Tag Archives: christmas

Christmas next to the stable

“Today, the typical German Christmas takes place on the Autobahn (motorway).” When Francesca looked  inquiringly, I added, “Everybody is driving from one fraction of the family to the other. I wonder why there isn´t a collapsable car tree yet.”

Everybody travels on Christmas but us. We travel on the 23rd. First by train, then by car, then by funicular,  then by ski tow and finally by ski. After 10 hours we are where we want to be: at 1800 m altitude beneath the summit cross of the Partnom in Austria. Or rather, we sit, warm and safe, in a chalet in the Austrian Alps. And won´t move for seven days.

It started as an act of escapism. To get rid of what we Germans call “Weihnachtsstress”,  a few years ago we decided to spend Christmas with friends. Of course, our parents complained that they wouldn´t see us and their grandchild on Christmas. But at least they all felt neglected equally. 

When we first came to this 200 year old farmhouse high in the mountains, the night was dark, our hands and feet freezing.  For a long hour we had been outside in the winter cold, wading through  snow hip-deep, not knowing where to go. I carried my son in my arms to protect him from the icy wind. At last, we saw a lighted window and headed toward it. In our hurry we didn´t pay attention to the path. First my spouse and then my child and I vanished in a snowdrift we barely could crawl out. Wet and exhausted we dragged ourselves for the last steps. When we arrived at the plateau the house was sitting on, the upper part of a partitioned door opened and a man said: “Grüß Euch Gott. Kommt doch herein”. 

The place he led us in was – a stable.

Without ox and donkey, though.

Of course, we didn´t have to stay there for the night. Behind a second door we found the living quarters: wooden tables, laid for dinner; a stove radiating heat; beds, barely visible under bulky duvets. And our friends.

Later, I listened to the silence of the night.  

By trying to get away from Christmas we came nearer to the Christmas spirit than ever. No fight what channel to look at TV, because we didn´t have a TV. Not one child drowning in 10 presents, but 10 children receiving one present each. And no mother preparing dinner for 10, alone, but 10 adults caring for 10 children. 

As I write this, it is midnight on the 22nd of December. I´m tired. Tomorrow, our travels will start at 6am. I write this now as  I promised to post an entry for the blog every Saturday. I´ll put it on autopost, because up there, next to the stable, I´m only connected to  the real world, not to the  virtual. 

But this will be another story. 












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O Tannenbaum

“Why don´t you have a Christmas tree yet?” Francesca asked, looking around my living room. “In Germany we don´t put up a Christmas tree before Christmas eve”, I said. Only when Francesca looked at me as if for the first time she doubted my authority in everything German, I started to think about what I just had said.

Of course, from late November on, Christmas trees  sprout in cafeterias, shops, offices, all public places. Like in my son´s daycare center. Awkwardly, it stands in the middle of the entrance hall, surrounded by racks filled with dirty wellingtons.  For days, I haven´t even realized that it was there, till yesterday, when a branch caught the strap of my rucksack. Feeling the pull I turned around and saw a green spiky something, manhigh, falling toward me. I grabbed the stem before the needles could scratch my eyes out  and tried to push it back in place. But an invisible force worked against me. The tree fell to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, back to the right, in widening circles, till it crashed on the floor.   I found myself bent over the tree, hands still holding the stem, pieces of lametta on my arm. I blushed, coughed, and picked the lametta from my coat. I tried to understand what had happened. Finally I saw it, the “Christbaumständer”  that gave the tree the momentum I struggled against. “Of course” I thought when I looked at the iron weight to hold the tree: “The old troublemaker. How could I forget”.

The Christbaumständer of my youth had four screws to hold the tree. To mount the tree, my father had to crawl on the floor, crouch under the tree and adjust the screws one after the other while my mother gave directions.  If my father were a philosopher he would have mused about every thing being interdependent. Maybe chaos theory was inventend under a Christmas tree. “More to the right”, my mother said. He turned the left screw. “Stop, hold on, now more to the left”. My father turned the right screw. “Not that much”, my mother cried.”Didn´t I tell you to take it easy?” He loosened the right screw. The tree fell to the right, pricking his neck. “Can´t you make your mind up”, he shouted, “left or right, right or left”. “It would be much easier it you didn´t always choose such a crooked tree in the first place”, my mother retorted.

This invariably happened on December, 24th, at three a clock in the afternoon. We children would press our eyes and ears to the keyhole till my mother would cover the keyhole to keep the proceedings secret. When finally, around 5 o´clock, the silver bell rang to tell us that “Christkindl” has brought the presents, we rushed in the room and stood in awe in front of this elegant tree  in his best clothes. Our eyes went down to the presents that awaited us beneath. They had to wait for much longer, as now one of us had to read the bible :” Und es begab sich zu der Zeit, dass Josef von Nazareth …”, the whole Christmas story of Mary and Josef looking for shelter and finding it in a stable. After reading, we had to sing “O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie grün sind Deine Blätter ….” and “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht …”. Then, at last, the presents: Bescherung.

The traditional German Christmas dinner is surprisingly simple and basic. More often than not it is “Kartoffelsalat mit Wiener Würstchen”–potatoe salad with frankfurter. Maybe our ancestors knew that nobody could concentrate on eating after all the exitement. Or the women decided to enjoy this day, too.

Funnily, this part of the tradition has changed most.  Whereas not to put up the Christmas tree before Christmas eve ist still a must. At least in German families …. in most German families … ok, maybe not so much in Frankfurt.

But then, in Frankfurt, Germans cross the street when the traffic lights says “Don´t walk”, too.

But this is another story.



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Christmas cookies – Yes, I do

“Why do you call them Christmas cookies”, Francesca asked when we munched `Ausstecherle` yesterday. “Because we only eat them on Christmas and the weeks before.” “But why do you only eat them for Christmas? They are so delicious, you could eat them all year round.”

Feeling slightly stupid, I pondered this question for a night. Yes, of course, I could. As an adult, I don´t have a mother who hides the Christmas cookies in secret places so they will last till Christmas. Nobody will scold me when I snatch a Christmas cookie before time. And nobody prevents me from baking the cookies for a summer party at the beach. But do I really want to?

Often, the main part of  attraction is limitation. Today, there are limited editions for about anything you can buy: cigarettes, tissues, joghurts, chocolate. They only thing I know that isn´t limited yet is toilet paper–though it was in the former GDR.  As a marketing trend, I highly suspect limitation. On a private level, I enjoy it.

Strawberries in May and June, plumcake in September, onion cake in October, gingerbread and Christmas cookies in December– this seasonalization gives the pleasure of a “first” every year anew. When during the months since my last intake I have forgotten how a strawberry tastes, with the first bite the fruit seems to exlode in my mouth. Every cell in my body sighs: Oh yes, this is a strawberry. Sometimes I even purr over my first piece of plumcake with whipped cream. And the taste of the first Christmas cookie brightens every grey December day.

Historically I suppose that Christmas cookies where limited to a month of the year because the ingredients were rare and expensive. Tons of butter, sugar, nuts, almonds, and cinammon go into a good German Christmas cookie. Every family has its special assortment of cookies, the recipes handed down from mother to daughter. But the overall  German Christmas cookies are “Ausstecherle”.

Ausstecherle are made from “Mürbteig”-piecrust. They consist of butter, flour, sugar and eggs, kneaded into a smooth dough and cooled for an hour. After spreading out with a rolling pin, metal stencils cut out dough shaped like stars, angels or Christmas trees. The baked cookies are covered with icing and dipped into chocolate- or sugar streusel (I just realized that the English word for a crumbled topping is the same as the German).

My mother always prepares 15 varieties of Christmas cookies. I do one.

In Germany, every child has the birthright to at least one Christmas cookie baking session a year. So I do it. I bake. Mostly because I feel that I should give my son the experience of actually making something by hand. But on the great day, I stand in my kitchen and wonder how this incredibly slow process of Christmas cookie making could be organized more effectively. It seems such a waste of time to spend three hardworking hours to produce a handful of Christmas cookies. The first and second part of the process I like: the kneading of the dough and the cutting out of shapes with stencils. For me, the work could very well finish with putting the cookies in the oven. But by then, I´m only halfway through. Now I have to dip every single cookie into the icing, then into the chocolate streusel, then put it on a drying rack. This is normally the time when my son vanishes into his room. To make 10 cookies is fun, to make 200 is real work. So I, who hate repetitions, am left with 190 unfinished cookies. Soon, I get annoyed about being left with the stupid work. I call my son, scold him, try to force him to help me, lose the fight, and finally finish the work on my own with red anger in my heart.

To make the matter worse, I can´t even moan about the Christmas cookie making. In Germany, you have to enjoy this quality time with your children – basta.

Though this year  the no-moan tradition seems to change. Yesterday night the owner of the local sauna handed me a leaflet: “Special reductions for everybody stressed out by Christmas shopping and cookie making”. Tonight, sweating on  a wooden bench, I will meet my peers. 

I wonder where I can put pen and paper to write down all the new recipes for Christmas cookies.

But this will be another story.


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Save the Nikolaus – or better not?

“Did you know there is an initiative  to save the St. Nikolaus by declaring Santa Claus free zones?” I asked Francesca increduously. “They even have papersheets where you can cut out a Nikolaus to pull it over a chocolate Santa Claus. (http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de). St. Nikolaus was a Saint, they argue, who was canonized because of all the good deeds he did as  a Bishop, while Santa Claus was invented as a marketing tool.

Contrary to this argument I ´m much in favor of a Nikolaus free zone instead. The St. Nikolaus I recall from my childhood was a horrifying figure. On the eve of Dezember 6th, he would come out of the dark into our house wearing a golden mitra and a golden book in his hands, where he had listed all the sin we kids had commited over the year. He hid his face behind behind a white long beard. His voice was deep and filled us children with awe.

I dreaded the moment when he would ask “Have you been a good child this year?” What should I tell him? What terrible thing would happen if  I answered “Yes, of course” and he then found a sin in his book I had comitted but already forgotten? What if I said “No”, thus eventually missing the chance that my sins had passed unnoticed? I can´t remember what I answered, but I recall him the reading all my misdeeds out of the book. While I stood alone in front of him to listen, I hardly dared to look a the figure standing behind him: Knecht Ruprecht, the Darth Vader of my childhood. His face was blackened with coal to conceal his features and he wore a  black cloak.  Out of a big sack over his shoulder “Ruten” (switches) were sticking. Knecht Ruprecht never talked but was always there, the taciturn henchman lurking behind the judge. Would he carry me away in his dirty sack or just spank me with his switch?

Every year I managed to forget that of course we never got spanked or were thrown into the sack, but were presented – after the trial- with oranges, dried fruit and nuts, rare treats.

Later, luckily, St. Niklaus became invisible. He delivered his goods in the early hours of December the 6th into boots we children put in front of the door. The evening before, my siblings and I would hunt for the biggest boots in the house, usually my fathers rambling shoes. A chocolate Nikolaus and a Nikolaus bun replaced the fruits and nuts. In those days I was absolutely fascinated by the glimmering gold foil of the chocolate Nikolaus and never dared to open it. Instead, I put the Niklaus on my bookshelf and looked at it longingly. Sometimes I saved it for a year. When I finally ate it, the chocolate had turned white and stale.

Today, the Niklaus has become Santa Claus, a jolly old guy with red cheeks and a benevolent smile on his lips. For my son, Nikolaus is just another chance to get a bag of jelly beans. For me its a chance to get a chocolate Santa Claus at work which I eat instantly.

This year I even silently hoped Santa Claus would deliver one of the “Konsumschecks” the governement is discussing at the moment into my boot. The idea is to give 500 Euro  to everybody to kickstart consumption and thus  give the economy a push. As this would mean a handout of 40 billion Euros, naturally they try to back out. At the moment, the discussion centers around the question “Who is everybody?”, every Jane and Joe Doe? Oskar und Erika Mustermann? Or are there special everybodies?

“Give them to those who are experienced money spenders”, I would tell them, if they asked me. On a greater scale, this would mean to give the money to the banks -which has already happened. On a more personal scale, they should give the money to me and not to my moneysaving spouse.  I have a lot of ideas how to spend 1000 Euro in one day effectively.

But this would be another story.


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Advent or Countdown to Christmas

This morning my son reminded me: “Don´t forget the Adventskalender, and the Adventskranz, and the Christmasparty at school”.  I sighed and silently envied Francesca. She can look forward to Christmas in her own stride, while for me, the countdown to Christmas starts on November 30th – der Erste Advent, the first of four Sundays running up to Christmas.

Advent traditionally means a time of “Besinnlichkeit”. A German considers this to be a time in the year where the hectic rhythm of everyday life is supposed to slow down. Together with family and friends, you spend relaxed Sunday afternoons eating gingerbread and Christmas cookies. Flickering candles create an atmosphere of Gemütlichkeit. Four candles are arranged on a pine wreath called Adventskranz. On the first Sunday of Advent, you light the first candle, on the second, two candles are burning, three on the third, four on the fourth. The children get their Adventskalender. From Dezember 1st till Dezember 24, they either open little cardboard doors on the traditional Adventskalender filled with chocolate, or their mothers fill little red-and-green numbered felt-sachets with Lego-blocks or other “Schnick-Schnack”. Sometimes an Adventskalender will be shown on a large scale. I know a small village in Austria with  24 houses. To form a landscaped Adventscalender, one house after the other lights a window at night so that on December 24, the whole village is an Adventskalender with 24 lights burning.

On “Erster Advent”, the “Weihnachtsmarkt” (Christmas market) opens as well. Traditionally, it takes place in the town centre, near the Rathaus (Town Hall) or the main church. Small stands sell handmade artwork  like beewax candles, wooden playthings, jewellery, knitted socks, and Christmas decorations. Children love the Weihnachtsmarkt at night because of the glimmering lights and tempting smell of sweets like candied almonds and gingerbread. Adults love it because of the Glühwein.

Glühwein (hot mulled wine) is one of the great pleasures of winter in Germany. Whenever adults have to spend some time outdoors in cold winter, they find Glühwein on offer: After the Sankt Martin`s procession, at the ice skating rink, for lunch in ski resorts, and on the Weihnachtsmarkt. Glühwein is made from red wine, spiced with orange slices, clove and a cinnamon stick. The typical Advent feeling in Germany is cold feet, warm hands, tongue-burning wine and a headache the next day.

“Lass uns einen Glühwein auf dem Weinhnachtsmarkt trinken” (Let´s meet to drink a hot mulled wine on the Christmas Market) is the most common phrase among friends and colleagues in December. These informal meetings add to the row of official Christmas parties that make the life of couples with kids feel rather like the countdown to a rocket launch than a “besinnliche Adventszeit”.

Every year I´m amazed how Christmas parties can multiply. There are the parties at work: the big party for the whole company, the smaller parties in the department, the eating out with business partners or team-members and the Glühwein (hot mulled wine) drinking with your office colleagues on the Weihnachtsmarkt. As it is tradition to invite spouses to the Christmas parties, an average couple will have four to six Christmas parties in Dezember. With one child, they will have at least two more: at school and at the daycare center. With two children, another two. Additionally most Germans are members of not only one club, but at least two or three, and each of this clubs is proud to invite to its own Christmas party.

This morning, my organizer showed ten Christmas parties till December 20th. That was when my son told me, that his teacher wants me to call her to organize the Christmas party for his class. I haven´t called her yet …. maybe she will forget?

And yet, deep in my heart, I feel the urge to invite my friends to an “Adventskaffee” to my house, to eat cookies, drink coffee, talk and laugh, and watch the beeswax candles on my Advent wreath burning down. I am pondering this idea for weeks now and I don´t dare to send out the invitations. Maybe I could do it in January, as a “Postvent”?

But this will be another story


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