How did Anna of Cleves Celebrate Christmas?

by Heather R. Darsie, J.D.

Christmas celebrations today are a lot different from what Anna von der Mark’s Christmas would have been like. The timing of presents and how Christmas was observed changed dramatically in some parts of Germany from her early to shortly before she left for England.

She would not have exchanged gifts with her family on Christmas. Instead, they would have exchanged gifts on St. Martin’s Day, 11 November, or St. Nicholas’ Day, 6 December. St. Martin’s Day was traditionally celebrated with a feast and bonfires, too. The idea of exchanging gifts on Christmas did not come about until Martin Luther insisted upon the change in Protestant areas starting in 1535. Martin Luther believed that only children should receive presents, and that Christmas Day, 25 December, was the most appropriate for gift-giving.

St, Martin, Winter, Christmas, White, Horse, Rider
A depiction of St. Martin.

Christmas markets developed and changed during Anna’s lifetime, too. Originally, Christmas markets were nothing more than small winter markets in the medieval period. Mentions of German winter or December markets are recorded in the late 13th to early 14th centuries. The first genuine Christmas market took place in Dresden, present-day Saxony, in 1434. Called Christkindlmarkt, or Christ Child Market, the markets were intended to embrace the spirit of Christmas. In northern parts of Germany, the markets are sometimes called Weihnechtsmarkt, or Christmas Market.

One thing of which Anna may have been aware, but is unlikely to have experienced herself, is the famous St. Nicholas counterpart of Krampus. Found mostly in Austrian tradition, Krampus has pagan roots tracing his origin back to the Norse gods, with some believing Krampus to be the son of Loki’s daughter Hel, Queen of the Dead. Another belief about the origin of Krampus is that he is a spirit who chases off the ghosts of winter. In Christmastide tradition, Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas the night of 5 December into 6 December, when St. Nikolaus traditionally puts candy and small toys into the shoes of good children, and Krampus stuffs bad children into his sack to be carried off and beaten. Despite the horror attributed to Krampus, Krampus festivals are met with delight to this day in parts of Germany and Austria.

Post-humous portrait of Anna of Cleves, c. 1570, St. John’s College, Oxford.

Several pastries make up the German tradition of Weihnachtsplätzchen, a tradition begun by monks in the Middle Ages. Anna’s elder sister Sybylla would have enjoyed a type of pastry called Stollen from the year 1545. The flavor and texture of Stollen is somewhere between that of fruitcake and cinnamon raisin bread, and very tasty! Another pastry, Lebkuchen, was popularized in the late 15th century when the Holy Roman Emperor handed Lebkuchen to all the children of the Imperial City of Nuremberg. It is very similar to ginger bread, and nowadays, often decorated with love-notes, similar to what one might write for Valentine’s Day. When Anna was alive, these were exciting, expensive treats.

Anna and her family may have attended mass on Christmas proper. Anna, her brother Wilhelm, and her parents were Catholics their entire lives, although Wilhelm became increasingly tolerant of Lutheranism in his twilight years. As adults, both Sybylla and Amalia became Lutherans.

Please note this article originally appeared here.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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You Might Also Like

  1. Anna of Cleves and Sankt Nikolaustag
  2. Henry VIII Orders Medicine for Anna of Cleves
  3. Happy Birthday, Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII!
  4. Anna of Cleves is Sent to Richmond
  5. The First Cracks in Anna of Cleves’ Marriage to Henry VIII

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).
  2. “German Christmas Market” http://www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk/christmas_in_germany.htm
  3. ‘Weihnachtsplatchen” https://theculturetrip.com/europe/germany/articles/a-brief-history-of-weihnachtsplatzchen-germanys-traditional-christmas-biscuit/
  4. “Krampus” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/krampus-could-come-you-holiday-season-180957438/

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