I love Christmastime in Germany. Yes, it’s a hard time of year to be so far away from family and friends in the US, but as if to make up for it, Germany provides a Christmas experience so intense that there is a whole tourist industry in Europe built on enjoying it. That being said, there are a few seasonal traditions here that every year remind me I’m not in Kansas anymore.
It’s no accident that Germans are so good at Christmas — they’ve a long history of it. (Need proof? Our tradition of having a Christmas tree in the home came to us via Queen Victoria’s German relations.) Christmas markets are found in every city: Hamburg has at least twelve. This panoramic picture view at panorama.dk gives you a feel for the atmosphere at the Rathausmarkt, the largest one in Hamburg. Here you can buy food, crafts, and Glühwein — literally translated, “glow wine”, mulled spiced wine so-called because it makes you “glow”…and trust me, it does! (Notice in the panorama picture the huge crowd surrounding the “Glühweinhaus” :-)) This seasonal atmosphere is enough to increase the Grinchiest heart three sizes.
However, there are a few traditions here that so far have not made the transition into American culture. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
1. Sacrificial Santas. Everyone enjoys decorating their house for Christmas, and the Germans are no exception. Most of these decorations are what you’d expect: lights, sprigs of evergreen, ribbons. But one makes me do a double-take every time. The intention is to represent Santa merrily climbing into your house, presumably to leave gifts. This takes the form of a small doll or mannequin heading up the side of the house, or over balconies (in city dwellings). In the best decorations it simply looks like a crook breaking and entering on his way to steal some festive cheer. In the worst, Santa is seen hanging precariously as if on a gallows, swinging in the breeze. Or he is harshly lashed to the side of the building like some kind of Christmas sacrifice. Which reminds me more of a crucifix, that at the very least is completely the wrong holiday.
2. Live candles on the Christmas tree. We do this in our house, and it scares the Charles Dickens out of me every year. But oooh, is it beautiful!
In defence of the practice, Germans do not set up their trees until a few days before Christmas, so they are still moist and fresh, not the standing pile of kindling an American tree becomes by Christmas Eve. It is also a tradition to keep a big bucket of water near the tree in case of emergency.
3. Festive meats. No getting away from it, the Germans are passionate meat-eaters. Combine this with their passion for Christmas, and you get traditions that make non-meat-eaters like me squirm.
First we have salamis and other sandwich meats pressed into festive shapes, as I’ve found in our local grocery store:
(a few years ago I also saw a pork roll with an intricate star of David pressed into it. It was lovely, as far as sandwich meats go, and I think the mistake was the result of ignorance, not malice :-))
Then a few days ago we went to my husband’s office Christmas party, and I met this little fellow:
He’s called an “Igel”, or Hedgehog in English, for obvious reasons. Please notice that he is made of onions, three strategically placed olives, and SEVERAL POUNDS OF RAW MINCEMEAT (!), which one spreads on bread. (I must give a big thank-you to the gentleman in the buffet line ahead of me. He was tickled that I was so interested in the Hedgehog, and generously reattached the Igel’s nose, which he had just put on his slice of bread, so I could take my picture.)
And so I wish everyone Frohes Fest (“Happy Holidays”) from Hamburg! May visions of sugar-plum fairies and Hedgehogs dance in your heads.