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Advent - Time of Preparation, Time of Christmas Markets

Preliminary Note:
This blog will take you through Germany not in the three dimensions of geography, but in the fourth dimension: Time. It will take you on one full circle round the sun, and presents German holidays, traditions, customs and events throughout the year in chronological order.
I am beginning the circle in accordance with the church year, not the calendar year, in order not to tear apart the Christmas season.

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Advent, from Latin adventus (arrival), is the name of the four weeks before Christmas. Originally a time of fasting and repentance like the Lent, this period has become a festive season of its own, a period of anticipation and preparation. Unfortunately to many people it has become a period of stress, gift-hunting, preparations for the holiday feast etc.

Advent is not Christmas. Christmas begins, to us, on Christmas Eve, December 24. Advent has its own traditions. This is when the Christmas markets are open, when all those special cookies and pastries are made, it's Glühwein season... I like Advent better than the actual Christmas holidays.

One of these traditions is the Advent wreath, made of (real!) fir twigs and decorated with gilded nuts or pine cones or anything glittering or Christmassy that people like. It bears four candles to count the four Sundays of Advent. On the first Advent Sunday the first candle is lit, a week later the second, and so on (and if you light the fifth candle you have overslept Christmas, as the corrupted version of a well-known Advent poem tells...)
Some years ago I used to collect twigs and make m own wreath, but now I have taken to buying one. All flower shops sell them in late November, both plain or completely decorated. I prefer decorating it myself, though. The first photo shows my 2008 one on the second Advent Sunday, the second photo has the 2009 version (decorated with gold-painted leaves, nuts and chestnuts) after the third Advent Sunday.

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In the meantime I have abandoned the Advent wreath, though, because during a trip to Saxony I was introduced to the tradition of woodcarved Advent chandeliers. I bought one in Seiffen in the Ore Mountains in 2010 and since then it has been in use.

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Weihnachtsmärkte - Christmas Markets

Christmas markets are an essential part of the pre-Christmas season, beginning in late November. Every city and larger town has one in a central square, or even more than one. In small places the Christmas market is often limited to one weekend.
Usually the city sets up little wooden huts in the square and rents them out to merchants. The stalls sell gifts and decorations, pretty arts and crafts by local artisans as well as pure cheapo kitsch made in China or whereever. Some products show up on all Christmas markets throughout the country. Check and compare. (If you see something you really like and want, though, buy it, otherwise you'll regret it when you are back home...)

In addition, food and drink stalls take up a lot of room. The largest crowds assemble round the Glühwein stalls (mulled wine, see separate tip). Sausages, pizza, crepes, roasted almonds in sugar, roasted chestnuts are foods that can be found everywhere. Some regions have their specialities, like gingerbread and the tiny sausages in Nürnberg, Flammkuchen and Schupfnudeln in the southwest, fish rolls in the north, Printen (a kind of gingerbread) in Aachen, Stollen in Saxony. Give them a try...

Despite a widespread misunderstanding, Christmas markets are NOT open during the Christmas holidays.Their purpose is selling gifts and decorations, which people need for Christmas Eve. They start during the week before the first Advent Sunday, i.e. four weeks before Christmas. Most markets terminate on December 22 or 23 or maybe December 24 around noon.
During this period, they are open 7 days a week, usually from 11 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. The markets are prettiest, and most crowded, after dark.

Recently a few cities have decided to reopen their markets after the holidays, which is against all tradition and does not make much sense except for the Glühwein stalls. For the sake of tourism and commerce a tradition is sacrificed. The atmosphere is gone when the holidays are over.

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Glühwein

Glühwein (mulled wine) is the country's favourite drink in wintertime, especially during Advent and Christmas season. A traditional Glühwein consists of red wine that is heated together with spices, usually cinnamon, cloves, anis and lemon peel or a splash of lemon or orange juice and sweetened with sugar.
Prefabricated Glühwein is often made from low-quality wines. Don't drink too much of it, it may cause a "hair-root catarrh" (aka headache or hangover).

No Christmas market would be complete without a number of Glühwein stalls. They are easy to find: check where the densest crowds assemble. Friends meet there, colleagues go out after work... Glühwein stalls usually offer, in addition to plain Glühwein, a number of varieties like Glühwein with brandy, with cognac, with amaretto and cream, with or entirely made from fruit wines. Sometimes you may also find white Glühwein. Hessen's speciality is hot apple wine. For kids and drivers, there is an alcohol-free version made from fruit juice (if you're lucky) or red fruit tea (lame). Across the border in Alsace I also found hot orange juice with spices, which was really yummy.

The price for a cup of Glühwein (0.2 l) is around 2.50 to 3 €. In addition to that you pay a deposit for the cup, usually 2 €, that you get back when you return the cup. Some stalls hand out plastic coins or paper tickets, these have to be returned together with the cup to get your deposit back.
Glühwein cups often have a special design with a picture of the town and its market. You may even find cups in the shape of a little boot. Some are really pretty. If you want to keep the cup as a souvenir and not claim the deposit back, that is morally okay. You paid for it. That's why they want deposit for the cups - too many are taken home.

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Herrnhut Stars

The Herrnhut stars were invented in Herrnhut, the central settlement of the Moravian church which was founded by Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf in the 18th century. The original stars are still hand-made in the village of Herrnhut.

A real Herrnhut star consists of 18 square and 8 triangular peaks. Stars in any other shapes are not authentic. The peaks are mounted with little metal fasteners. Assembling the star takes a while and is part of traditional Advent preparations. No worries, it's easy and they come with an explanation in both German and English.
The traditional colours are red, white, or yellow, and bicolor with either a red interior and white or yellow peaks, or alternating in white and red or yellow and red. They come in paper for indoors or plastic for outdoors. A little electric lightbulb hangs inside to light them, available in cheaper indoor or safe and waterproof outdoor version.

Beginning as a local tradition, these stars are now sold and mailed all over the world.
Herrnhut is situated in the Lausitz in Saxony, so in that region the stars are most popular. In Dresden, for example, they are everywhere. Imagine an uglier than ugly 14-storey concrete apartment house when at night such a star is glowing on every second balcony. Wow!

In the 'West', churches were the first to have them. There is hardly a church in Germany that does not put up a big Herrnhut star above the altar during Advent and Christmas season. After the opening of the wall when people started travelling and visiting the Christmas markets in the East, the first ones appeared in windows over here, too. Nowadays they are still not as frequent as in Saxony, but you see quite a number of them over here, too. In my living room window, for example...

Mine is the smallest version, about 40 cm in diameter. I bought mine in Dresden on the Striezelmarkt where the Herrnhuter have a stall that sells nothing but these stars. They are now on sale on Christmas markets all over the country. Original ones come in such blue boxes as in photo 3.

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St Nikolaus Day, December 6

December 6 is the holiday of St Nikolaus, Bishop of Myra. His holiday became a day of little gifts and sweets for kids (and big kids) which is also popular in several other European countries, e. g. Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

The legend tells how the saint witnessed the prayers of three girls from a very poor family whose father saw no other way out of misery than selling his daughters to a brothel. By night Nikolaus threw three balls of pure gold into their window and thus saved the girls from this cruel fate. Nikolaus statues in churches often show him holding three golden balls in his hand (photo 2).

Only good kids receive sweets on Nikolaus Day, however. Naughty kids used to get nothing but a birch rod. (Today’s parents are not that strict any more.) In the evening before St Nikolaus Day kids set up one of their shoes, polished and shining please, outside their door for Nikolaus to fill. In the Alps region, they traditionally put an empty plate on their window sill instead.

Nikolaus was a bishop, so originally he wore a bishop’s ornate. The figure was mingled with that of Father Christmas, they look alike now. “Santa Claus” is actually St. Nikolaus/Nicolas.

Posted by Kathrin_E 03:19 Archived in Germany Tagged germany events holidays traditions customs Comments (0)

Christmas

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Christmas Eve 1971, when I got my first bicycle

Christmas Eve is the main event among the Christmas holidays in Germany. In the afternoon everything closes down. Shops stay open till noon or maybe 2 p.m., supermarkets maybe till 4 p.m. but don’t rely on that. Public transport will only run on a much reduced timetable. Public life comes to a halt.

By the way, “Christmas” means December 24-26 here. The time before the holidays is not named “Christmas” but “Advent”.
Christmas in Germany is a quiet family holiday. Christmas is not party time. Only one institution is in for peak business: the churches.

Christmas Eve, December 24

In the morning of December 24 the Christmas tree is put up and decorated. To us, the tree does not belong in the house before Christmas Eve.
Bescherung, the lighting of the candles on the tree and distribution of the gifts, takes place in the afternoon or early evening of Christmas Eve, earlier if there are children in the household, later if not.

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After all those preparations and with little and big kids waiting for Weihnachtsmann or Christkind (depending on the region) to deliver the gifts, no one has time both to prepare and to eat a big lunch or dinner. Christmas Eve food is rather quick and easy. Households without children are more likely to prepare a sophisticated meal. In general, though, Christmas Day is the day of the big feast (in our family, the traditional meal is duck and red cabbage).

Many people who would not set foot in a church throughout the year will attend a service at least on Christmas Eve. Churches, both catholic and protestant, hold two or three services for families in the afternoon. These usually include a Krippenspiel, a play about the Nativity of Christ performed by children. Then there are the midnight services which begin at 10 or 11 p.m. The churches will be full, come early if you want a decent seat. The schedule of the services for all churches in town will be in the local newspaper. Each church has its own schedule put up in the glass box on the outside.

Late in the evening some pubs and clubs reopen for the youths who want to party after all that family stuff.

Being alone on Christmas Eve is about the worst that can happen to a German (except the ‘Bah humbug’ fraction). We feel sorry for everyone who has to. We also feel sorry for foreign tourists who are stuck in their hotel rooms with nothing to do and nowhere to go – although people who are not used to celebrating Christmas Eve at home won’t miss it here either.

If you happen to travel Germany at Christmas, either organize your own celebrations or choose a hotel that offers a Christmas programme with meals and activities. You’d have a tough time finding an open restaurant. Do all your shopping for anything you may need over the holidays in the morning of December 24. Both Christmas Day and Boxing Day are public holidays, all shops are closed. As for museums and sights, check individually if and when they are open. And no, Christmas markets are not open on the Christmas holidays either. The best time to travel Germany for some Christmas atmosphere is before, not during the holidays.

For the Foodies: Most Traditional German Christmas Eve Meal

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I cannot help but smile when the question comes up in the forum - people searching for a restaurant where they can have a "traditional German Christmas Eve meal". Believe it or not, but statistically the most frequent food served in German families on Christmas Eve is - potato salad and hot Wiener sausages.

How come? This kind of food is easy to prepare - the potato salad can be made in advance and the hot dogs are quickly heated. Christmas Eve is the main event and a quick&easy meal like this takes a lot of pressure from whoever is in charge of the preparations, especially in families with children where the mother is already busy enough with everything else and the schedule is tight, and no one wants to stand in the kitchen for hours or wait for the meal for hours.
The big Christmas feast, goose or duck or a roast or similar, is had at lunchtime on Christmas Day.

Potato salad, served cold, is a popular dish for any kind of party in Germany. The base are potatos cooked in their jacket, then peeled and set aside to cool down before they are cut into slices. It can be done with a mayonnaise dressing, or (like ours) with a vinaigrette, my grandma used to make it with a white roux. Onion rings, fresh herbs, cucumber slice can be added, or pickled cucumbers, peppers, onions, little cubes of bacon, and so on. There are countless recipes, every family seem to have their own.

P.S. The photos show our table on Christmas Eve 2015. Of course we laid the tabel with the finest china and decorated it for the event. The little jars contain two varieties of mustard. And one wine goes with potato salad: a dry Silvaner from Franconia.

Posted by Kathrin_E 04:16 Archived in Germany Tagged germany events holidays traditions customs Comments (0)

Silvester - New Year’s Eve

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New Year's Eve fireworks in Marburg

While Christmas is a family affair in Germany, Silvester is big party time. From clubs and pubs to fancy restaurants and posh hotels, everyone will have an event that night. Private parties are going on everywhere. Tickets for concerts and theatre performances must be booked well in advance.

At midnight, having a glass of champagne is a ‘must’.

Since mid-winter is usually wet and cold, Silvester is not the perfect season for street parties. Usually people party indoors and come out into the streets only for a short while around midnight. The big exception is Berlin – since the German reunification, the area around Brandenburger Tor has become the No. 1 hotspot for New Year’s Eve partying in the whole country. (I have never been myself, though, mass partying is not my piece of cake. Probably I’m too old for that.)

Fireworks are lit all night long, with a climax ad midnight. The shops are allowed to sell firecrackers from December 29. In those days you better keep a wide distance from youths with lighters or there may be an unexpected firecracker exploding next to you.

German firecrackers are all TÜV-tested, thus as safe as they could be. The users, however, are not TÜV-tested and stupidity is omnipresent, so take care. Firecrackers plus alcohol plus human idiocy make a dangerous mix. Silvester is peak season for fire brigades, ambulances and emergency care.
Walking city centres close to midnight on Silvester can be an unpleasant adventure if you are not into this kind of thing. A friend once told me how they sought refuge next to an ATM behind safe glass doors until the worst was over. The next morning all streets, parks and gardens will be a big mess and full of burnt out rockets and firecracker leftovers.

Feel free to assume that I am not a big fan of Silvester...

A Must: Watch “Dinner For One”

“Dinner For One” is a rather old (1960s?) British TV sketch with Freddie Frinton and May Warden. In Britain, the 11 minute movie is almost forgotten. In Germany, however, it is a cult classic and New Year’s Eve is unthinkable without it. All Third Canals broadcast it once or twice that night. You can easily watch it half a dozen times that evening if you want to. This is about the only film shown on German TV in English with neither dubbing nor subtitles. Everyone knows the story of Miss Sophie and her butler James by heart.

Miss Sophie, a rich English lady, is celebrating her 90th birthday. As usual, she has invited her four old friends and faithful admirers for dinner. Unfortunately there is a little problem… All four are long deceased, the last of them died 20 years ago. The butler, who is hardly younger than she is, has to play all four of them, respond to the toasts (“Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” – “Same procedure as every year, James!”) and… drink for four. From course to course he gets more and more drunk, which leads to hilarious incidents. Miss Sophie is a lady, though, who always keeps her countenance…

Yes it is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1v4BYV-YvA&feature=related

Posted by Kathrin_E 04:25 Archived in Germany Tagged germany events holidays traditions customs Comments (0)

January 6: Epiphany, and the Star Singers

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A Star Singers' blessing

The Christmas season officially lasts until Epiphany, also called the Day of the Holy Three Kings, on January 6.
In the Christian churches Jan 6 is also the day of Christ's baptism (hence Epiphany). In Cologne January 6 is a high church holiday, since Cologne cathedral preserves the relics of the Three Holy Kings, or Three Magi.

Only in three federal states it is a public holiday, though: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt. To everyone else it is a workday like any other. Scholl holidays usually last beyond Jan 6, though, so it is a popular season for winter holidays. All ski resorts can be expected to be very very busy.

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German postage stamp
NB: Just in case anyone supects copyright issues.
According to German law, postage stamps are considered
gemeinfrei, i. e. the images are free to use.
The rgeatest quality about postage stamps is,
in my humble opinion, how they sum up a big topic
in one little image of 2 x 3 or 3 x 4 centimetres.

Sternsinger

In the first days of the new year around Epiphany (January 6), the Sternsinger (star singers) will be around: groups of children dressed up as the Three Magi and their company. They visit houses, sing their song and leave a blessing for the house and its inhabitants. In return they collect money – not for themselves but for charity!

The Sternsinger groups are officially sent out by the catholic church, the protector of the campaign is the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. So there is no reason to be suspicious about these kids. They raise a lot of money every year for Misereor, the catholic charity organisation. Don’t let them go away empty-handed.

The blessing is written in chalk above the door and should stay there all year. The inscription is 20 C + M + B 09 : the year, and “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” = Christ may bless this house. At the same time the three letters are the initials of the Three Magi’s names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

Posted by Kathrin_E 04:29 Archived in Germany Tagged germany events holidays traditions customs Comments (0)

The Fifth Season: Karneval - Fasching - Fastnacht

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The so called "Fifth Season" is the craziest time of the year. Carnival takes place on the weekend before the beginning of the Lent. If your calendar does not show the dates, look up the Easter date (which changes every year as it's the Sunday after the first full moon after the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere). Count back to the 7th Sunday before Easter, this is the main weekend.
People dress up, paint their faces, party, and drink. A lot. A LOT...

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Children's party with my friends in 1972 (I am the little sailor)

For children, dressing up is the most important part. Girls want to be fairies or princesses or (since Harry Potter) witches, boys want to be indians or cowboys or policemen or (since Harry Potter) wizards.

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Karneval
When talking about carnival in Germany, people think about the "big 3" on the Rhine - Köln, Düsseldorf and Mainz. All other places in the region, and many others elsewhere, also have their carnival events.
November 11, St Martin's Day, is the official beginning of the 'campaign'. Jesters conquer the town halls and take over. The reign of the newly elected Carnival Prince and Princess begins.
Until after Christmas things then calm down, clubs and groups are busy with preparations. From late January they have their balls and indoor events. In the shows and speeches there is a lot of criticism concerning politics, society and whatever topic: sometimes funny, sometimes witty, sometimes just lame.
A week before Ash Wednesday the crazy days really start. Thursday is Weiberfastnacht , the day of the women.
The No. 1 day in the Rhinelands is Rosenmontag ("Rose Monday"), carnival Monday. This is when the big parades take place in the big centres. Smaller places in the surroundings often do their parades on Sunday or Tuesday so people can travel to one of the big cities on Monday.
On Aschermittwoch ("Ash Wednesday") everything is over. The Lent begins. A true catholic goes to church in the morning and receives a cross of ash drawn on his forehead.
Everything is over except some rare protesters, like the village of Kelze in the north of Hessen that celebrates its carnival on Ash Wednesday to annoy its neighbours: this is a Huguenot settlement surrounded by catholic villages...

Fasching
This originally Bavarian term is widely used nowadays, mostly in regions that do not have a real carnival tradition but have imported the Rhineland type in recent decades.
The biggest parade in the whole of Northern Germany, for example, has been established in my hometown Braunschweig. This is a Rhenish import, founded by Rhinelanders who moved to Braunschweig and do just like at home.
On the other hand, there are new and individual inventions, like the Samba carnival parade in Bremen.

Fastnacht
The Fastnacht in the South West (i. e. Black Forest, Schwaben, Bodensee and northern Switzerland), however, is much different from the carnival of the Rhine cities. Traditions are much older, in some towns masks and costumes have been the same for centuries. Fastnacht is the awakening of the dark powers - devils, ghosts, wild people, animals, and witches - before the beginning of the Lent, thus deeply connected to the catholic calendar (and not a remnant of pagan Germanic spring rituals, although people keep telling you that it is because they don't know that that interpretation derives from Nazi propaganda).
The Fastnacht guilds have one or a few figures that stay the same for years, decades, centuries. They don't change every year. Those costumes and wood-carved masks are hand-made, precious and beautiful to look at. There are a couple of places that keep centuries-old traditions alive, the best known among them is Rottweil. On the other hand, Fastnacht is a very lively, modern movement. New guilds are founded every year, new figures invented. More in my blog about the Alemannic Fastnacht!

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Posted by Kathrin_E 10:30 Archived in Germany Tagged germany events carnival holidays traditions customs alemannic_fastnacht Comments (0)

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