Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas in Germany

Celebrating Christmas together as a family in Berlin has been a dream of Erwin and mine since our first visit to Berlin during the first week of December in 2002. We fell in love with the city and the familiarity of many of the Christmas sights and sounds that we remembered from our early childhood. We knew that we just had to one day share this with our kids, show them how Germans “do” Christmas. That year has finally come.

Germany does Christmas right.

I know that is a bold assertion, and being German I may be biased, but it just feels right. Even though I was born and raised in Canada, my parents maintained many of the traditions that they grew up with in Germany, passed them on their children and grandchildren. Erwin’s family celebrated a unique blend of Canadian (from his mom) and German (from his dad.)

In North America, we get steamrollered by the season long before anyone wants it to begin. In Germany the Christmas season officially begins with the opening of the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in early December. There are dozens of them throughout Berlin, probably thousands throughout Germany and the countries that border it. It is the place to buy exquisite handmade crafts and ornaments, or try the local seasonal delicacies, or just mix and mingle and people watch. Christmas markets are best seen at night. It causes the makeshift wooden stalls adorned with lights and garlands to look enchanted and adds to the magic of Christmas.

The first thing you notice is that, despite a lot of North American influence, it still maintains a semblance of “the reason for the season.” Saying “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas), isn’t considered politically incorrect. Somehow it all seems less commercial too. From the toned down decorations (no plastic Rudolph’s and neon garlands etc.), to the use of the advent wreath to celebrate the four Sundays before Christmas, to the windows draped in greenery with glass ornaments shimmering in moonlight. Look up and there’s always a towering fir tree covered in sparkling lights. Speaking of trees, real candles on real tress is still the way to go here. I’m not joking. I bought a package of the holders and the candles that go with them for use on our tree at home next Christmas (don’t tell our insurance agent.)

The smell of Christmas is a combination of incense from the Raüchermänner (an incense cone placed inside a wooden figure which billows out perfumed coils of smoke) and the peppery-cinnamon smell of Glühwein (mulled wine, a mug of which you can walk around freely with) mixed with the aroma of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) baking. Traditional treats include Marzipanstollen (Germany’s answer to fruitcake, and people actually like it), Gebranntemandeln (cinnamon toasted almonds), Dominosteine (bite sized squares layered with gingerbread, almond paste and currant jam, covered in chocolate, yummm my fav.) and of course goose for Christmas dinner instead of turkey.

No stockings are hung by the chimney with care, however, there still is hope that St. Nicholas soon will be there. Except…. his arrival is eagerly anticipated on Christmas Eve… after it gets dark out. He comes to the door and knocks asking to be let in. He enters with a sack slung over his shoulder and distributes gifts if you've been good…or nothing if you've been bad. Santa, or der Weihnachtesmann, even looks different here, less jolly old St. Nick and more old-world charm or even a little scary at times.

As for dreaming of a white Christmas…this year that’s probably all it will be, a dream. Although we've had some snow here it’s mostly gone or turned to icy slush. I’m ok with that, it just means will have to be careful as we walk to the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) for Christmas Eve service, or take one last look around the sights of Christmas in Germany as a family.

Frohe Weihnachten from Sylvia and Erwin

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