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Weihnachtsmärkte - An Old World Christmas Custom

December 25, 2003

Topics In This Journal Entry:

[Germany's Christmas Markets] [Weihnachtsmärkte - Getting Ready is Half the Fun!]
[Weihnachtsmärkte - Planes, Trains, Ships and Hotels]
[Weihnachtsmärkte - Germany, Austria, and the Danube River]
[Budapest - Much More Than Christmas Carp!] [An Old-World Christmas in Vienna]

This Journal Entry appeared as a series of articles in the Bridgton News beginning on November 27, 2003.

Germany's Christmas Markets

Article #1 published in the November 27, 2003 Bridgton News

I fondly remember the three years in the early 1960's when my family and I lived in Germany. Both my sons were born there, and we still have relatives and friends in Germany and Denmark. Some of the most magic times during my tour in Germany came as the pre-Christmas Advent Season arrived and several cities transformed their old city centers into Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) and Christkindlesmarkte (Christ Child Markets).

Wandering through these markets brings all the traditions and memories of the Christmas season alive, with the sights, sounds, and smells that we store up for this special time of year. This year, Penny and I will be spending two weeks in Germany, Austria, and Hungary especially to visit these markets and experience the magic of Europe at this festive time of year. Many of our Christmas customs in Maine have their origin in Europe, and we will be experiencing them first-hand. The Advent calendar and wreath, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree), holiday pastries and decorations, and many of our most beloved Christmas Carols such as Stille Nacht (Silent Night) all came from Germany and Austria.

Eine besondere Zeit - A Special Time of Year

The Christmas markets are truly a magical experience. There is no better way to get into the spirit of the holidays and feel Christmas drawing near. The sounds of choirs singing carols, tinkling sleigh bells and the joyous pealing of the cathedral bells are everywhere. I remember dancing around the huge Christmas tree at the Christmas market in the center of Copenhagen with my oldest son (then 3 years old) and my Danish cousins. It was at a Weihnachtsmarkt in Mainz that I first sampled Glühwein, or hot spiced mulled wine. Glühwein has become a Christmas tradition in our family, often taking all day and everyone in the family to help mix and sample it until it is just right!

Holding a fond place in my memory are the Weihnachtmarkt rows of rustic wooden booths of merchants, each one adorned with lights and Christmas decorations, pine boughs and ribbons. The booths were full of Christmas decorations and colorful wooden toys, woodcarvings and pastries, marzipan, chocolates, and other sweets. Wonderful smells filled the air from roasted chestnuts, fresh gingerbread, spicy nut-filled pastries and Stollen (Christmas bread). The best thing is that these are not just fond memories. The pictures and narratives of the German and Austrian Weihnachtsmärkte held today are just as I remember them.

The city square in Nürnberg becomes a
magical Christmas Market

For me, the markets are at their best at night when everything is festively lit. There will often be a mantle of snow on the buildings and trees to add to the charm. This picture showing the main market in Nürnberg is typical, with the churches and towers of ancient buildings surrounding the Marktplatz illuminated and a lantern at each booth. Many of the markets have a parade lit with candles or lanterns that goes through the city streets ending at the market.

There is something very special about seeing snow-tipped Christmas trees aglow with white candles. You can still buy little metal clips to hold colorful wax candles on your freshly cut fir tree, and when the candles are all lit at night the Christmas tree sparkles with a special magic all its own. I bought my first tree candles and clips at the Christkindlemarkt in Stuttgart, and we still light our tree with them every year. (Yes, I know that makes the Sebago Fire Department nervous when I do that, but I am very careful.) I am nearly out of candles, and my candle clips are now nearly 40 years old, so I am planning on restocking my supply when we visit Germany next month.

A Very Old Custom

The tradition of the Weinachtmarkt is hundreds of years old. It started as a place for people to buy all the things needed for their Christmas celebration. The local market was where people bought molds and cutters for baking, candles, Christmas decorations, cookies, sweets and pastries and toys for the children. They traditionally took place around the main church in the town so that the market would attract passing churchgoers. Most markets are still held in their traditional central old-town location.

When Christmas Markets were first held they were often considered winter markets, or St. Nicholas markets, and lasted for only a day or two. Today they may run for four weeks, from the beginning of Advent until Christmas Eve during the time of three festive events of the Christmas season: Advent, Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day), and der heilige Abend (the "Holy Evening", or Christmas Eve).

Advent marks the beginning of the build-up to Christmas, starting on the Sunday after November 26. It begins with quiet contemplative days in November, but excitement andactivity increase as Christmas approaches, accompanied by the usual shopping, preparation of special food and Advent celebrations. The Adventskranz (Advent Wreath) is a very popular decoration in German homes. It consists of a circular wreath of pine or fir-branches with four candles on it. On the first Sunday in Advent the first candle on the wreath is lit, two candles are lit on the second, three on the third and four on the fourth Sunday, immediately prior to Christmas. This same custom is followed in many of our Maine churches today.

St. Nicholas Day is the highlight of Advent for children. It falls every year on December 6. Originally children left hay and straw for St. Nicholas' horses but now they simply put a shoe or a boot outside their bedroom door, window or by the fireplace on the evening of December 5, hoping to find it full of sweets, biscuits, nuts and fruit the next morning. In appearance St. Nicholas is similar to Father Christmas or Santa Claus, dressed in a red gown, with a white beard, boots and a sack.

Christmas Eve is the climax of the German Christmas. Shops and offices close at mid-day or 1pm, and most people spend the afternoon at home in preparation for the later celebrations. The tree is decorated with straw stars, foil and glass decorations, apples, gilded nuts, ring biscuits, Lebkuchen, chocolate or marzipan decorations, wooden Angels, pine cones, tinsel and wax candles or electric lights. Presents are placed either under the tree, with the crib if there is one, or else on the Gabentisch (present table). The Weihnachtsman (Father Christmas, or Santa Claus) is the bringer of gifts for children. Just after dark when everything is prepared a little bell is rung as a signal that the children may come in to see the lighted tree and receive their Bescherung (presents). Before the exchange of gifts takes place the Christmas story is often read by the light of the candles and favourite Christmas carols are sung.

Depending on whether the family is Roman Catholic or Protestant they will probably go to church at midnight or in the late afternoon, if they have children. The rest of the evening is enjoyed as a family get-together with a big dinner.

I was bemused to see carp in the fishmonger shops at Christmas, some decorated with red bows around their necks (as were also the Christmas eels). I was informed by our German neighbors that carp has been a traditional food for the evening meal on Christmas Eve since the Middle Ages. I tried some, found it delicious, but still don't go out of my way to catch or buy carp as a meal. The traditional Christmas food mentioned in the St. Nicholas rhyme, apples and nuts and almonds (in the form of marzipan) still remain favorite Christmas snacks.

Christmas Market Specialties

Each town's market reflects the regional traditions, unique history, and different specialties. The oldest, Dresden's Christmas Market, began in 1434 when the duke first allowed a market the day before Christmas Eve. In 1471 Dresden began a custom of distributing Stollen to poor people. Stollen is still a Dresden specialty, and can be found at every Weinachtmarkte in Germany.

Dolls made of dried fruit are
featured at the Nürnberg

The Nürnberg Market dates from 1628 but probably began earlier than that. Nuremberg's market runs from November 30, the first Sunday of Advent, until Christmas Eve this year. It is famous for its Lebkuchen (gingerbread), gold foil angels, Rostbratwürste (grilled sausages), and Zwetschgenmännle (small dolls made of dried prunes and fruit). The Lucretia Market in Regensburg runs from November 30 until December 23, and is known for its wooden toys, puppets, glassware, ceramics and silk paintings. Some towns have more than one market, such as the three Christmas markets in Salzburg and the several Christkindlesmärkte in Vienna. All feature Glühwein, and you can also find Feuerzangen Bowle (a concoction of liqueur and sugar that is set afire) as holiday drinks.

No Christmas Tree at the Maine Farmhouse This Year

For the first year as long as we have lived in Maine the old farmhouse will not be decorated for Christmas, and I'll not be cutting a tree from the woodlot to fill the living room with its fresh-cut smells. Instead, family friends will be "house sitting" and pet-sitting, staying at our farmhouse over the holidays and enjoying it while we are gone. We will be flying out of Boston in a few weeks to join a Grand Circle Travel riverboat that will take us to the Nürnberg, Regensburg and Passau Weihnachtmärkte in Germany as we travel up the Danube River towards Austria. In Austria we will visit the markets in Linz, Salzburg, Melk and Vienna. We will then take the train to Budapest, Hungary and also spend a few days in Vienna on our own. We will celebrate our Christmas in Vienna and return home after the holidays.

Any visit to Bavaria and Austria is wonderful for all the great food, awesome music and art, and the friendly warm atmosphere. The Christmas season is especially full of concerts and festivals, so many so that we will have a busy time taking it all in while we are there. To be in the cities where Mozart and Strauss and other great masters lived and composed, and to hear their music at special Christmas concerts, is breathtaking!

I am truly looking forward to standing quietly with a cup of warming Glühwein in my hand looking over the Weihnachtmarktplatz and experiencing again the Christmas season traditions, sights and sounds that combine to make Weihnachtzeit magical. Hopefully some of the magic will come through in these articles to encourage you to take the trip someday. Next week I'll share with you what we have done to prepare for this trip.


Weihnachtsmärkte - Getting Ready is Half the Fun!

Article #2, published in the December 11, 2003 Bridgton News
under the title "Christmastime in Europe, after a few decades away".

The preparation for and anticipation of a journey are as important to its pleasure as the journey itself
- Unbekannter Verfasser

The last time that I was in Germany was 14 years ago, when I visited my oldest son and his German wife in Frankfurt am Main. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and the three of us toured the eastern zone, something I'd never been able to do when I lived in Germany nearly 40 years ago. After a week in Germany I met up with Penny at the Manchester, UK airport where we spent a week in a rented cottage in the Lakes Region of England. I had left the Frankfurt Hauptbanhof on a sparkling summer day to make the ferry connection to England, and then the train to Manchester. The train journey up the Rhein River valley was wonderful, and I had a reserved window seat on the river side. That trip, accompanied by a fine Rheingau Riesling and Wagner on my walkman, is my last, idyllic memory of Germany. I am anxious to get back and see how things have changed in 14 years.

Since then, Germany has changed a bit like everywhere else on this globe. Internet cafes and ATMs are everywhere, and credit cards are universally taken at even the smallest village shops. There are as many cell phones glued to people's ears as in New York, and the quaint old city quarters are surrounded by urban sprawl and traffic jams. Much of Europe now has a common currency, the Euro. But the culture and music, the fine food and wine, the customs and language, and the history that stretches back to Roman times, are all still there. It has been 36 years since I last visited Austria and the changes that have taken place there are as dramatic as in Germany.

I learned a long time ago that traveling is very much like life - you get as much, or more, out of it as you put into it. The more that you invest in getting ready to travel, the more you will get in return in insights and enjoyment once the journey begins.

In May we made our reservations for the first nine days of our mid-December trip to the Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets) in Germany and Austria as part of a Grand Circle Travel river tour. We also made our own plane reservations to fly from Boston to Nuremberg to meet with the tour group, and to fly back home from Vienna after Christmas. Then in October we started to get ready for the second half of the trip when we would be traveling on our own in Austria and Hungary, and would need to arrange for our own travel, lodging, and schedule.

The Danube River is Europes second longest river.
We will travel on it from Regensburg to Vienna,
visiting Christmas Markets along the way.

Frau Weber war meine Deutsche Lehrerin

At the time, I thought that Frau Weber was an ogre. All of us in her German language course nearly 40 years ago at Lindsey Air Station in Wiesbaden suspected that she had been a guard at one of the camps before being assigned as our teacher. She was short, stout, and gray haired, with small round glasses. And she was tough! Come to class unprepared and she could sense it, and made your life a living, embarrassing hell all class long. We students quickly learned that it was easier to do our homework and study our lessons than bear the wrath of Frau Weber.

She taught us German the old-fashioned way. The whole class recited vocabulary to get the accent correct. Again and again we declined verbs in all their tenses. Each German noun has a personal pronoun and is either masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das). Woe to you if you used the wrong tense or personal pronoun when constructing a sentence! There was little English spoken in class. Everyone was expected to study and be able to understand German, and Frau Weber patiently built our understanding and fluency day-by-day. I suffered and struggled through two years of Frau Weber because I was determined that I would be able to speak and understand enough German to get around in this country where I was living, compliments of Uncle Sam.

I don't know that I was ever fluent in German, but I developed my language skills beyond the basic restaurant menu/order a beer in a bar/figure out the train schedule skills. As long as the natives were patient with my halting attempts, I got along fine and could make myself understood even in the smallest village wherever German was spoken.

A poor choice of words when I tried
to speak German while hunting there
was an embarrassing experience.
Earning my German Jagdshein,
or hunting license, was a story in itself.

I still remember an embarrassing incident when I was bursting with enthusiasm about my new German language skills I had acquired from Frau Weber in class. I was hunting for Rehbock (Roe deer buck) with a Förster (game-keeper) in Germany. We were in a hochstand (high stand, a type of blind) when a group of deer came into the clearing below us. One of them was a nice buck and I asked the Förster in my best German if I should shoot it. Unfortunately I mixed up my German verbs and instead of asking "Kanne ich das schiessen?" I said "Kanne ich das scheisse?" which means something entirely different, and is a vulgar term for a private bodily function. When the Förster stopped laughing at my gaffe, the deer had long departed the clearing. He patiently explained in simple German that if I needed to "scheissen" that I should do so before climbing up into the hochstande. Since then I've tried to be a little more humble about my language skills and more careful when I try to speak German.

A lot of rust has grown on my German language skills from disuse since Frau Weber however. One of the first things that I needed to do was to rub some of the rust off and get to the stage where I could communicate again in some language other than English. Yes, I know that nearly everyone in Europe speaks English, and we could get around very nicely without learning the local language. But that wasn't the point, don't you see! I want to be able to experience the trip as unfiltered as possible, and in order to do that some basic language skills are essential.

Rubbing the Rust off My German

We are fortunate in having a neighbor up the road at Hillside who is German-born and German-fluent. I approached Pütche in mid-October: "Would you be willing to tutor me in German for the next few weeks?" I asked. "My German is pretty rusty."

"Sure, I'd be happy to" she said, and asked me, in German, how much I knew of the language. I mumbled an answer back to her, and she said, "Let me give you some books and lesson plans that my son Daniel has been using. Take a look at them and see what you think. When do you want to start?"

The materials that Pütche gave me were pretty basic, start from the beginning stuff. I also went through some boxes in the barn and found my old German textbook from Frau Weber's class, my old Cassell's English-German dictionary, and several other grammar and vocabulary texts. When we sat down at her kitchen table a couple of days later we went through the stack and she suggested that a different approach would work best for me. At each session we simply carry on a conversation, in German, about whatever comes to mind. When my vocabulary comes up short, we stop and look up the right word. When I get my personal pronouns or sentence structure wrong, she corrects me. It has been working pretty well so far and the vocabulary and grammar are coming easier for me.

To help my reading skills, Pütche gave me a stack of Der Spiegel magazines in German and said, "Translate an article in the magazine for our next session". I struggled and tried, but it was a laughable disaster! The long, convulted and complex sentences were clearly beyond me, and my translations were way off the mark.

After three or four tries, we gave up on Der Spiegel. Instead, Pütche gave me a small book of stories in German and said, "Here, why don't you try this instead. It is a book of stories for the third grade". The book was, like my German, nearly 40 years old. After I swallowed my ego and starting working in the textbook, it was fine. These were not simple "see Spot run" stories, but fairly difficult narratives of the German people and their customs, humour, and daily life. I wonder how the third-grade stories in Sebago Elementary School would measure up in terms of difficulty, grammar, sentence structure, etc.

Anyway, I found that I could read the stories fairly well, with the help of my German-English dictionary when there were words I didn't know. Pütche then gave me additional readings in German to help expand my vocabulary further.

She says I'm doing fine, and I do feel much more comfortable in my skills. I will certainly be able to carry out an intelligent conversation with third-graders, at least.

For me, the true test of nearing fluency is when I start thinking in the language. That has now happened. The German words now flow more easily out of the back corner of my mind where they have been sitting all these years since Frau Weber forced them there. Frau Weber and Pütche - thank you both! Now if I don't run into that old Förster I'll be OK.

Other Things to Do

There are a host of other things to do to get ready for our trip. We need hotel reservations in Vienna and Budapest, train tickets from Vienna to Budapest, and concert tickets for some of the wonderful Christmas music that is being played this season. Also tour guides and city maps, cell phones and ISP arrangements, traveler's cheques and passports, plus making arrangements for plowing the driveway if it snows while we are gone, etc. I'll talk about these in the next article - "Weihnachtsmärkte - Planes, Trains, Ships and Hotels".


Weihnachtsmärkte - Planes, Trains, Ships and Hotels

Article #3, published in the December 18, 2003 Bridgton News
under the title "Christmas Market trip to Europe took a lot of planning"

As you read this we will be on a Lufthansa flight somewhere over the Atlantic enroute to Frankfurt, connecting with Nürnberg, Germany to begin our European Christmas trip. In the next three articles Ill tell you about the sights and sounds of the Christmas markets and the celebration of the holidays in Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

In this article, however, I wanted to share with you some of the preparations that we made before we got on the plane so that the trip would go more smoothly.

The Best Vacations are Serendipitous

When we were cleaning out my parents home in Effingham, NH after my mother had died, I came across a large box full of letters and tourist fliers from Florida. Before my folks started spending winters in Florida many, many years ago, I discovered that my mother had written to Chambers of Commerce, Visitor Bureaus, and realtors all over the state doing her research on where to go, what to see, and where to stay. The process was slow and laborious, took several months and involved dozens of letters and replies before she was able to make reservations and plan their trip.

Things today are a lot simpler, thanks to the Internet, websites, e-mails and fax machines. Vacation planning half way across the world is only a few keystrokes away. It becomes less a matter of how to do it than how much to do to plan for a quality vacation.

My worst vacations have been the ones where every minute was scheduled and were full of things we had to do, and the vacation was so tiring that we needed a vacation to rest from the vacation when we got home! The best vacations seem to be ones where there is a minimum of scheduling and structure, where only the beginning and end points are pinned down and everything in the middle is serendipitous. This trip to the Christmas markets we are starting today is half scheduled and half unscheduled.

The first nine days of our trip are planned out with lodging, meals and a sightseeing itinerary set by the tour host. Once we join the tour on the M/S River Melody in Nürnberg for the trip up the Danube River all we have to do is decide which of the activities to take part in until the boat docks in Vienna.

The latter nine days of the trip will be on our own and are fairly unscheduled. We will spend four days in Budapest, Hungary and five days in Vienna, Austria at the height of the Christmas season. Weve made a minimum of advance arrangements for train tickets, hotels, and concert tickets. Weve picked up several tour guidebooks and have read up on the history and culture of the places we are going to visit, and identified some of the sights that we want to try and see. But we have allowed time to experience the culture and the sights and sounds of these new places. Most of the time well just wander around to take in the sights of these wonderful cities as the mood strikes us.

Ein Doppelzimmer mit bad, bitte

We like to stay in small hotels or pensions, rooms in private homes and farmhouses, or bed and breakfast inns (B&Bs) when we travel. Usually when we find ourselves in a strange town and need a place to stay we just knock on a few doors. Some places have a system to help travelers. In the English countryside most village tourist offices have a book with pictures, amenities and prices of local country inns, cottages, or B&Bs. They will call ahead to confirm a room and give detailed directions along winding country lanes to get there. In Copenhagen hotels, rooms in private homes, and B&Bs can be booked through the Hotel Desk at the main train station. And when you cross into the Netherlands, a quick stop at the VVV office at the border lets you book ahead for a place to stay in Amsterdam or anywhere else on your Holland journey.

With the coming of the Internet, it is easy to make hotel reservations anywhere in the world. We started with the pensions and inns recommended in Rick Steves Germany, Austria, and Switzerland 2003 and Lonely Planets Hungary 2003 to get a feel for prices and locations. We wanted small inns or pensions at a reasonable price located in the old city part of town where we could walk to everything.

You can easily access listings of hotels in Budapest, Vienna and Nürnberg on line by price and amenities, with color pictures and a map showing their location at Budapest, One Big for destinations in Central and Eastern Europe, and for German hotels. Once we picked out a hotel and confirmed availability it was a few keystrokes to pass along a credit card number on secure servers to make the reservation. There was no trouble in booking reservations in each city through the Internet for a dopplezimmer mit bad (double room with bath).

The Express train to Budapest

I enjoy traveling by train, and try to do so whenever there is an occasion to travel to New York City or Washington, DC. In Europe, the trains are always clean, usually on time (depending on the country), and reasonably priced. With a Euro pass you can travel throughout Europe at a very economical price.

The scheduling board at Budapest's
Keleti Train Station

Train schedules are readily available on line and you can select your origin and destination, type of train (non-stop or local), class of service, and other amenities with a few key clicks. You can select English if you are not comfortable in the language of the country you are planning on visiting. Reservations can be made and tickets bought on line as well. This is a big help when making train reservations in Europe because an e-mail reservation costs nothing while trying to make them with a phone call can be lengthy and costly.

To travel from Vienna to Budapest I logged onto the Passenger Information Centre of the Hungarian State Railways at ELVIRA. I selected English, and then requested the schedules for express trains from Wien (Vienna) to Budapest on our selected travel day, and then returning trains back to Wien four days later. Budapest is less than three hours by express train from Wien. From a list of ten trains we selected the train that would get us into the Budapest Keleti station just after lunch one day, and a return train to Wien a few days later.

The Regensberg Christmas Market

ELVIRA plans on allowing you to make reservations and purchase tickets on line, but their system was not quite set up to do so at this time. After exchanges of e-mails over a couple of days I received a helpful e-mail from Gber Gyngyi at the Hungarian State Railways who said: Hello. You can buy ticket only personally with your passport. Before traveling about two hours you can buy ticket in Vienna at the station. Best regards.

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