December 25, 2007

"So this is Christmas ..."

I was sorry that we didn’t stay in Germany for the Christmas holidays. I had long wanted to see how Christmas, or Weihnachten, is celebrated in its country of origin. The Tennenbaum, the Yule log, the Weihnachtsman (a.k.a. Santa Claus), they’re all German inventions, and though Germany has not been unaffected by the American commercialization of Christmas, its Christmas traditions still have that simple, rustic, and almost Dickensian feel.

Christmas in Germany seems to be all about family, High Mass, Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Gluhwein (mulled wine). My German friends – my contemporaries – tell me of Christmas Eve nights, coming home from Mass to find the Tennenbaum decorated for the very first time, all aglow with little candles and Christmas Eve goose cooling on the table. “God bless us, every one,” you can almost hear the littlest of them say.

Although I didn’t stay for Christmas proper, I saw the next best thing: the famous German Weihnachtsmarkt. From about the first of December right up until Christmas Eve, the market square of every German town is given over to the Christmas markets. Almost over night, dozens of rustic huts sprout up in neat little rows in order to sell candles and baubles, soaps and spices, and other things nobody needs.

At the Weihnachtsmarkt in Stuttgart, the merchants seemed as competitive in decorating their huts as in hawking their wares. Their roofs practically sagged under the weight of all the evergreen, the veritable forests of fir trees, the positive herds of deer. No multi-colored strings of blinking lights or giant inflatable Santa Clauses for these guys. Anything not au naturale would have seemed kitschy, no doubt.

I was enchanted. There is something magical about all the green and red during the coldest, grayest months of the year. December in Germany is particularly depressing. It rains nearly every day, and the sun refuses to make an appearance for weeks on end. But just as I was feeling I might throw myself off the Festung or drown myself in the Main, the city lit up with that warm holiday glow. I got the sense the most of these Christmas traditions arose out of some communal need to combat rampant melancholia.

So, despite the freezing rain, I visited the Würzburg Weihnachtsmarkt nearly every day. I’d wander through the stalls, fingering the brightly embroidered linens or gazing into mercury glass balls, not buying any, of course, just soaking up all that color and texture and light. I also soaked up enough hot, tangy Gluhwein and sugared almonds that you could can and preserve me, but that’s another thing altogether. Needless to say, these cheery marketplaces got me through my last weeks in Germany, until I could get home to my own family and our own Christmas traditions.

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