In der Dauerausstellung verstecken sich in der Adventszeit kleine Stationen, die unsere regionalen Weihnachtstraditionen vorstellen. Hier sind die zugehörigen Texte auf Englisch zu finden.
In many cultures evergreen plants are symbols for life and hope. In medieval mystery plays, meant to familiarize people with biblical stories, trees were decorated with apples to remind the audience of the paradise tree.
This is probably the basis for the Christmas tree as “gift-bringer”, like it was known originally. The first evergreen trees are said to have been erected in public spaces before Christmas by the guilds of bakers and other medieval guilds, decorated with snacks. Children could “loot” these after Christmas and pick the gingerbread, apples, other fruits and nuts. The first tree of this kind was reportedly erected by the bakers in Freiburg im Breisgau in the year 1419.
From the public Christmas gift by the guilds the private Christmas tree evolved, initially within the affluent circles of bourgeois and noble families. Therefore, the first Christmas tree reportedly decorated with candles is said to be one at the court of Duchess Dorothea Sibylle of Silesia. During the 18th and 19th century the custom of putting up a tree at home became popular with more and more families. And the decorations changed further, too. Beginning with the mid-nineteenth century there were mouth-blown glass balls as tree ornaments. And the first electric candles were glowing on Christmas trees in the US in 1882.
Not until the mid-twentieth century the Catholic Church warmed up to the custom of Christmas trees; only then they were permitted in church. Pope John Paul II. had the first Christmas tree erected in St. Peter’s Square in Rome in 1982 and thus introduced the custom to the Vatican.
Our tree – artificial for conservatory reasons – is decorated “two-faced”. One side shows the traditional decoration as “sugar-“ or “snack-tree”, the other shows a tree that many here will know from their childhood days or from old pictures: with tinsel, glass balls, and the occasional wax light.
Christmas Tree Ornaments
The first Christmas trees were decorated with apples as a reminiscence of the paradise trees in mystery plays. Reminding us of the apples on these early “sugar-trees”, glass balls began to grace Christmas trees from the early 18th century on. At the same time the sphere, as a perfect shape, symbolizes life as a gift from God.
Straw pendants stem from the tradition of commemorating the manger, in which Jesus Christ is said to have been placed after his birth.
Bells are a symbol for the festive mood during mass and with such an important festival as Christmas, they are a mandatory ornament for trees.
Angels are mentioned in the Christmas story, proclaiming the gospel. They tell shepherds in the fields about the birth of Jesus Christ.
In many homes, mistletoes are hanging from the doorframe during Christmas time. There is a particular Christmas custom in connection with this plant: it is said that kissing under the mistletoe brings good luck.
The mystical powers attributed to the mistletoe have their origin in the Nordic sagas. According to those, the mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love. When the evil god Loki tried to kill Frigga’s son Balder, she made every animal and every plant on Earth promise her not to do any harm to her son.
Only the mistletoe, which grows neither on the ground nor below it, she forgot to ask. And so Balder was killed with an arrow made from a mistletoe. It is said that the tears that Frigga shed for her son turned into the white berries of the mistletoe.
After three days Frigga succeeded in bringing Balder back to life. Overjoyed, she kissed everybody passing underneath the tree in which the fateful mistletoe had grown. And the mistletoes had to promise Frigga that from now on they would not harm people anymore, but instead grant a kiss to everyone standing underneath them as a sign of love.
Since there is no regional explanation for this tradition, which is nowadays relatively common, we used the WDR library for this text.
Since when do we actually celebrate Christmas here?
With the festival of Christmas, Christian churches celebrate – in quite various fashions – the birth of Jesus Christ. Since no exact date was known, a date was officially determined in the 4th century. Choosing a date in late December probably had to do with the attempt to christianize old heathen rituals connected with the winter solstice (21 December).
December 25 was first celebrated under Pope Liberius in 354 AD as the birthday of Christ. Emperor Justinian declared it a holiday in the 6th century.
Currently the state exhibitions “Rome’s Fluid Borders” tell about how close the contact with the Romans used to be in the first four centuries AD, here in East-Westphalia. In the State Museum Lippe in Detmold the grave goods of the “Knight of Gohfeld” are on display, who must have belonged to the local elite. His grave goods are evidence of contact with Roman culture. Christian burials and widespread conversions to the Christian faith only take place in later times. After Charlemagne’s victorious campaigns against “the Saxons” abbeys and monasteries emerge as missionary outposts; the christening of Widukind in 795 AD as a visible gesture of submission is an important milestone. From this day on the birth of Jesus Christ should have been celebrated in churches and chapels around here.
The word “Weihnachten” (Christmas) for this day appears only later in sources: in the poem “ze wihenacht” of the poet Spervogel the Elder, written around 1180.
Up until the 14th century the Christmas holiday was purely a church festival. Primarily since the 18th century it evolved into a holiday celebrated in the family, having its own customs which originated within noble and bourgeois environments.
The most important Christian holiday today is still not Christmas but Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
Not only are the traditions of stories about the gift-bringers (which we will not elaborate on, out of consideration for family visits with children to the museum) changing today, but giving presents at Christmas time has changed considerably, too.
Originally an ecclesiastical festival, Christmas was linked to the idea that God would give his son as a gift. Mundane gifts had no part in this. Beginning with the 15th century “sugar trees” of the guilds became known, from which sweets for children were dangling. These trees could be “looted” after Christmas (sometimes this is New Year’s Day, in other places only after the end of the actual Christmas season on 6 January).
With the transformation of Christmas into a holiday celebrated within the family, presents were, for now, still only meant for children. And from our modern point of view these presents were really quite modest. All the children of a family might together receive a handful of marbles, or a wooden car. A self-made dress for a doll, generally plenty of handicrafts and homemade items could be found underneath the tree.
And what has been your best Christmas present? Would you like to put up a note on our little present line, too?
Today’s season for cookies, Christmas cake etc. on the store shelves often already begins in September. But traditionally the Christmas season, like the time before Easter, was a fasting period. The fast was only broken with the Christmas Day (24 December) feast. All the more eagerly this feast was looked forward to and planned.
The first Christmas meal was breakfast on Christmas Day morning. Customary in Westphalia were “Stuten”, i.e. bread made from rye or wheat flour, sweetened with sugar, raisins, currants or pears.
Lunch on Christmas Day was a “Sunday treat” as well, but here, unlike in other regions, not limited to a single dish. Commonly cited are green cabbage (kale) with pork sausages or pork roast.
In the cookbooks of Henriette Davidis, which were used in Westphalia for many decades and still enjoy a wide reputation, are old recipes for Christmas cookies. Here is a recipe for aniseed cookies, including conversion of quantities into more modern units. Pick up a copy, try it out and enjoy
Light and Candles
For Christians the birth of Jesus on Christmas means the coming of the Redeemer, the “light of the world”. And according to the bible a light – a bright star – lit the way for the Magi who had set off to welcome the new king. We find the symbolism of light in many places in the rather dark Advent and Christmas time.
With artificial lighting we have today it is difficult to imagine the mood in people’s homes during the dark season. Depending on one’s financial means, up to the 17th century the only sources of light were pieces of kindling (chips of resin-rich wood), lamps fuelled by plant or fish oil, and candles made from expensive wax. Later came gaslight, and in the 19th century petroleum lamps finally provided a slightly brighter-burning fuel.
Traditional means of lighting, i.e. candles and oil lamps, required a wick, which often consisted of flax cords. During the making of the candle it automatically formed the centre when repeatedly dipped in hot wax, until the candle with its many layers had grown to the right size. In lamps with fluid fuels the wick was inserted and lightly fixed to prevent slipping.
The coming of the light (lat. advenire, to arrive) during Advent is today celebrated with an Advent wreath. Four large candles on it symbolize the Advent Sundays – each Sunday one more candle is lit, until shortly before Christmas all four candles are burning simultaneously.
The custom of the Advent wreath is in fact quite recent. There is evidence dating back to 1839 that a childcare worker in a Hamburg orphanage, the “Rauhe Haus”, tried to alleviate the waiting for Christmas Day for his children. To that end Johann Hinrich Wiechern put 23 candles on a wagon wheel, four large red ones for Advent Sundays and 19 white ones for the weekdays. Each morning a new light was lit.
The Advent calendar resulted from a similar idea. It was meant to mark the remaining days until Christmas, too. A Munich businessman invented it 1903 as a carton onto which 24 colourful pictures could be pasted.
The Nativity Scene (Christmas crèche or crib)
The first nativity scene is said to have been built by the Franciscan monk Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, to make the Christmas story more apprehensible.
Up to the 19th century nativity scenes in Westphalia were found primarily in churches. Private Christmas cribs became common only quite late here, mostly after World War One. At a time when, according to the church, the Christian nucleus of Christmas was in danger of being transformed into a celebration of family and gifts, emphasizing the nativity scene was intended to increase awareness of the festival’s origin.
In schools especially, nativity scenes were now being crafted by children during Advent. In 1924 in Paderborn the initiative for a Westphalian chapter of the Nativity Scene Association was born. Since then it is its goal “to reintroduce the nativity scene permanently to the family and revive religious faith, like Saint Francis of Assisi intended it, when he built a crèche scene in the village of Greccio and celebrated the holy sacrifice over it” (Die Weihnachtskrippe 1, 1925, pp. 9-10).
The resulting nativity scene exhibitions and contests likely contributed a lot to the spread of private nativity scenes, and especially to the custom of building it at least partly together with the family.
In addition to the baroque-styled figurines in our exhibition we also have a small “nut crib” on display: it can quite easily be made at home, as an inspiration for a do-it-yourself afternoon in Advent..
After being connected to the railroads, the several villages that Löhne consisted of experienced a faster and more direct contact with the “world at large” than ever before. With the beginning of industrialisation (here in the region especially since the 1830s) and more than ever with increasing globalisation in the 20th century not only our access to goods has changed, but also our exposure to traditions and customs.
Many things formerly unknown in this region are today common aspects of Christmas – whether it is the presents or the changing traditions of gift-bringers themselves; decorations, new fashions for festive clothes, or the Christmas roast itself. Already an integral part of the local Christmas tradition are decorations originally from the east German Erzgebirge (the Ore Mountains) like the wooden pyramid, the nutcracker or the Räuchermännchen (incense smoker). Before that, but across far longer trade routes, chocolate reached Westphalia from South America; first as a bitter drink for adults, only later as a sweet treat for children.
And many families have developed Christmas traditions that have moved far from the original meaning of the festival. Maybe you would like to write down your own Christmas traditions? You’ll find paper, pen and a mailbox in the foyer! Or maybe you’d like to take a little time and share photos and other memories with us and the municipal archive? You can contact us at email@example.com