Christmas Eve - Heiliger Abend (also Heiligabend)
On December 24th begins preparation for the holiday celebration, a large part of which occurs on Christmas Eve in Germany. Families sing Christmas carols together and may read the story of Christ's birth aloud. Family members exchange gifts; children are typically the focal point of the gift exchange. The tradition of opening gifts on Heiliger Abend (rather than on December 6th in honor of St. Nicholas) was started by Martin Luther in the 16th century in favor of a celebration that honored Christ rather than a Catholic saint.
On Christmas Eve, German families - whether Protestant or Catholic and even those who are not regular church-goers - often attend mass or a church service. While the mass traditionally takes place at midnight, in recent times the services have moved into the earlier evening hours.
The German Tannenbaum is usually put up and decorated on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, it was a fir tree, but nowadays the spruce is widely used. Decorations may include tinsel, glass balls or straw ornaments and sweets. A star or an angel tops the Tannenbaum, and beneath the tree, a nativity scene might be set up and the presents next to it
The first known Christmas tree was set up in 1419 in Freiburg by the town bakers, who decorated the tree with fruits, nuts, and baked goods, which the children were allowed to remove and eat on New Year's Day. The town guilds and associations first brought evergreens inside their guild houses and decorated them with apples and sweets. Candles were eventually added to the decorations. Already since the Middle Ages, ordinary Germans had been bringing yew, juniper, mistletoe, holly, evergreen boughs - any plant that maintained its green color through the lifeless and dreary winter months - into their homes. Even in areas where forests were sparse, the tradition took hold; people in Northern Germany, for instance, used Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramiden) in lieu of Christmas trees. The pyramid form was created using sticks that were then decorated with fir branches. By 1800, the custom of bringing a tree into the home was firmly established in many German-speaking regions and continued to spread throughout Europe, and eventually, around the world. The custom was brought to North America by German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 18th century.
The Tannenbaum is taken down on New Year's Day or on January 6th, Three King's Day, at which time the children can ransack the tree for the sweets and treats that decorated it.