24 figures who've left their mark on Christmas


Jesus Christ: the baby in the cradle

Without this over 2,000-year-old event we wouldn't be celebrating Christmas today: the birth of Jesus. Christians believe that God sent his son Jesus Christ as a baby to spread his message to the world.


Joseph Mohr/Franz X. Gruber: "Silent Night" - the best-known Christmas carol

The words to this embodiment of the Christmas ritual were penned in 1816 by an assistant pastor named Joseph Mohr. Set to music by Franz Xaver Gruber, the carol was first sung on Christmas Eve 1818 in Oberndorf, near Salzburg – from whence it spread across Europe and to the New World. UNESCO even put it on its Immaterial World Heritage list. It has six verses, three of them usually sung today.


Paul Gerhardt: author of the most profound Christmas song

The Lutheran minister (1607-1676) is considered the master poet of German-language hymns. In 1653, he wrote what many consider the most profound Christmas song ever: "Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier" (Beside thy cradle here I stand). In 15 verses, he describes his deep emotional connection to the Christ child – and his genuine joy in Christmas, and in faith. In Germany, it's a classic.


Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life'

For many, "It's a Wonderful Life" from 1946 is the ultimate Christmas movie. A young, socially committed man gets into trouble and loses his will to live. As he prepares to throw himself off a bridge, an angel rescues him and shows him how cold his hometown would be if he had never been born.


A Silesian princess' Christmas tree lights

Bakers in Freiburg were already decorating their trees with gingerbread, apples and nuts in 1419, according to legend, though there is no proof of that. The first document mentioning a decorated tree dates back to 1597. At the beginning of the 17th century, the trees were moved indoors in Strasbourg. The first to add candles to her tree was Duchess Dorothea Sibylle of Silesia in 1811.


The Pope's blessing: 'Urbi et Orbi'

"Urbi et Orbi," Latin for "to the City (of Rome) and to the World," is the name of the Pope's special address held each Christmas and Easter. His speech is broadcast to Christian believers the world over, who believe that their sins of recent years can be forgiven with his blessing.


Libuse Safrankova: a lovely Cinderella

One of the most famous fairy tale films has long become a cult classic. In "Three Wishes for Cinderella," a 1973 television production from the former GDR and Czechoslovakia, actress Libuse Safrankova wins over adults and children alike. The tale is quickly told: the poor orphan girl gets her prince thanks to three magic nuts. The movie has run every December in Germany since 1975.


Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol

The English author Charles Dickens wrote his famous "A Christmas Carol" in 1843. The horror story follows the cold, hard-hearted protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge as he uncovers the "true" meaning of Christmas. The book has been released many times, including in 1900, where this picture comes from, and film adaptations continue to run on TV at Christmas time. The ghosts bring many to self-reflection.


Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio

The six-part oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most popular spiritual compositions. The joy over the birth of Christ is felt throughout the parts composed for solos, a mixed choir and for the orchestra. It is considered one of Bach's most famous works and had a positive reception in 1734 when it was originally released. The majestic, celebratory feeling continues to move audiences.


A Bavarian soldier's Christmas pickle

The "Christmas pickle" is a tradition in the US, where Americans hang a glass ornament in the shape of the green pickle among their other ornaments. The story behind the unusual decoration has that Hans Lauer, a Bavarian soldier, fought in the Civil War and his life was saved due to a pickle. Whether that's true or not, a German company began to produce the pickles and delivers them to the US.


Luke: chronicler of the story of Jesus's birth

Luke the Evangelist is the author of the Bible's Christmas story. He was given the special assignment of chronicling the life of Jesus before those eyewitnesses who knew him died and took their knowledge and experiences with them. In just a few lines, he establishes the famous scene, with "Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger," along with angels and shepherds.


Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm in 'Sissi'

To some, the Sissi trilogy from the late 1950s is emotional, romantic entertainment. For others, the period films are mere kitsch. Telling the story of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth and featuring the dream couple Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm, the movies are one of the most successful German-language film productions ever. For many fans, watching the films on TV is a Christmastime ritual.


A glass blower in Thuringia

For a long time, it was tradition to decorate the Christmas tree with delicacies such as walnuts, apples and gingerbread. Legend has it that a glass-blower from the city of Lauscha in Thuringia was too poor to afford expensive tree ornaments. In 1847, he fell upon the idea to create colorful balls of glass instead — starting a trend that's alive to this day.


Herrnhut Christians light their own star

The Moravian star, known in Germany as the Herrnhut star, represents the star of Bethlehem, and has turned into a symbol of Advent. The three-dimensional body with pointed spikes was devised in Upper Lusatia, where Protestant refugees from Bohemia settled in Herrnhut, Saxony, in 1722. The fruits of their missionary work are seen in the founding of churches around the world. 


Queen Elizabeth I and the Christmas goose

Legend has it that in 1588, the Queen of England had just finished tucking into a goose dinner at Christmas when the news arrived that the Spanish Armada had been defeated. In all her excitement, she is said to have declared the goose a Christmas roast, a tradition kept alive around the European continent today, though which has been replaced by turkey on many dinner tables in England.


Naumburger's inventor of the stollen

Called "Stollen" in Germany, the fruitcake is perhaps the king of all Christmas pastries. The oldest written occurrence of the word stollen dates back to 1329. Although the inventor of this sweet cake remains unnamed, the entry was made by Naumburg Bishop Henry I of Grumberg in the city on the Saale, at the founding of the bakers' guild.


Actors Ricky Schroder and Alec Guinness

The 1980 British movie "Little Lord Fauntleroy" is a Christmas cult classic in Germany. Set in 1872, it follows the young American boy Cedric, grandson of a British Earl. Played by Ricky Schroder, the kid lives in poverty in New York until, as the heir of his wealthy grandfather, he moves to England. His upbeat, fresh spirit wins over the grumpy heart of the Lord, played by Alec Guinness.


Santa Claus: Nicholas' distant relative

The figure of Santa Claus has been around since the 19th century. The plump, jolly old man with a long white beard is popular worldwide, particularly in Protestant regions — and even more so since 1931, when Coca-Cola started using him for its marketing. Supposedly, Santa Claus brings presents to good children on Christmas Eve, whereas naughty children are merely gifted with a lump of coal.


Nicholas von Myra, aka St. Nick

As the bishop of Myra (known today as Demre, in Turkey) in the fourth century, Nicholas handed out his inherited wealth to the poor. He later became one of the most honored saints in both Orthodoxy and Catholicism. On his remembrance day, December 6, children in Germany find the gifts "he" left in their boots. St. Nick is seen as a guardian, protector of children and youth.


Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas'

Composed by Irving Berlin, "White Christmas" is a secular Christmas carol and an evergreen favorite. The 1947 recording featuring Bing Crosby is considered the best-selling tune of all time, with an estimated 50 million singles sold. The song is available in nearly 500 versions the world over and continues to be loved — and played — everywhere even today.


St. Francis of Assisi's nativity scene

Founder of the Franciscan Order, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) provided the first nativity scene in 1223, depicting the birth of the baby Jesus using living people and animals. The idea was to bring the story of Christmas according to Luke's Christmas evangelism to those believers who could not read. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for a tradition that continues today.


Loriot's Christmas sketches

Chaos is on the agenda as three young ones look to torpedo mother Hoppenstedt's Christmas preparations. Grandpa sulks that there used to be more tinsel in his time, until he puts on marching band music. The toy nuclear power plant belonging to grandson Dickie has a nuclear meltdown and Mother stands there, confused. Filmed in 1978, the sketches by cult German comedian Loriot are brilliant.


Johann Hinrich Wichern's Advent wreath

An evangelical theologian (1808-1881) and pioneer of Christian social work, Wichern devoted his life to helping children in need. In 1839, while at a home for neglected boys, he created the first Advent wreath using an old wagon wheel, adding four large white candles to represent the four Advent Sundays and 20 red ones for weekdays. He wanted to bring "a light in dark times" to the children.


Gerhard Lang's Advent calendar

Advent is the time before Christmas spent preparing for the celebration of Jesus' birth. In the German-speaking world, the 24-day Advent calendar has existed in some form since about 1850. At the turn of the 20th century, publisher Gerhard Lang (1881-1974) began producing different variations on the calendar each year. Around 1920, he came up with the first calendar with doors that open.

DW Culture's Advent calendar explores the people - celebrities, historical figures or anonymous craftsmen - who've shaped the way we celebrate Christmas. Come back every day until December 24 to discover a new one!

From December 1-24, many people in Germany count down the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar.

This year, DW Culture looks back at the historical figures who've influenced the way Advent and Christmas is celebrated to this day.

Along with the best-known personalities associated with Christmas, or stars returning every year on Germany's TV sets or radios, many more have contributed anonymously to how Germans and people around the world celebrate, decorate their houses, sing and eat.

Discover these 24 historical figures by coming back each day to open a new "door" on our digital Advent calendar, starting with the publisher who came up with the idea of creating a calendar with little doors that open, about a century ago.

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