25 December 2009

the mysterious pickle

As I mentioned in my last post, Germans are extremely enthusiastic about the Christmas traditions, and many of them have migrated to America. One that I'd heard of years ago and continues to crop up regularly is that of the Christmas tree pickle. These things are readily available in stores and online in the US, described as this charming German tradition. The story goes that this glass pickle is hidden somewhere on the tree, and the first child to find it gets a bonus gift.

Naturally, I mentioned this to my German hosts here, whereupon they all looked at me with total confusion. I described the story, the ornament, the rules, and that it's generally known in America to be something that they were supposed to be doing every year over here. None of them had heard of it.

Later that day, we were walking the streets of Nürnberg when we passed a shop window displaying ornaments. There, in the center of the window was a glass pickle. Proof it exists! As we wandered the Christmas market, I spotted a stand stocked with every possible type of blown glass ornament, including all kinds of vegetables (would you care for a glass garlic bulb on your tree?). They had pickles of several sizes, so S leaned into the stall's proprietor and asked what the deal was. She explained that it was an upper Franconian tradition, and since we here are some 100km away from that region, perhaps it had just not migrated far enough.

Today we had some visitors from further north, so I asked them about it too, and they also had never heard of it. A little research on the internet even mentions a connection to a town in the region where they're from and still, no recognition of the pickle story. I also found a comprehensively researched article that seems to indicate that it's a total fabrication, milking the enchantment Americans seem to have with Germany at this time of year.

Whatever the truth is behind the pickle tale, it's made for a bizarre yet entertaining theme for the holiday.

german holidays

Germans know how to do Christmas properly, from the gluhwein and the markets to the vast and ancient churches that host vesper services. The markets are a unique experience that no American replica I've visited has been able to reproduce faithfully. To start with, I've had the happy fortune to be able to visit one of the oldest and most famous of all the German markets, a festivity that consumes the whole center of the old city and spreads filaments in all directions. It's bursting with inventive handcrafts, magical gifts, the usual straw-star ornament stalls, and of course, anchoring the whole experience, acres of stalls hawking any type of spiced or chocolate-coated cookie or confection you could imagine- lebkuchen, stollen, chocolate-covered fruit, waffles topped with any one of six options, sausages, corn-on-the-cob, candied almonds, and of course, the gluhwein. It's not just wine here though- it's blueberry flavored, it's cherry flavor, it's even egg-liquor flavored. The best part is that it's not served in some thin paper cup that you toss when you're done, but in a proper china mug that you can keep or return for a refund. It's quite cozy to stand among friends and family in the chill, damp air (seems like this is how it always is here in December), the steaming mug in hand, watching the sparkle and bustle whir by on all sides. Even the most seasoned locals (my generous hosts included) appear to enjoy it as much as the newbies like me.

Once the market is closed, it's time for the church experiences. We had the choice of a handful of impressively majestic Medieval churches, but chose one of the most ancient for this evening. Winter services in Europe usually means wearing every stitch of clothing you came with since even the lucky ones with the heated seats will find it woefully inadequate warmth for the 2 hours among the anciently frigid stones that make up these Gothic buildings. The service was only an hour long but the good seats all started going about an hour before, so this evening, those arriving 10 minutes prior either stood or came equipped with their own deck chairs.

The service itself involved a lot of singing of a lot of songs I'd never heard before, even with my relatively extensive carol repertoire. Accompanied by an appropriately massive organ and a passel of trumpets playing in some hidden clerestory level, the experience was fittingly awesome for an evening such as this. As with last year though, my most favorite part was as everyone streamed out the great entrance doors to the joyously chaotic tune of church bells throughout the city ringing through the cobbled streets. Families in all directions were hugging and kissing and handshaking and throwing Christmas greetings to each other as they dispersed through the streets, wet with a sheen of fog, off to dinner and cozy evenings by candlelit trees.