lighting. The typical German reaction has ranged from enjoyment and pleasure derived from this taste of “amerikanische Weihnachten” to disgust over such kitschy extravagance, not to mention puzzlement over why anyone would subject himself to such high electric bills!
But the Christmas lighting trend has continued to grow, albeit slowly, as more and more Germans create their own Lichterhäuser or Weihnachtshäuser in neighborhoods from Hamburg to Munich. Germany and Austria exported many Christmas customs to America, and now the tables have turned, as ever more German-speakers adopt the American Christmas lighting craze. For Christmas 2003 there were numerous such lighting displays in Germany and Austria, some with their own Web sites! (See our links in Part 2.) Some of the more elaborate Weihnachtshäuser have become popular Yuletide tourist attractions, drawing visitors from far and wide. Several even offer Glühwein (hot mulled wine) for the adults and hot chocolate for the kids. In a few cases, an entire block (Berlin-Spandau) or an entire village (Trohe in Hessen) may join in the festival of lights. Some use the opportunity to collect donations for a worthy cause.
This being Germany, the neighborhood Christmas lights are often only turned on for the weekend and during certain hours. One German family advertises its home in Drensteinfurt (near Münster) as “Deutschlands schönstes, größtes und imposantestes Lichterhaus.” The local attraction is lighted and ready for visitors “jeden Freitag, Samstag und Sonntag in der Zeit von 16 bis 22 Uhr vom 28. November bis zum 21. Dezember.”
Even Coca-Cola gets in on the German Christmas lighting act! Since 1997 the American company has sent out a red-and-white fleet of Weihnachtstrucks decked out with Christmas lights. In 2007 the Coke trucks were scheduled to visit many locations all over Germany.
On the next page you'll find links to German and Austrian Weihnachtshäuser plus related German Christmas vocabulary...