Christmas in Germany is every bit as jubilant and joyful as it is in the US. There are differences, however, the most major being that Christmas day here is celebrated on the 24th, not the 25th.
“What?!”, you might exclaim. “What would Jesus think? Outrage”!
Well, let’s not get carried away. History tells us that the 25th was a date picked by the roman emperor Constantine as it was already around the date that the locals celebrated Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. He chose that date so the masses that he wanted to convert would offer less resistance since they could keep their day(s) of debaucherous celebration. It would just now be called something else. With a different, and only one, deity.
Constantine: “You now have a different God. Submit”!
Masses: “Hmmm. Unfortunate. Can we still worship our old Gods”?
Constantine: “No. That is punishable by death”.
Masses: “Sounds bad. Can we keep our raucous and wine-sodden celebrations?”
Masses: “Wooo Hoooo!!! Jesus, Jesus”!!!
Most historians and biblical scholars say that this merry chanting of acceptance of their new savior was accompanied by music. This music sounded remarkably like “OPP” by “Naughty By Nature”, except, of course, that it would have actually been titled “OPG” (Other People’s God).
Constantine: “You down with OPG”?
Masses: “Yeah, you know me”!!!
Constantine: “Who’s down with OPG”?
Masses: “Every last homie”! (The translation of homie from ancient Latin was difficult and was actually closer to ‘dear friend’ or ‘dude’).
Back to the debate of the date of Christmas, historians and scholars have also claimed that Jesus was most likely not born on the 25th of December, and that this date would have been closer to, say… September 23rd.
“Wait a minute. Isn’t that your birthday, Jim?”, you might ask. Well, yes. Yes it is. Us Libras are well known not just for our charity, but also for our penchant for long hair and sandals, especially during our teenage hippie phases. You may worship me if you must, but please, for the love of Me, at least pay your darned taxes. Churches should not, in my humble opinion, be exempt from paying their fair share. Me knows that they make enough through tithing to not be carried by the rest of us, peculiarly since many are stubbornly reluctant to help those that they say they want to help, i.e.; the poor, especially during the Christmas season.
Comedic side note: Since dough means both “money” and “almost-bread”, and since Jesus supposedly fed thousands with only a few loaves, is it wrong for me to point out the irony that many evangelicals are so darn greedy?
Jesus: “I will feed all of you with the meager amount of bread that I have”.
Evangelicals: “It’s my dough. You gave it to me, even though you all are far worse off than I. Tough break. My Rolls’ heated seats are broken and it’s nippy this time of year in Florida. If it’s bread you want, once my heated seats are fixed you can all place your lips upon my toasted buns”.
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Now that I am likely to burn for eternity in hellfire, let’s get back to Christmas in Germany, shall we? German Christmas traditions seems to be a muddied mix of ours, or rather, ours are a muddied mix of theirs as America is a much younger country. Our holiday traditions seem to be mainly buying gifts at greatly reduced prices and evading taxes. The former I will address in a minute. The latter, as evidenced by the church and the über-wealthy, actually makes sense as America was launched, so to speak, by the Boston Tea Party where the revolutionists threw crates of tea from ships into the Boston Harbor in protest of taxation by the English. For those of you whom have been living under a rock, Plymouth or otherwise, this is how the American “Tea Party” got their name.
I have to say that the popularity of this party, so great is it that they’ve won the White House, is confusing to me for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because of the name. Of all of the people who voted for them, I can say, almost unequivocally, that none of them drink tea. It is simply too stuffy and elitist. You know who drinks tea? The Queen of England. And Obama. Together.
Tea Partiers are grassroots people. They drink coffee. And Budweiser. And not necessarily in that order. Surely some even mix the two into a sort of morning breakfast power-drink to fuel their day-long hatred of Obama. Racism is so exhausting.
In the US, the holiday season unofficially begins with Black Friday. This is the day after Thanksgiving where we all rush out to buy Christmas gifts at reduced prices and so, due to the time required to nurture our wounds before we must once again happily darken our cubicles, is part of a four day holiday weekend. Virtually no one works, except those that work retail. This is because (1) no one is productive on the day after they’ve eaten 80 pounds of turkey and (2) because we are a nation of consumers, especially if what we are buying is reduced by 70% and there is a 30% chance of violence. I’m getting ahead of myself, but someone has to ring up our blood-spattered merchandise which we have wrested from the hands of the slower and weaker. Forget the other examples of Darwinism that you’ve learned about. Peppered moths and Galapagos iguanas are mere evolutionary footnotes; Black Friday is the pinnacle of natural selection.
Since it’s a vacation day, we do what many vacationing Americans do: We go camping. But instead of camping in a lush and pristine forest like on a normal summer vacation, we do something special for Black Friday: We camp out in front of a Big Box Store, in sometimes sub-zero temperatures, to make sure that we are allowed into Wal-Mart at the earliest possible moment. Sure, we’ve camped closest to the door, but since our other competitors are sleeping in tents beside us, we must stay vigilant by drinking coffee (and Budweiser) all night to maintain our advantage.
Once the doors open, however, all bets are off. Even though you may have slept virtually pressed up against the store’s automatic glass doors, the odds that you will be the first inside are slim at best. This is because there are people out there, driven insane by the allure or cheap goods, mingling amongst us undetected until Black Friday. Like a starving hyena, they will rush the gates at the slightest movement from within inside indicating the store’s opening, with arms flailing and while screeching “That is my X-Box 1,000,000! Stand aside or die”!
Since many of these look like trashy Castle Black extras from The Game of Thrones, it would be best to heed their warning. Should you not, they may hit you hard enough that you suffer a brain injury so severe that it leaves you in a waking yet vegetative state where you defend “the (Mexico) wall” and swear off sex, most likely because you couldn’t get any anyway.
In parts of Germany, the holiday traditions kick off with Nicholaustag (St. Nicholaus Day). St. Nicholaus is very similar to our St. Nick or Santa. Celebrated on December 6th, and what was the precursor to our tradition of nailing socks to a mantle, children here leave their shoes by the door on the evening of the 5th (this also just happens to be Eve’s birthday) and awaken to find them filled with small gifts and goodies. In the case my wife, however, this is a dangerous undertaking. Eve’s family likes to joke that her feet smell, and so she has been lovingly nicknamed Käsefuß (cheese foot).
When she was younger, they used to vacation in Portugal and Spain. The combination of walking around in close-toed shoes, in a hot climate and without the absorbent barrier of socks, is perhaps how she earned her moniker, though I doubt the effect would be as concentrated during the cold temperatures of December. Even so, legend has it that Eve’s parents, in an attempt to ward of the smell (and because the drinking age is much lower here) would place slightly opened bottles of Schnapps in her shoes. This practice killed not only the fungus, but also Eve’s desire to be awake and therefore annoy her parents with the deafening sounds of their own screams from having stepped on her Legos.
Christmas time in Germany is truly a lovely time. The Marktplatz of your local Stadt will be festooned with real pine garland, twinkling lights, and, most important of all, Glühwein stands.
“Pray tell, heathen, what is Glühwein?”, you might ask. Terrific question. Glühwein is hot mulled wine whose mug heats your cold hands and whose contents puts a smile on your frowning and frozen face. It warms both the body and mind though it’s purpose – I’m quite sure – is to enable one to withstand the jostling multitudes and the inevitable encounter with those whom you do not wish to meet. Everyone attends the Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market) and so you are destined to run into your boss, your racist and politically-inept uncle, and a smathering of other unsavory acquaintances. Should you have enough Glühwein, however, you will not only get through it, you will exit the Marktplatz with more friends than what you had upon entering.
“Great. I don’t need anymore friends”, you might sarcastically mutter. “I barely have enough time to see the ones I already have”. Not to worry. You will also exit the Marktplatz with decidedly less brain cells, so you won’t even remember your new friends. Glee! Allow me to illustrate the point with a meme that Eve recently gleaned from Facebook:
The drink itself is served in small mugs – sometimes in the shape of tiny boots – bedecked with the name and logo of the town from which it was served. Like Starbucks, maybe the servers should also start writing their customers’ names on the mugs. This way the extremely inebriated will know not just what town they are in, but their own name as well. This is especially helpful if you are visiting another town’s Marktplatz – as is a popular pastime here – and you grab someone else’s mug. You may very well end up as Thorsten from Hamburg or, worse, Jim from Bad Mergentheim. Trust me, you do not want to be that guy. You will be forced to write bad blog columns and inject Rogaine directly into your eyebrows. I am essentially a cross between a brain-damaged John Grogan and the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show.
The Christmas Tree
Like we do, Germans also erect and adorn Christmas trees. They call theirs Weihnachtsbaume and are pretty much the same as ours: they are evergreen and are lit up like…um, Christmas trees. The tradition of Christmas trees can be traced back, again, to Roman times when fir trees were used to decorate the temples for Saturnalia. The were also used by Norsemen in ancient Germany to ward off evil spirits. Another basis is that the Christmas tree was derived by medieval Christians from the Paradise Tree, meant to symbolize the Garden of Eden. These are all easily verified by a quick Google search. How boring.
What is not so well know is how the lighting of Christmas trees began, and so I can now offer my own explanation, unencumbered by facts.
Perhaps the addition of tree illumination began as an homage to Moses’ burning bush. That would make sense, but I think that the very first Christmas tree was lit up by some ancient king who accidentally set his poor wife’s undecorated tree on fire as he stumbled about his castle during Christmas, drunk on Glühwein. The reason that early Christmas ornaments were shaped like animals is because the poor little critters that were living in the tree when King Clumsy set it ablaze were fried crispy as they tried to escape. Horrible, I know, but true. Now that this has been published online, a Google search will confirm it.
I personally think that this is also how the burning bush story started. Moses was probably out camping with his family and unintentionally set the bush ablaze while attempting to light a campfire, but was too embarrassed and prideful to admit it.
Moses’ wife: “Nice going, dimwit. You started a forest fire”.
Moses: “No… Uh, it was…God! Behold, a message from Yahweh”!
Moses’ wife: “Yeah, the message is ‘Don’t let your husband play with matches’. We should have gone to a hotel”.
The German Christmas Tree
The first time I saw a German Christmas tree, I was shocked and angered. It was barely decorated with only illumination and ornaments. No tinsel?! Blasphemy! Jesus shall be avenged! I was raised in a household that used so much tinsel that the tree looked like it was dipped in molten aluminum and then stood upright for the shiny liquid to drip and harden into mini metal stalactites of holy adoration. It’s what Jesus would have wanted.
But, before I could grab my pitchfork and torch, I realized that the tree was already on fire. Well, not on fire exactly, but with fire on the tree. The illumination that I saw with my cursory glance through madness-colored glasses were actual candles clipped to the boughs.
Now, this is a rather lovely sight, harkening back to the simpler days before electricity and homeowners insurance. As we all know, candles emit fire, and fire is hot. Trees and fire rarely get along (just Google “Moses camping trip”). Germans know this, of course, but they also like a challenge and are used to adversity. Germans are a people who used to have to constantly defend against marauding hoards and the bidding of unjust kings. It would be far too easy – and therefore boring – to simply plug it in and sit back to enjoy the softly twinkling lights. No, it is far more exciting (and enjoyable for visiting Americans) to get up one million times during Christmas to make sure that the tree hasn’t secretly burst into flame, especially after they’ve had too much Glühwein. Whereas our favorite holiday expressions of “Merry Christmas” and “I hate this sweater” are uttered while we guzzle holiday themed Budweiser (oh, those Clydesdales), theirs’ seems to be “Does anyone smell something burning?” as they carefully sip muddled wine while staring obsessively at the tree.
The Christmas Meal
Where we in the US typically cook a Christmas ham, in Germany they have a Christmas goose. To us Americans, this is reminiscent of Dickens and Downtown Abbey and so we all emit a heartfelt and nostalgic sigh.
“Oh, if we only could have lived back then. Life would have been so much simpler. I’d love a Christmas goose”, we utter in horrible English accents and with great big moon eyes.
We say that until we realize that not one of our guests are a no-show because they died of tuberculosis and, more importantly, until we have actually tasted goose. Goose tastes nothing like what our British-braised imagination cooked up for us; it tastes like what I imagine opossum (we call them ‘trash cats’), or chicken raised on spoiled fast-food, must taste like: Fat and fungus.
“It has a gamey flavor”, some might say. If what they mean is that it tastes like an herb-glazed and moldy dartboard, then they would be right. The whole bird is essentially dark meat that has been basted and broiled in it’s own generous amount of fat, often with mushrooms. The mushrooms, I suspect, aren’t added so much for their flavor, but to offer a reason why the bird tastes like the underside of a damp log. As you may have suspected, I am not a huge fan of goose.
Luckily, the meal on the evening of 24th is the real treat. In our region, this meal traditionally consists of Würstchen and Kartoffelsalat, which translates to hotdogs and potato salad. It is essentially what all of America eats during summer barbecues and family reunions. The wieners at these events are often roasted on sticks over an open fire, and the potato salad is enjoyed by ignoring it completely. Not that it’s not tasty, but because it has the word ‘salad’ in it. Americans do not eat salad as a general rule, though, if meat is also being served, you may as well leave the vegetables at home and carry something which will be used: a portable defibrillator.
Back to Christmas, presenting a platter of hotdogs and bowls of potato salad to an American, especially during the freezing temperatures of Christmas time in Germany, will surely bring a huge smile to their face, and maybe even a wistful tear to their eye. Just be sure to watch their Glühwein intake; that tree is essentially a campfire in your living room, and they are going to want to roast those wieners. Trust me, you do not want an unsteady American falling into your tree. that is, not unless you are tired of traditional Christmas carols and want to add Jerry lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” to your holiday playlist. Since my first visit to Germany which culminated in the Great Tree Incident of 2012, this is now a tradition at Eve’s parents house.