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 A German Christmas

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PostSubject: A German Christmas   Thu Nov 06, 2008 9:37 pm

A German Christmas

by Martin Hintz
Feathery snow, gaily decorated trees, ornate creches, Jingling sleigh bells, brilliant nighttime skies, flickering candles, soaring carols-these are the Yule gifts that Germany awaits each year. There are few other countries anywhere that are so Christmas conscious. West Germany is an expansive sprawl of Alps and Black Forest, of seacoast and inland lakes, of meadows and rolling hills that has enough Christmas traditions per mile to fill a fleet of Santa's sleighs.
The country celebrates Christmas with a capital C. It has been this way for untold generations, since the first hardy missionaries ventured into the Teutonic wilderness, bringing the message of Christ's peace and love. War, famine, depression, and politcal turmoil have not been able to shake the German love affair with this most holy of holidays. The Germans have subsequently been more than willing to share their delightful exuberance with the rest of the world, and we've all been the better for it.
The excitement begins even as the first autumn leaves turn golden brown and drift to the ground, carpeting the landscape with their crunchy feel underfoot. The upbeat holiday feeling continues for months.
Germans build up to Christmas gradually, starting their celebration on Saint Martin's Day, the eleventh of November. This feast day honors a Roman soldier who shared his cloak with a shivering beggar. The impoverished man was actually the disguised Christ according to the wonderful legend. The tradition of gift giving, as exemplified by the concerned saint, has continued to this day, much to the delight of youngsters who are the principal beneficiaries of all the goodies. On that day, as well, in the regions of Eifel, Sauerland, Theingau, and Westerwald, children carry lanterns and torches through the winding village streets. At night, high on the hills over the towns, they will light the Martinmas fires, the blazes, signifying light and hope in the advent of winter, can be seen for miles.
Next comes Saint Nicholas Day on the sixth of December, another holiday expressly for children who again receive gifts of fruit and candy. From the Saint Nicholoas character, which probably stems from a medieval king figure, we in the United States get our own Santa Claus with his white beard and elaborate red costume. The German Nicholas rides about on a great white horse, followed by his grimy and grumpy manservant who ususally goes by the name of Ruprecht. This character hands out gifts to the good youngsters and punishes the bad ones, including - supposedly - dipping them into a giant inkpot!
But anyone who travels through Germany in early December hoping to meet the good Saint Nicholas might be in for a surprise, especially in eastern sections of the country. The Ashman in Pomerania. The Shaggy Goat in West Prussia, and the East Prussian Bag of Bones are based in pagan lore. They ask for gifts for themselves, displaying very little Christian charity. The figures are dressed in animal skins and straw, designed to scare the little ones.
The annual Christmas market opens early in December, offering for sale almost every imaginable holiday item from candles to candy. Many towns centers are crammed with tiny stalls displaying oodles of decorations, trees, baked goods, and similar delights. If you can't find a present here, you just haven't looked long enough! Youngsters love wandering from booth to booth in these Christmas fairs or "Christ Child Markets," as they are sometimes called. Munich's market dates from the 1300's, while the one in Bonn is barely two decades old. Regardless of the history of a Christmas fair in a specific city, the popularity of the event is undeniable.
As the time gets closer to Christmas, the weather turns colder. The markets become quiet, almost hushed, as the vendors huddle over their tiny coal-fed fires. Last minute shoppers are the same anywhere as they rush around stocking up on wares.
For the child who plans ahead, a list of wishes is a must. Children's notes are often addressed to Father Christmas or to the Christ Child and are gaily decorated with bright illustrations. The feeling is that the better the drawings, the more gifts are forthcoming. Some youngsters even sprinkle sugar on the letter, just to be sure that the holy recipient knows that the sender has been good for that preceding year. Himmelreich (Kingdom of Heaven) in northern Germany is always inundated with letters for weeks before Christms. Children seem to think the town's postal service has a direct line upwards where such an important letter really counts.
All the stores close promptly at one in the afternoon on Christmas Eve as everyone hurries home to put on their best clothes and sit down to a magnificent supper. While the children are eating, the parents slip the presents under the tree in the front room.
As soon as the first church bells sound the call to Vespers, an evening prayer service in the Catholic districts of Germany, the head of the house rings a tiny bell to tell everyone that Father Christmas has arrived. The youngest child has the lucky duty of opening the door to the room with all the presents. The resulting scene as everyone crowds around the tree is best left to the imagination!
Even with all the gift giving and the huge meals, the true spirit of Christmas is never forgotten. Both Catholic and Protestant faiths offer midnight services in the country's great Cathedrals and tiny village Churches. The sounds of carols flow over the wintry countryside as easily as new-fallen snow. Everything is awash with light because many parishioners bring their own candles and lanterns to church. It is traditional to keep silent on the way to the Christmas liturgy, but once the services are over, everyone explodes with holiday greetings.
Then it's home to bed and dreams of toys and sugarplums. Festive meals round out Christmas Day and more gifts are exchanged as relatives and friends drop by to say hello and offer holiday greetings.
In the center of all this hubbub stands the Christmas tree, one of the best exports that Germany had for the rest of us. Candles are still used to decorate the silver or blue spruce that seems to be most popular. Giant firs stand outside public building, decorated by means of firemen's ladders. Offices and homes seem to outdo each other with their decorations. In several places, living trees are given the honor of being the community's official Yule tree.
So from gift giving to marzipan to beautiful carols, Germany has long given treasured customs to the rest of the world. Even after a full and happy Christmas Day, the festivites don't end. There's Saint Stephen's Day to celebrate on the twenty-sixth of December, leading into the Holy Twelve Nights that extend to Ephiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, on the sixth of January.
Germans simply don't want Christmas to slip away from them, but as the days grow longer and the late winter melts into spring, they eventually turn their thoughts to other holidays. Always, in the back of their minds, however, are the dreams of the next year's Christmas.
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