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.
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.
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.