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24th of December
"Heiligabend" or Christmas Eve, which is the 24th of December, is the most important of the Christmas holidays in Germany, at least as far as ceremonies, celebrations and excitement are concerned. On the evening of the 24th of December, families, friends and guests assemble around the Christmas tree, which has been decorated during the morning. Carols are played and sung, the bible is read, a tiny bell jingles and then everybody rushes forward to unwrap, admire and generally whoop over the presents which have been placed under the Christmas tree.
In German Christmas legend, there are two purveyors of the presents: the "Weihnachtsmann," which equals a version of Santa and his female assistant, and the "Christkind", a benevolent angel, which originally referred to the baby Jesus. After the excitement dies down, it's time to sit down for the lavish Christmas dinner.
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Tradition of Christmas Goose
In southern parts of Germany, the goose is favored. The custom of having goose as the centerpiece of Christmas dinner results from the Catholic tradition of celebrating St. Martin's day on the 11th of November with the consumption of a goose. That date marks the beginning of advent, a time for fasting, which ends on the 24th of December, when indulgence is yet again allowed and celebrated with a repeat of the St. Martin goose.
Goose in Germany is roasted as a whole. The bird is stuffed with apples and onions and flavored with ample helpings of marjoram. The skin is frequently basted to make it crisp. The goose is accompanied by red cabbage to which a spoonful or two of plum jam is added, as well as a few cloves to give it the very special German flavor. Potato dumplings and a thick, dark brown gravy complement the meal.
Needless to say, the traditional Christmas goose, gravy and dumplings are a calorie bomb and, in recent years, growing health and diet consciousness have led to substituting the Anglo Saxon turkey or even chicken for the time-honored goose.
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The Legend Behind the Goose
There is an entertaining legend about why goose became the Christmas staple. Yet again, it has to do with religion. More traditional Christians consume fish for Christmas dinner. In their belief, the end of fasting is best celebrated with a rich fish dish, but around the Middle Ages or so, wealthy people thought that fish was somewhat poor to mark the occasion. They preferred meat, but religious guilt interfered and made them inventive. They came up with the idea that geese like to live near the water and hence could be considered "water animals," making them a safe choice yet compatible with religion to consume a goose for Christmas.
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In the northern parts of Germany, carp is preferred for Christmas dinner. It's prepared in two ways; either the "Karpfen Blau," or a dish cut in pieces, breaded and deep fried. To prepare "Karpfen Blau," or blue carp, the fish is gutted, carefully washed so as not to destroy the natural mucus and then stewed whole, but never boiled, in vegetable stock to which a lot of vinegar has been added. The vinegar turns the mucus blue, hence the name of the dish. Carp is served with warm or cold potato salad and no other vegetables.
There is also a legend or superstition about the carp. If you keep one fish scale in your wallet all year round, you will never be short of money.
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The "Bunte Teller"
After dinner and if there is still room in the stomach, Germans, in particular children, like to raid their "Bunte Teller", another Christmas tradition. Each member of the Christmas party finds a plate under the Christmas tree with their name tag on it, which is loaded with a variety of walnuts, chocolates, marzipan, nougat and other sweets. That's where the name "bunt," meaning multicolored, comes from.
Catholics attend Midnight Mass, whereas Protestants tend to go to church in the afternoon before "Bescherung," which is the word for the exchange of gifts under the Christmas tree.
Meals on Christmas Day and the German equivalent of Boxing Day tend to be much less sumptuous than Christmas dinner.