Getting into the Christmas Spirit

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I don’t assume German Christmas traditions are that different from those in other Western hemisphere countries nowadays. Perhaps the main difference is that here, traditionally Christmas Eve is the main holiday, not Christmas Day. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas Eve, are all about getting into the holiday mood and spending time with the family. It’s supposed to be tranquil, harmonious and peaceful – gemütlich, in a nutshell.

Gemütlichkeit is one of those German words that utterly defy translation. It means cozyness and familiarity, warmth, good food, peace and the company of loved ones and still more. Gemütlichkeit is also one of those sentimental longings it’s totally uncool to admit to, except during Christmastime, when such mawkishness is downright required and called holiday mood. You know, candlelight and the sweet scent of zimtstern and spiced cookies, bitter cold evenings spent with the family in front of a cozy ingle, frankfurt sausages and potato salad for dinner, Christmas Eve service, on earth peace and good will toward men, carols under the Christmas tree, presents, shining children’s eyes…

Well, oops. That’s the catch, isn’t it? Presents. There’s not much Gemütlichkeit in hunting down Christmas presents among a gazillion other poor wretched souls, last minute again of course, ’cause work and everyday life don’t simply stop during Advent only because people are supposed to feel like doing the Christmas spirit thing, despite all the elevator versions of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells”, the merry red-frocked, white-cotton bearded salespersons and the gaily decorated displays of glittering futilities which are blazing abroad otherwise.

I need a break.

Luckily, the nearest Weihnachtsmarkt is right around the corner.

Between the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve, there are Christmas markets everywhere in Germany. In smaller communities, they are local events, held on only one Advent weekend. In big cities they are often professional affairs and tourist magnets due to their particular atmosphere, for example the Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt or the Dresden Striezelmarkt. Most Christmas markets are part commerce and part tradition. Once you’ve visited a few dozen of the bigger ones, like I did over the years, you can barely tell them apart anymore, its the same everywhere and every year.
Yet, to me it’s like an addiction. It’s not Christmas without at least one visit to at least one Christmas market. Preferably my favourite, Mannheim Weihnachtsmarkt. It’s not that famous and it’s not even particularly atmospheric as it’s situated at a place which is actually nothing but a very big traffic island surrounded by four-lane streets that are busy at all hours of the day or night. And still, there’s something special about this crowded, messy, colorful hodgepodge of occasionally pretty ramshackle little wooden huts where you can buy Turkish Döner next to German Bratwurst and Thai Spring rolls, where they sell frying pans, brushes and brooms and kitschy, cheap plastic toys next to all kinds of wonderful arts and crafts, and where everybody is shouting at each other in the openmouthed, throaty tones that make out the Mannheim dialect. I just love that place.

Come, I’ll show you why.

Behind the welcome sign that says “Merry Christmas” or “Welcome to the Weihnachtsmarkt” or whatever is popular this year, you step into a different world. It’s just as jam-packed with people, just as sound-polluted with discordant Christmas muzak, just as infested with fake Santas like the rest of the city is. Still, it is like a particular kind of magic slowed everything down and– lo! People are smiling at us.

Wooden booths, decorated with evergreen garlands, fairy lights and baubles, line narrow alleys with names like “Angel’s Lane” or “Christ Child Way”. It smells like cinnamon and anise, like sausages and dampfnudel with vanilla sauce and roasted almonds, like wood and incense, like damp wool and wax candles and honey. People are drinking Glühwein, mulled wine, from small ceramic jars as they’re standing together in small groups, laughing and talking, and nobody cares that they’re obstructing the traffic, the crowd just parts around them and rolls on.

Just let me buy you a Glühwein – careful, it’s hot!- and we’ll walk the booths for a while.  

Each booth is different. Look at these delicate blown glass ornaments! The next booths sell hand-knitted socks and hats or wooden nutcrackers, artful straw stars, silver jewelry, crib figurines or homemade scented soaps. Around the corner, two little girls play “Ihr Kinderlein kommet” on woodwind recorders, and it does no harm to their awwww… factor that they’re out of tune with the teenage boy who blasts “Oh Tannenbaum” on his trumpet four booths over.

Let’s share a Bratwurst as we wander the rest of the Weihnachtsmarkt together, aimless and smiling and in wide-eyed wonder as if we were children again. There’s the gingerbread hearts seller, the guy with the schnapps and liquor in artful bottles, the woman with the chocolate Santas and the marzipan potatoes, and look – wouldn’t this painted little wooden box make a lovely Christmas gift?

If you have let yourself be carried away, you’ll be by now warmed through by the joy of the small things life so often makes us forget and Christmastime comes back every year to remind us of. And that’s just why I like visits to the  Weihnachtsmarkt so much.

Can you feel it yet?

Christmas is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 thoughts on “Getting into the Christmas Spirit

  1. Feliz

    Feliz Navidad, Helena! (I’d do the reversed acclamation mark thing too, but I can’t find it….) :grin:

  2. Leslie S

    Lovely post! I try to get to one of the German Christmas markets that pop up for a week or so in most major cities around the UK at this time of year, but I think I’ve missed them all this year. Fortunately a friend in Chemnitz has just sent me some lebkuchen – I could eat those things all day :grin:

    Merry Christmas!

      1. Leslie S

        Lebkuchen are the yummiest soft cake-like biscuits that are sometimes plain on one side and iced on the other, or have chocolate on one side and rice-paper on the other, or decorated with icing, or… well, there are different specialities of lebkuchen for every town in Germany, I guess! They always taste so warm – they’ve got very Christmassy spices in them, cloves and cinnamon and nutmeg and pepper. And they’re completely addictive :grin:

          1. Leslie S

            Wow, with cayenne pepper! They must taste amazing! I have just started on my first attempt at stollen… am slightly nervous LOL

      2. Feliz

        Lebkuchen are manna, dear, food of the Gods….A little bit comparable to Gingerbread, but not quite. They’re every bit as yummy and addictive and fabulotastic as Leslie says!

  3. Amanda Corlies

    Well, I highly doubt my day will be filled with such good will here in the states as I leave my house to go join the holiday shopping madness, but who knows. My countrywomen and men often surprise me. Still, I wish I had one of your markets around the corner. Thanks for starting my day with a lovely idea to hold on to as I join the fray. :D

    1. feliz

      You’re welcome Amanda, I wish for you that you’ll find the Christmas spirit anyway. Just remember the little things!

  4. Calathea

    Awww, Feliz, that’s a wonderful post! Thank you a lot! :smile: Now I’m back in Christmas mood and will even dare to visit the Weihnachtsmarkt here again (although I fear to be crushed by the masses…). I get a kind of nostalgic feeling when there, like seeing all the shiny lights and hearing the music makes me feel like a child again.
    I love to buy at least one new glass tree ornament on the Weihnachtsmarkt every year. And drinking Glühwein and eating Bratwurst is a must, best done with a group of friends. :grin:
    I miss the Kartoffelpuffer (patatoe pancake?) they used to sell where I lived before. Baked in oil they are hell for the hips but I indulged once a year. :wink:

  5. Josephine Myles

    I bet German towns look beautiful at this time of year!

    One of my favourite shops in Bath to visit at Christmas is a little Austrian shop, selling handmade wooden tree ornaments and the like. I must try and get there next week and buy another angel for the tree, then have a cup of their wonderful spiced hot chocolate! (And I just want to point out, I’m fully aware Austria and Germany are different countries, but I have a suspicion your Christmas traditions are fairly similar)

    Tell you what, though – you can keep your German potato salad. Not sure what it is you put in there, but it tastes really weird to my English tastebuds!

    Fröhliche Weihnachten, Feliz!

    1. feliz

      Hi Josephine,
      You’re right,they are similar. There is actually more of a difference between Catholic and Protestant than between German and Austrian.
      Yes the towns are beautiful,all with garlands of light and so on. Some turn entire houses into huge Christmas calendars like Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Individual christmas decoration is not as common here yet as in the States,but we’re getting there
      There is an all-year round Christmas shop in Heidelberg,btw.

      I’l only eat potato salad if my mum made it.The stuff they got in Northern Germany can stay there…. :grin:

  6. Raine

    Oh I loved this Feliz, I’ve been fighting to find that Christmas spirit, but I think it’s starting to fly now.

    Lebkuchen, Jack Daniels and Aisling part 3. :happydance:

    Have a very happy holiday. I’m very pleased your book has done so well for you this year…….and hope next year is as good. :smile:

    1. feliz

      Aww,Raine,that’s nice to hear! Have a good flight and a soft landing despite Jack…. :grin:

      I’m happy about CF too,thank you!

  7. Ingrid

    I just came back from the Weihnachtsmarkets. I visited four this year!
    The white gluhwein was yummie.
    When visiting it brings me into the christmas mood and it is most fun to visit with friends.
    So I was not even gone when we talked of next year :grin:

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