25 December 2009

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.

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