Christmas with the Beethovens

How did little Ludwig spend Christmas? An eye-witness report.

Wohnhaus der Beethovens (Druck von 1837)
Wohnhaus der Beethovens (Druck von 1837) © Wikimedia Commons

As a child, Beethoven lived with his family for many years in the house owned by the baker's family Fischer in Rheingasse in Bonn. One of the landlord's sons, Gottfried, was exactly the same age as Beethoven, and the two boys were good friends until the Beethoven family had to move house after a flood in 1784. Not long after that, Beethoven moved to Vienna, where he spent the rest of his life. But his childhood friend Gottfried registered the increasing general interest in the Beethovens, and sat down with hus sister Cäcilia in the 1830's to record his memories of his erstwhile neighbours. Fischer's accounts turned into the most important record of the time that the Beethovens spent in Bonn, including his depiction of the Christmas tradition of a family that was by no means well-known at the time.

Neighbourly sausage-swapping

Standing in the kitchen at Christmas – a familiar picture. And in the Beethoven household, too, the Christmas meal played an important part in the festivities. Johann und Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, the parents of little Ludwig and his two brothers, were busy with preparations for several days. Gottfried Fischer goes into raptures about the exceptional sausages they made:

»Every year before Christmas, Herr Johann van Beethoven had a nice big pig slaughtered, from which the court baker Asbach made 240 tasty sausages for Madame van Beethoven – something he did really well. Then Madame van Beethoven sent some sample sausages to her landlord Fischer, whereupon Frau Fischer of course returned the favour by sending Madame van Beethoven a sample of her own sausages.«

The obligatory church-going

Just like so many impatient children today, little Beethoven had to accompany his parents to church before they celebrated Christmas at home. It wasn't any old church they attended, though, but the Schlosskirche in the palace of the Elector of Bonn. – Beethoven's father was employed as a musician in the Bonn court orchestra, where Beethoven himself was later to play the viola. Even as a young person, he already played the organ in the Schlosskirche on a few occasions. The Elector's palace (Schloss) incidentally, together with its church, are among the buildings now used by Bonn University.

»At Christmastime, when the Elector in his capacity as Archbishop read Holy Mass for an hour in the court chapel starting at 11 pm, the musicians and singers of the court orchestra had to demonstrate all their power and skill. All the nobility of the court together with their entire retinue of servants appeared in ceremonial robes in the court chapel, where the Elector's personal guards formed a guard of honour on both sides. The whole regiment lined up from the Koblenzer Tor to the court chapel. After the first gospel reading and half of the Holy Mass, and again after the last gospel reading, the guards fired their weapons three times in response to a signal, whereupon the cannons on the surrounding walls fired in turn.«

Beethoven im Alter von 13 Jahren
Beethoven im Alter von 13 Jahren © Wikimedia Commons
Kurfürstliches Schloss in Bonn
Kurfürstliches Schloss in Bonn © Thomas Wolf

The celebrations went on into the next day

As Holy Mass didn't begin until 11 pm, it's not hard to imagine how late the Beethoven family got home. Their private Christmas celebrations went on until late at night.

»It was often very cold at this time of year. When the church service was over and Herr van Beethoven and his family came home, court baker Asbach came with them. Then, in keeping with tradition, fresh sausages were fried and served with warm punch and coffee. Everyone sat down to eat and drink, and the next day they went on celebrating, then Christmas was over.«

Text: Julika von Werder, last updated: 07.12.2020

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