Friday, December 13, 2013

Frohe Weihnachten und einen guten Rutsch: Holidays in Germany

Holiday Series Day 10: Frohe Weihnachten und einen guten Rutsch

Christmas market in Cologne

Well, it was bound to happen. After the Netherlands, I think Germany was the most obvious choice for me to write a holiday post about considering my background in German language and culture. For those of you who don't know, I am bit of a German fanatic- no not in the creepy stalker, German dolls on my shelf style. More of an appreciation for the country's dynamic language, current economic status, and open minded cultural style. I have been studying the German language since High School, and despite my parents' misgiving, I have also committed myself to completing the German language minor here at UW-Platteville.  Since I am also the current German Club president (yes, we have one, don't laugh too loudly), I get to spend lots of time with like-minded individuals practicing my German and raving over the culture. Now, all that being said, I still wanted to get a true German holiday perspective from a person who is as German as they come- my current Professor, Madelon Kohler-Busch (MKB- our fearless guide to all things German).

Hailing from Munich, MKB is an outspoken, free thinking personality that never ceases to amaze and is a solid source for all things German. She is natürlich very passionate about the German culture, including all things green such as their outstanding recycling program, but in particular German traditions. When I asked her if she could give me some more insight into German holiday festivities besides the cookie cutter version I had been spoon-fed since High School, she decided to spend an entire class period discussing German holiday customs- including the main stays and new arrivals. Of course, typical me I will be throwing in a few stories and other random information.

The Advent

Alright, firstly, you should all know that the Germans don't simply celebrate Christmas, they essentially celebrate throughout all of December. How, you ask? Well, it all comes down to a wonderful thing called the advent. The Adventzeit or time of Advent begins on the first Sunday in December with a lighting of the first candle on the Adventskranz or Advent wreath. Granted, by that time you will have counted down a few days on the Adventkalendar or the Advent calendar, enjoying all the goodies as the days go by. The Adventskranz is a way to mark down the days until Christ's birth. Each candle symbolizes a facet of Christ or holiness, and generally there is a fifth Christ candle lit on Christmas eve that stands in the center of the wreath. The wreath itself is traditionally comprised of pine boughs, three red/rose/purple candles, a white candle and other festive decorations. Each family has their own unique Adventskranz; sometimes they even are passed down from generation to generation. The idea is essentially the same for the Adventskalendar. Another way to countdown the days will Christ's arrival, the store bought version is usually a contraption of decorated cardboard with all 24 numbers in place. On each day the corresponding number is opened and the sweets or trinkets inside are revealed. In my family, the best behaved child always got to open the number of the day (which was of course always me...). With the DIY craze spreading right now, more and more families are getting creative about their calender designs such as the baggie style one seen below.

The Adventskranz on the fourth Sunday            
Store bought Adventskalendar
Homemade Adventskalendar by a creative family

Deutsch Decor

A Weihnachtspyramide in one of the markets
There are many elements that make up modern decorations for the average German household or city, but some have a bit longer traditions than others. The Weihnachtspyramide is one such. A kind of carousel with several levels depicting images of angels, Christ and his followers, the Christmas pyramids of Ore Mountains are said to be a predecessor to the Christmas tree. The spinning motion of the pyramid's levels is accomplished by using the rising heat from candles to spin the top propeller above. The pyramids can be as simple or intricate as you please, and come in all shapes and sizes. Most families only possess a small table sized version, whereas in Christmas markets and city centers the pyramids can get larger than 20 ft. (~7 meters).

Traditional Weihnachtsbaum with candles

Now, on to the infamous Tannenbaum. That's right, the Christmas tree. Although the Russians will tell you they are responsible for the first Christmas trees, for sanity's sake let's just acknowledge it as being German for the next ten minutes. Hailing from the Black Forest traditionally, Christmas trees have been a part of German Christmas traditions since Martin Luther's time. It's said that the was so profoundly amazed by seeing the snow glistening off a massive pine tree, that he felt the need to share it's beauty with his family. At the time, I'm sure his family thought he had officially lost his marbles, but the concept of dragging a pine tree into the house and decorating it has stuck. Although we use electric lights mostly nowadays, it was originally candles that graced her boughs. In place of our shiny ornaments, it was common to use nuts and fruit. Of course, beyond the home, the Germans still do a wonderful job of sharing the joys of Christmas through holiday decorations. Which brings us to the next point: Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt.

Christmas candles are a central part of German tradition, supposedly sharing the light of Christ and good will



When traveling through most middle to large scale German cities in the heart of winter, it is nigh on impossible not to stumble across this splendid Christmas markets. I use the word "stumble" lightly, since they are hard to miss with their festive lights, traditional wooden market stands and abounding Christmas delights. The Christmas market is an excellent opportunity to step into another time in German history, when life was simpler and all you needed was a glass of gluhwein with a few pieces of Lebkuchen to brighten your day (though for me, that statement still holds true). The markets are kind of the epitome of German Christmas spirit and are more than just a hot spot for tourists- natives find just as much delight wandering their alley ways. Packed with more than just gifts and sweets, there is usually carolers to be found strolling the walkways and singing versions of "O Tannenbaum" while music from a nearby carousel provides a background beat. Large Christmas trees are decorated with as many lights as possible and in some, such as the Dusseldorf market, gigantic Weihnachtspyramide can be found as well. I'm not going to go into too much detail regarding what brought about the Christmas markets (since this blog is already starting to get long) or elaborate any further on their splendor, but please promise me right now that you will add "visit a German Christmas market" to your bucket list. In case you can't visit Germany, Austria, Switzerland or any other German speaking countries in the near future, the Midwest has a pretty decent version in the heart of Chicago called the Christkindlmarket that is going on right now.  
A festive Weihnachtsmarkt in all it's lit up glory
Spiced hot gluhwein














Das Essen

Lebkuchen hearts sold in every Christmas market and bakery
 Now, there is a key part associated with the Advent that I failed to mention: Weihnachtsplätzchen aka Christmas cookies aka kekse or keks. Yes, Christmas cookies are a staple food all around the world during the holidays, but German bakeries have been mastering the art of these splendid confections since the dark ages. "Plätzchen" was originally used to describe hard biscuits that were made to last longer and soften as they aged. Eventually, a sweeter version was developed and was only to be eaten on particular days in winter as deemed by the church. It was believed that these cookies or kekse were too sweet for other times of the year, but since it was winter time the extra calories were allowed. Over time, that tradition behind the "once yearly cookie binge" was obviously dropped and the wide world of kekse was born. I don't know all the details, but nowadays the keks are to be eaten in a particular chronological order during the Advent. For example, you aren't supposed to eat plätzchen before the first Advent candle is lit, and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and honey cookies are supposed to be for the first week of the Advent. The cookies were originally supposed to also be a form of health for the harsh winters, since most of them include items such as honey, nuts, and spices. In fact, the star cookie of the German holiday is "Lebkuchen" which roughly translates to "cake of life." The list of plätzchen varieties is quite extensive (at least 18 official ones as of right now), but it includes spekulatius, lebkuchen, and marzipan cookies to name a few. Now that I have told you all that, keep in mind that the most important part about the plätzchen is how they are made. MKB stressed that the true importance is that families will get together and have special baking parties. The cookies are just a sweet excuse for more holiday festivities, singing Christmas songs and time with family. 

Just a small selection of all the varieties of Plätzchen
Since we're on the topic of food, let's keep this train of delicious thoughts moving. German, like most other nationalities, love a good holiday feast with family. They take the time to prepare the meal together, then set the table with decor and sweets as a team. The simple "togetherness" of the holiday is what Germans seem to relish most. Understandably, I think their food selections should rank number two on that list. A true German Christmas would not be complete without the following:  roasted carp and poultry (preferably goose or duck) as the entree; a few side dishes of sauerkraut, potatoes, cabbage and kale; a wide variety of breads throughout the meal including the Christstollen or fruitcake at the end; and of course either some form of fondue or racletten (both if you're lucky!). The racletten is similar to the Dutch gourmetten. Essentially a small grill in the center of the table, it is used to create all sorts of new dishes by combining items from across the table. By this time, I'm sure you've caught on that Germans are quite proud of their traditions. Well, that extends deeper when looking at each individual state within Germany. Comprised of 16 nation states including Bavaria and Nordrhein-Westfalen, each is quite proud of their own special traditions. For example, in northern Germany in areas like the Meck-Pom, potato salad with sausages is customary, and in the south regions around Baden-Württemberg it is more common to have Schäufele (a corn smoked ham). Regardless of which region you are from, you an guarantee that fine wines, delectable beers and piping hot mulled wine will provide the beverage foundation for any good holiday meal.

Poultry with red cabbage and dumplings is a very popular Christmas Dinner

 St. Nick & Friends

Something I have thus far failed to discuss with you fine readers (yes, Nate, all three of them), is the traditions regarding St. Nick (the Americanized version and the original). Similar to the Dutch tradition, the Germans celebrate Sanktnikolaustag on the night of December 5th. It's not as widely celebrated in Germany any more as it is currently in the Netherlands, but on the night of the fifth, all the good girls and boys still lay out their boots or Nikolaus-Stiefel in the hopes that sweet things will be found the following morning. Now, things get a little bit more macabre in the southern parts of Germany where St. Nick is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, a dark figure who questions how well behaved children have been and beats the naughty ones with a stick. Similar to Knecht Ruprecht, is the Krampus figure. Typically depicted as a hairy devil monster, he comes on the same night to punish all the children who have misbehaved. Supposedly he travels from house to house collecting all the naughtiest children and drags them back to his lair in a burlap sack. It is common to see young men dressed up in Krampus costumes roaming from house to house frightening little kids with rusty chains and bells. In other words, if you plan to visit Germany and are still small enough to be carried away in a sack, make sure you've been good, or else. Below is a video of a Krampus parade. Yes, they have those.

Sankt Nikolaus und die Krampus

Now, besides good ol' Knecht Ruprecht and his stick, St. Nick, and the krampus, the Germans also have incorporated our "Santa Claus" into their customs via the Weihnachtsmann. In his universal red and white attire, the Weihnachstmann comes on the "holiest night of the year," Christmas eve, to bring presents to all the girls and boys. Although some older Germans are not very fond of his commercialized intrusion into German holiday traditions, the children of course are more than happy with an opportunity to receive more gifts.

Neujahr & Silvester!

The finish to the holiday season is Neujahr and Silvester. Like most European new year's festivities, Silvester takes place on the last day in December is full of feasting, large holiday parties, sweet treats and fireworks. The common greeting is "Prosit Neujahr!" and as the midnight bell sounds people celebrate in mass in all the major cities. I apologize for my lack of elaboration, but here are a few photos to get you in the new year spirit.

Krumkake rolls with powdered sugar!

The pig is a common sign of good luck in German tradition
In certain areas, Neujahrbrezeln are given out

Berlin has one of the largest celebrations of New Year's in all of Germany

And with that, I bid you all a ...

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