We’ve been into the everyday grind of the New Year for nearly a month now, so a flash back to Christmas magic is most welcome! This year we were in Germany for the entire Christmas season, which is a very special time of year.
In South Germany in particular, Advent (the month before Christmas) is widely celebrated. This time of peace and joy is marked by a flurry of activity, whereby young and old alike partake in many traditions. One of these is Christmas baking – there are entire cookbooks dedicated to “Platzchen” which are small christmas cookies, usually with almond, cinnamon and similar spiced flavours. People set aside entire days to bake five + different types of these early in advent, and then take them to friends and family, work, school etc.
We are all familiar with advent calendars – the cardboard frames with a piece of chocolate behind each day’s little door. Here, it’s a bit more involved than that! Advent calendars are more often than not handmade, for children the presents are often in knitted socks, sewn bags, clay figures or houses… and although little, the gifts are usually more varied and personal than chocolate. Many adults make advent calendars for each other too; James and I attempted to join in this year although we were a little underprepared. We might not have had our gifts wrapped and ready before the start of advent, but we still had fun presenting each other with chocolate, fancy teas, books etc each morning. Each of the four Advent Sundays are also marked, by lighting another candle in the wreath households have set up on the table.
The 6th December is when St. Nikolaus comes, and children receive presents in shoes that they leave outside the door – another version of Santa putting presents in stockings.
Something which has become synonymous with Germany and Christmas, are of course the Christmas Markets! No matter how grey and cold it is outside, how stressed people are with work or holiday organisation, a Christmas Market will transport anyone to another realm for a couple of hours. Market Squares are sectioned off and dressed up with glittering lights, green boughs and colourful decorations. They are filled with stalls, each made from wood and shaped like a little hut, with elaborately decorated roofs depicting Christmas scenes. The smell of mulled wine, grilled bratwurst and spiced cookies hits upon entrance, and the magic begins! Stalls sell anything from handcrafts to commercial items, but most people attend the markets for the food and drink…. specifically the Gluhwein (mulled wine)! There is nothing like sipping on a hot, spiced sweet wine whilst watching your breath escape into the frigid air, listening to the hum of people and the background Christmas music and spending time with friends.
Each Christmas market tends to have its own flair, and we visited a few! In Stuttgart, there is a section for the Finnish market where stalls are decorated in a more rustic style and smoked fish is for sale. Ludwigsburg is distinctly baroque, and Esslingen has a famous Medieval market every year. This is one of our favourites, as actors wander the place dressed in traditional costumes, jugglers and minstrels perform regularly, there is an “arcade” section where hay lines the ground, furs hang on the walls and guests can have a go at shooting bows and arrows, throwing knives and bowling with handmade balls for prizes. My favourite game is mouse-roulette, where players choose a numbered house, a mouse is let loose on the game board and the winner is whoever chose the number house into which the mouse chooses to run. Stalls sell leather goods, 13th century dresses, games, hand carved wooden bowls and knives and lots more.
A week before the Christmas season starts, Tubingen holds its famed Chocolart festival. Similar to the Christmas markets, the theme here is… you guessed it, CHOCOLATE. Along with mulled wine, they sell hot chocolate with rum, liquid chocolate to eat with a spoon, chocolate liqueur shots served in chocolate shot glasses…. Every single stall sells chocolate of some description, from elaborate moulded designs to 99% dark chocolate from Equador. There are artworks from chocolate paint, live demonstrations of chocolate making and various cake stalls. Almost every stall provides samples!
At the end of Advent, comes the actual Christmas period. In Germany these days are distinguished by “Holy Evening” (Christmas Eve), “The First Christmas Day” (Christmas Day) and “The Second Christmas Day” (Boxing Day). On Christmas Eve, the day begins as any other but in the evening the fun begins. Traditionally the Christmas Tree is decorated during the day, hidden behind doors and unveiled in the evening. Many people visit relatives and friends specifically to admire their trees and share a drink. This is the time when gifts are exchanged, and a simple meal shared. We spent Christmas Eve at my aunt’s with my grandparents, where we had a traditional meal of frankfurters, potato salad and stuffed dates. The tree was gorgeous as usual, and something special for us was that it had real candles (no fire hazard here!). Later we went to a carols service at the church, which was so full people had to stand.
Christmas day brought the feasting as we know it, and we travelled to my Uncle’s brother’s to spend the afternoon. With more than 10 people we had a delightful afternoon and evening, drinking champagne, watching old shadow puppet movies on a projector, eating gulasch and chocolate pudding and singing christmas carols around the tree late into the night. The next day was another celebration, at my cousin’s house. With 10 adults and 6 children, it was the best kind of chaos! Another tradition on either the last christmas day or new years, is to eat Raclette. This is a Swiss meal where chopped meat, veges, potato and bread are laid out on the table. Each person has their own little pan in which they grill a special kind of cheese on the grill which sits in the middle of the table. The cheese is scraped over whatever bits they have chosen – this works especially well for potatoes, or bits of ham, onion etc are added to the cheese while it is grilled. Eat, grill, repeat!
As we were leaving my grandparents’ to head back home, the snow began to fall. Within hours, our town was buried beneath a deep layer of pure white. The lake was dusted as though with icing sugar, the trees were white skeletons and the ground crunched underfoot. It was still, peaceful and although a day late, finally a white Christmas!
A few days later we flew to London to bring in 2015 with friends at a New Years Ball! We delighted in the familiarity of people, language and food for a few days, not least barista coffee (namely, Flat Whites!). Upon arriving back in Germany 2015 began properly. This year, we aim to visit a different country every month. January saw us visiting the U.K; the closest thing to going home for a weekend without the 24 hour plane trip. We’re on the lookout for a good February destination, so watch this space!