Christmas traditions and customs
As far back as 1393, there is evidence that markets were held in Frankfurt at Christmas. At the market mostly church mystery acts took place on the Römerberg, which probably started, when King Otto I “the Great” reconciled with his brother Heinrich after the Christmas mass. Heinrich prostrated to his brother in front of the Palatinate Chapel, which is now the St Bartholomew Cathedral. For Alfred Rethel, this scene was the reason for a painting that is now in the Historical Museum.
The year 1498 represented a highlight in the historical development of the Christmas market. On Christmas of that year, the wedding of Landgrave Wilhelm von Hessen and the daughter of the Elector Palatine was celebrated. The chronicle reports that the elector, his entourage and his guests enter Frankfurt with 1,000 horses.
The Christmas market was still missing the essential symbol of today’s market, namely the Christmas tree. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the Christmas tree became established as a Christmas ornament.
At the beginning the dealers had the privilege of selling the better trees in the Römerhalle before Christmas. In course of time the sale shifted in front of the Römer.
At the time the Christmas market was purely a Frankfurt matter, no stranger was admitted and so the market got a Frankfurt character over the time. The best local handicrafts were offered, as well as toys, sweets and Christmas gifts.
Toys were mainly simple wooden cars. Over the time, wooden stick horses and rocking horses were added.
Until the seventies and eighties of the 19h century it was common for parents to buy toys for their children exclusively at the Christmas market.
Until the beginning of the Second World War, there was a strange custom in the pre-Christmas period that was nowhere else known. It can be described as the “custom of the Nicholas giants”.
The Nicholas giants are two meter high figures made out of gingerbread dough. Students from secondary and private schools collected money to buy one and carried the iced figure to their teacher. The gift was eaten together afterwards.
In earlier times these plum men were made in large quantities in community centres.
In the 19th century, bachelors used the “Quetschemännche” to find out if they had a chance with their goddess. If she kept it, he could hope. If she sent it back, he was not heard.
The Quetschemännche are traditionally dressed as a chimney sweeper or a musician.
Brenten should not be missing on the traditional Frankfurt Christmas plate. These Frankfurt Christmas cookies have been around since the Middle Ages. The marzipan slices are made out of eggs, almonds, sugared rose water and a little amount of flour and baked in artfully carved wooden moulds.
The pastry got its name from the shape. The word “Printen” comes from the Latin word “imprimere” and means print.
It is said that the Bethmännchen were invented by a French chef in Frankfurt around 1840. The pastry chef Jean Jaques Gautenier who was employed by the Bethmann family, formed small balls out of the Brenten dough. The cook placed almond halves on the ball for each of the four sons of the family.
When one of the sons later died, Gautenier adjusted the number. Since then there have been three almond halves on the Bethmännchen.
The Frankfurt confectionery was partially sent in oval wooden boxes to relatives living further away.
One of the greatest admirers of old Frankfurt Christmas sweets was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who also received a package with Bethmännchen from his mother every year for the festival in Weimar.