Of the many wonders I experienced living in Germany for a decade, five years before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, none warmed my spirit more than Christmastime in the old country.
By CINDY HOEDEL
The Kansas City Star
Christmas in Germany is like jazz in America, hockey in Canada or tea ceremonies in Japan: steeped in authenticity that cannot be fully replicated elsewhere.
The Germans more or less invented Christmas as we celebrate it today. Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, Christmas trees, ornaments, gingerbread houses, fruitcake, hot alcoholic beverages, the yule log and Santa Claus all have roots in Germanic winter solstice celebrations and later efforts by the Catholic Church and Martin Luther to Christianize those pagan symbols and rites.
Christmastime was the only time I didnt feel like a foreigner in Germany. In fact, at the Christmas market in my 1,200-year-old town of Esslingen-Am-Neckar, I had the odd sensation of coming home as I walked on cold cobblestones sipping hot spiced wine from a glass mug while fat snowflakes the kind Julie Andrews sang about in The Sound of Music really did stay on my nose and eyelashes.
The picture-postcard village of thatched-roof wooden stalls selling nutcrackers, music boxes, revolving candle-powered pyramids, hand-carved wooden Nativity sets, painted tin ornaments and velvet-robed wax angels seemed more familiar and real though it was all new than actual Christmases in America. Probably because it unlocked images from storybooks, Christmas carol lyrics and movie sets tucked away in the corners of my brain since childhood.
Like most things in Germany, the Christmas season and how it was celebrated were clearly defined with no ad-libbing or innovating allowed. That, of course, is why it has retained its charm.
Christmas was observed from the first Sunday of Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) to Three Kings Day (Jan. 6). Christmas cookies, of prescribed shapes and ingredients, could be served during that period only.
On the first Advent Sunday, you put an Advent wreath, a circle of evergreens with four candles, on the coffee or dining table. You lit one candle on the first Sunday, two on the second Sunday and so on. During the week you lit none of the candles, even if company stopped by.
Other sanctioned decorations included candles in windows, real or electric, and strings of electric lights, clear only, around the perimeter of homes and buildings. (German friends called the multicolor holiday lighting on display at U.S. Army housing disco lights.)
Christmas in Germany is a three-day holiday, with Christmas Eve being the most important. On Christmas Eve day, and not before, you bring the Christmas tree inside and decorate it. Seeing the decorated tree for the first time was one of the things that made Christmas Eve magical.
The key component of a German Christmas tree is real candles perched on holders that clip onto the branches. The candles were red and finger-sized, and you didnt light them until after dark.
For an American it was a special thrill to see real candles burning on a live tree. When I told friends back home of this magnificent spectacle, they reacted with horror and admonishments about safety. But Germans were in charge, so there was always a bucket of water next to the tree, and it was never needed, because no one ever left a lit tree unattended.
After admiring the Christmas tree, there was a late dinner, a full-blown Downton Abbey affair with generations-old china, silver and crystal on heavy snow-white linens. My in-laws usually served goose or duck with a rosemary-scented sauce, dumplings, oxtail soup with strips of thin pancake and chives, braised red cabbage and lambs lettuce salad. There was German champagne and French red wine.
After dinner, gifts were exchanged. When the grandfather clock struck 10, you opened the windows, no matter how cold it was, and listened to the church bells ring up and down the valley. Adults might drink a cup of punch made with fruits and berries harvested in summer and fermented for four months in sugar and rum.
At 11 oclock, you bundled up and headed off for midnight Mass in a medieval cathedral that was grander and colder than you can imagine. The Latin, the incense, the gold trim on the altar boys robes, the up-and-down on ancient kneeling benches went on and on, especially if you werent Catholic. By the time you got home it was 2 a.m. and as you sunk your head down into your deep square feather pillow, you were in a sweetly transformed state, full of wonder.
I wont be in Germany this Christmas, but Germany will be in me. There will be tin ornaments. There will be a late dinner on fancy plates. There will be rum punch four months in the making. When I open the windows, I will be able to hear the church bells in my mind, mixing sweetly with the trains and coyotes.