Chapter Eight
December, 1999

Christmas is an event of rather epic proportions in Germany. The holiday decorations arrive in store windows the day after Halloween, somersaulting Santas where just before there were witches on brooms. There are even Santas climbing up buildings, heading for the windows and chimneys, looking like so many teams of poorly disguised catburglers. Special Weinachtsmarkts (outdoor Christmas markets) sprout like mushrooms in every town with a central square, opening with the beginning of Advent and running through the four Sundays preceeding Christmas.

Local artisans and businesses move into booths where they sell everything from handcarved wooden Nativity scenes to elaborate puppets, woollen scarves to beeswax candles, pots and pans to funny hats. Every few booths or so, there is a cluster selling to those more interested in instant gratification: würstchen (sausages), crêpes, waffeln, stewed mushrooms, nachos, and glühwein, a German take on mulled wine. The name translates to "wine that makes you glow," and they sell it in commemorative mugs to anyone who can put the 8 marks on the counter.

Every town has its own version of the Weinachtsmarkt. In Bad Neuenahr, it was a sleepy collection of booths circling a tiny merry-go-round, run by two men who would wander over from the food and drink booth to give even a single child a ride. In neighboring Ahrweiler, the markt rambled through the old town, snaking down the streets off the central square and churchyard, mingling with the regular shops til you almost didn't know which were which. We found two markts in Köln, in Neumarkt and in the courtyard surrounding the Dom (cathedral), although there were rumors of at least two more. Each had its own speciality; if we wanted food, we went to the Dom, if we wanted gifts, we went to Neumarkt, although both could be found in either place.

Christmas is, here, like everywhere, a blend of the sacred and the secular. What could be more commercial than open-air markets dedicated to selling stuff? What could be more appropriate to sell than hand-carved, richly detailed Nativity scenes?

Dispite the plethora of Santas cavorting in window displays and scaling the sides of tall buildings, I didn't see a single Santa mingling with the crowds and collecting wish lists. However, Saint Nicholas made a number of appearances, dispensing Christmas blessings to those whose path he crossed.

The Christmas markets we visited most often featured a vast array of decorative gifts, sold by the artisans who had spent the past year making them. Some even set up mini-workshops in their booths where shoppers could pause and watch beautiful things emerge from raw materials.

In German, asking a person what he does for a living translates to "What do you make?"

Christmas in Germany seemed very much a holiday for children. Many of the market booths featured gifts for children or for the child living in each of us. There was something strange and magical in the air at a Weinachtsmarkt, something that made you feel warm and fuzzy inside despite the rain and wind, something that made you forget the traditional stress of the holidays, something that made it ok to smile at strangers. I don't think it was just the glühwein.

And then, after filling town squares with song and laughter and warm crêpes and warmer glühwein, the Weinachtsmarkts disappeared as suddenly as they had sprung into being. By twilight on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the squares were quiet and deserted.

By then most everyone else in our group had already returned to the States for the holidays. Even our apartment building was joined in the hush of sweet expectation that is Heilige Nacht.

Christmas Eve found Ian and I out for an afternoon walk. Bad Neuenahr was as still that afternoon as we had ever found it, even at 3 in the morning. We wished the ducks on the Ahr happy holidays and headed home to our own interpretation of Christmas in Germany.

Chapter Nine

Ian Gilman / Germany Journal
DolciDeleria / Germany Journal
Copyright 1998-2013, Ian Gilman & Christina Willott