One of the most anticipated times of the year in Germany is Christmas time. Germans really know how to romanticize the season. Every year the people of Dresden, the capital of Saxony, transform the entire city into what’s consistently voted one of the best Christmas destinations in Europe. The Christmas Market in Dresden was established in 1434 and is considered the oldest Christmas market in the world. Everywhere you turn, you see Schwibbogens (elaborate candle fixtures) glowing in windows and Moravian Stars hung on balconies or above front doors.
Even though it is a market full of goods, food, and drink, there is no overwhelming feeling of consumerism among shoppers wandering the alleys between the makeshift gift booths. It’s a place to socialize. People stand around eating bratwurst and roasted potatoes and drinking gluwein, or punch. Traditional Christmas music can be heard everywhere, either coming out of loudspeakers or, more frequently, performed live.
The missing ingredient, however, is a solid presentation of the true purpose of Christmas.
The missing ingredient, however, is a solid presentation of the true purpose of Christmas. There’s a mandatory manger scene in the market center, right under the fifty-foot Christmas tree, but if you ask people why they are celebrating the holiday, you’ll likely hear a lot of reasons that don’t involve Jesus. They’ll say Christmas is a time to relax with family, savor the comforts of home, and enjoy the lights and caroling troupes. Others look at it as simply a traditional time off from work. Many people aren’t even sure what the origins of the season are.
The state churches in Germany—both Catholic and Lutheran—carry on the traditional, seasonal services in sparsely filled-out sanctuaries, but most Germans have ceased to see the church as a meaningful part of the culture. Evangelical churches have it even harder. They’re viewed as cultic offshoots of the state churches. Many evangelicals try to engage in cold-contact evangelism in the Christmas markets. The results are mixed, but generally unsuccessful.
Germany’s Transition from Faith to Fairytale
This omission of Christ as the focal point of Christmas is a significant turn from Germany’s rich heritage of Christian Christmas traditions. The aforementioned Moravian Stars were originally a reminder that the Moravian movement of prayer and missions started in Saxony. It’s widely held that Protestant reformer Martin Luther popularized the modern-day Christmas tree after adding lights to an evergreen he cut and placed in his Saxon home.
Luther also contributed to one of our most cherished Christmas traditions: gift giving. He proposed shifting the tradition of giving gifts from December 6 (St. Nicholas Day) to Christmas Eve. And instead of St. Nicholas as the deliverer of gifts, Luther modified the tradition’s narrative to make the Christ child the giver, the Christkind. Today this tradition has devolved a bit in Germany. Jesus is not the Christkind anymore. That role is usually depicted by a young, blonde girl representing an angel.
Sadly, the move away from Christ and Christian Christmas traditions is not surprising. Despite the rich Christian heritage, more than 80 percent of the people in Eastern Germany are self-described atheists. For three generations, atheism has been the de-facto religion of the region. In this post-Christian culture, atheism is not the activist, anti-Christian movement we sometimes sense in other Western countries. Religion is not seen as a threat but more of an amusing historical artifact. Elaborate apologetics are not the way to convince people of Christ’s relevance. They have heard the arguments and are unimpressed.
We re-sow the gospel starting with our own experience of meeting Christ.
However, there is a way to bring the gospel back into German markets, homes, and hearts, and Christmas serves as a prime opportunity. The advent season is a perfect time for Germans to raise spiritual topics with their friends. Strangers don’t appreciate being asked about their deepest fears and beliefs, but friends and family are more open to talking about these topics with people they know and trust.
Christians are likely to encounter gospel-sharing opportunities if they pay attention to moments when their non-Christian friends want to talk about the important things in life. Watching Christians genuinely live out their faith awakens spiritual questions that atheists and others have trained themselves to ignore.
In Germany, we are teaching people to reclaim their responsibility to share the gospel in their relational networks. It doesn’t start with theological discussions or rehearsed evangelical sales-pitches. We re-sow the gospel starting with our own experience of meeting Christ.
In a culture that scoffs at philosophical arguments and elaborate apologetics, a real experience catches people off guard. They might not yet believe our confession of faith, but friends have to consider our story. And perhaps they’ll ponder the person of Christ a little longer when they pass the manger under the Christmas tree in the market.
Jed Riddell was born in the United States and grew up in South America. He now serves with his wife and their four children in Central Europe.