Let me take you on a little pre-Christmas trip today from your PC or EZ-chair to the land of Christmas markets, Germany and Austria.
Also called advent or christkindl markets, they originally gave towns and their burghers an opportunity to stock up on provisions at the onset of the cold season. Historical records name Dresden, Germany as the first in 1434.
Now they are a staple celebration of Christmas traditions drawing millions of visitors in the four weeks, Advent, leading up to the fest in many towns all over Europe, even Chicago. Often situated in the old market place, within historic city walls or other pedestrianized town areas, they invite to stroll around, socialise, shop, and eat.
Christmas markets have become popular seasonal tourist destinations. You can book trips to several cities in one weekend to see the famous markets in Vienna, Nuremberg and Munich in one weekend and do your Christmas shopping at the same time.
On opening night and, in some towns, every night, onlookers welcome the Christkind or Christ child, in the form of a golden-haired angel played by a local youth.
Winter reigns in this land of bustling shoppers and onlookers (if global warming is not interfering in a freaky way). What a disappointment if it is mild like last week in Zurich!
Anticipation of festive things to come fills not only the minds and seasonal spirits of the young. A particular joy on your senses after dark, the cold air is redolent with a myriad of smells associated with Christmas like toasted almonds and chestnuts, chocolate-covered or candied red apples (called paradise apples here) and mulled wine.
Wooden stalls with straw-covered roofs display a vast array of handmade crafts and art: old fashioned dolls, fragrant soaps, bees wax candles, silver jewelry, or environmentally correct wooden toys, (no lead, please). Nativity scenes add to the festive nature of the markets, which otherwise have become very commercialized.
Vendors, clad in woolly caps and fur lined boots grab hot chocolates and lattes like the intrepid strollers and determined shoppers, and fortify themselves with bratwurst or increasingly doner kebab (introduced to the scene by Turkish immigrants years ago). When the fairylights illuminate the scene after dark, even the Yuletide- challenged find it hard to escape the allure of Christmas markets. It’s bliss if it actually snows!
Christmas Like it Used to Be
Every year when Christmas looms on the horizon, I start longing for home- the land of my childhood and Christmas memories. In Germany, we celebrate on Christmas Eve or Heiligabend as it is called in German. Leading up to it is Advent, starting four Sundays before Christmas, marked by lighting a candle each week on an advent wreath. This is usually kept on the table in the family room where, in the old days, the family gathered and sang Christmas carols.
On 1 December, the tradition is to give children an advent calendar with little doors numbered 1-24, each containing a piece of chocolate. It makes counting the days and the wait till Christmas easier impatient little souls. If you like crafts you can make your own. I used to tie 24 little parcels on a ribbon or garland, filled with mini something’s like candy, tiny toys, or crayons.
Everybody loves St. Nicholas who, on Dec 6, rewards children that have been good during the year by placing little surprises in their boots. Every child puts her pair outside the door that night. Of course they need polishing first. Naughty children only receive a fir twig, a little symbolic punishment. This tradition survives from pre-politically correct days, but it is always mitigated by some goodies.
We exchange our gifts on Christmas Eve. Until then all the presents are well hidden somewhere, not always easy under prying eyes. The 24th is a busy day marked by secret preparations, with the parents sneaking in and out of the living room where the tree is decorated behind closed doors. The tree has to be a real one, often a noble fir.
My parents had an understanding that Papa would take me out in the car pretending to do a last minute errand while Mama got everything ready including a special meal.
After dark, with all the family washed and dressed up waiting around, a mysterious little bell was heard. That was the sign that Father Christmas had graced us with a visit. The door of the living room would open revealing a tree with real candles and the presents laid out underneath. Children’s eyes would glaze over at this stage; carol singing was to follow before anybody was allowed to open presents. Kids would play till late, but also allow their parents to sleep in the morning.
When we moved to Ireland we kept up this tradition although it meant hard work. We were facing a tidal wave of early presents and artificial trees with electrical fairy lights all around us. For the neighbors’ kids it was hard to comprehend why Santa Claus would make an exception for Germans and come early.
I can still smell the aromas of fresh Christmas cookies and the combined fragrance of fir trees and candles. For me there is no fascination in electric lights. Naturally, you have to be vigilant and watch the tree at all times; and yes, occasionally someone would have a fire. For extra safety, some people have a bucket of water at the ready. It’s best to blow out the candles when you leave the room.
Stollen, marzipan and advent calendars are available here. But in shorts and T-shirts and with the kids having flown the nest it’s not the same. Maybe with the arrival of the next generation and the patter of little feet, I’ll regain my enthusiasm.
Educated in Germany with a Master’s Degree in English, Siggy Buckley lived in Ireland for over 15 years, first teaching at the University of Limerick as an adjunct professor, while building up an organic farm. She later ran her own businesses in Dublin before coming to the USA in 2003. In 2005, Siggy married an American and pursued her life-long dream of writing.
Among her previous publications is the autobiographic novel Next Time Lucky: How to Find your Mr. Right. She also created a series of travelogues about home swapping Intrepid Home Swapping- Insider Secrets for Successful Homeswapping. “Her latest book is called “I once had a Farm in Ireland: Living the Organic Life style” available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2cSbOjl.