Christmas amnesty: Germany releases hundreds of prisoners

Hundreds of prisoners have been released ahead of Christmas in keeping with a holiday tradition in Germany. But some states have refused an early release, saying that it's probably unconstitutional.

Authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia released 631 prisoners ahead of Christmas so that they may celebrate the holiday with their families, said the state's Justice Ministry.

At least 160 other prisoners have been released from Berlin prisons in line with a clemency order signed by Berlin Justice Senator Dirk Behrendt of the Green Party, local media said.

Read more: Christmas market in Germany begs visitors to stop coming

Other German states, including Hamburg, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt, also release prisoners under amnesty ahead of the holiday.

However, not all German states participate in the Christmas holiday tradition. The southeastern state of Bavaria has refused to release prisoners on amnesty, saying it undermines judicial norms.

'Constitutionally objectionable'

Winfried Bausback, Bavarian Justice Minister

In 2014, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback said that changing a final court decision on punishment "by way of mercy" should only be done in "absolutely exceptional cases and not merely on the basis of the calendar's contingencies."

"In addition, it would be an unjustified and constitutionally objectionable preference (to those released) for all the prisoners whose term ends at other seasons, such as Easter or Pentecost."

Read more: Words you need to understand Christmas in Germany

Murderers, sex offenders and those serving prison for a capital offense are categorically excluded from amnesty during the Christmas holiday.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

The Advent wreath

Nowadays, an Advent wreath usually has four candles, one for each Sunday in the month before Christmas. Originally, the wreath consisted of 24 candles and was made of wood. It was invented by Protestant theologian and educator Hinrich Wichern. In 1839, he set up his wreath to help children count down the days until Christmas.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

A busy Christmas market

Already in the Late Middle Ages, people flocked to Christmas markets during the Advent season. Back then, they didn't drink mulled wine but bought food to last over the winter. Later on, craftsmen, toy makers and confectioners joined the markets. By now, Christmas markets can be found in many parts of the world.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

Let it snow!

Attitudes towards the winter changed during the 19th century. It used to be seen as just a harsh season, but it turned into something joyful or even romantic. That change of attitude was also reflected in snowmen. The grim and fierce expression on their faces gave way to a friendly smile. Wooden snowmen now decorate Christmas trees.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

A tree conquers the world

Its evergreen branches protect Santa's gifts. At first, the Christmas tree remained a privilege of the rich, until large fir and spruce plantations made it affordable for the general population in the 19th century. Later on, this German tradition spread over large parts of the Western world, and beyond. This picture was taken in Tokyo in 2015.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

The Christkind vs. St. Nicholas

In the Middle Ages, German children received their gifts from St. Nicholas on December 6. However, Protestants in Germany disliked what they perceived as the veneration of Saints by Catholics. It's likely that reformer Martin Luther changed the gift-giving date to December 24. From then on, Christ was seen as the gift giver, and became known in Germany as the "Christkind," or Christ child.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

Holy gifts

Children can hardly wait to open their presents on Christmas Eve. The German word for the activity is "Bescherung," which comes from the ancient German word, "beschern," or bestowed by God. To this day, many children, particularly in southern Germany, still believe that their gifts are brought by the Christkind.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

Contemplative mood at night

Midnight Mass draws large crowds into the churches, including people who only rarely attend mass during the rest of the year. The Christmas liturgy is traditionally held at midnight on Christmas Eve in Germany. Until the early 18th century, the mass took place in the early morning hours of December 25. The ceremony itself, however, has hardly changed.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

Nativity scenes

For centuries, amateur actors have been depicting the story of Christmas. In early times, the performances included some additional Bible scenes, such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. Over time, the performances focused on the birth of Jesus, to become known as the Nativity play.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

Christmas goose or potato salad?

While some German families cannot do without their Christmas goose, others go for a simple potato salad with sausages. The division goes back to former times, when only the rich could afford a goose, whereas most people had to limit themselves to potatoes and sausage.

10 German Christmas traditions and their origin

The Twelth Night

In large parts of Europe, the 12 days between Christmas and January 6, known as the Twelfth Day, tend to be particularly cold. In former times, people were scared of demons clad in fur who were believed to be roaming around during these 12 nights. They had to be kept at bay with the help of frankincense.

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