By Earl Flanagan
Special Foreign Contributing Writer
Santa Claus or ‘Christmas Man’ as he’s known, was a marketing creation of the Coca-Cola Company and didn’t arrive in Germany until after the Second World War. Since then, he has become a cherished figure, and has been duplicated throughout the world.
Yet Christmas in Germany retains its own unique qualities. The best way to describe Christmas here in Weimar, formerly East Germany, is that it is quaint and traditional, which is in no small part due to its rather Currier and Ives/Dickensian aspects.
For example, since November 30, when we received an unusually large amount of snow far too early in the season, I, like countless other German parents of young children, have ditched the strollers and baby carriages,and have pretty much exclusively transported my young son everywhere by wooden sled. I get trussed up like a Clydesdale, wrapping a tow line around mywaist, attach it to the sled, and off we go, bells and bobtails ringing.
Modern plastic sleds are available, but they are rightfully shunned by scornful German parents. Wooden sleds are definitely preferred; they are incredibly fast especially if you wax the metal runners periodically; exceptionally strong, and if reasonably cared for, will pretty much last forever. Our sled is well over 60 years old, and with just a little linseed oil on the wood every few years, I quite expect my great-grandchildren to go dashing through the snow on it. And then there’s the coal. Here in East Germany in particular, it’s not just for stockings.
Along with our early snow came a serious cold snap of negative double-digit temperatures. At the time of this writing, it is -8°c outside, which feels downright balmy by comparison to the first couple of weeks of this December. As such, I’ve spent a fair amount of time trudging down to the basement and hauling up buckets of coal (we chipped in with our neighbors and bought a ton of the stuff in September), into our third floor flat’s superefficient, 21st-century fireplace/Franklin stove. The ‘Oven’ as it’s called here, is completely enclosed so the soot and particulates go up straight into the chimney, not into your apartment or lungs, and is pretty much designed to operate like a mini blast furnace. The Oven is surrounded by thick ceramic tiles that continue to radiate heat long after the fires has gone out.
As a coal oven is not our only heating source, it tends to hold a certain romantic charm, along with a wood burning stove we have our kitchen, next to the microwave. There’s nothing quite like the scent of coal smoke wafting in the air on a cold winter night. It’s kind of like a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The average age of homes and apartments in my neighborhood is well over 100 years, which is pretty new for Germany. (What wasn’t bombed flat in the war. anyways). Around Christmastime last year, my wife and I were invited to dinner at the home of a friend who lived in the center of town in the ‘real’ old city. Their house was built sometime in the Middle Ages and its heating system hasn’t really been updated since then. The house was heated exclusively by small coal/wood burning ovens in every room, and it took a little while to get the place warmed up. (I remember keeping my hat on for most of our visit.)
When I asked for the location of the bathroom, I was pointed down a long and narrow hallway and handed a bucket of sawdust. ‘What’s this for?” I asked. ‘It is for the WC,” came the reply. WC literally means ‘water closet’. As the transition to indoor plumbing was made late 1800s, you generally took an underused closet and turned it into a toilet. “But what do I need sawdust for?` I asked. “You have no running water ?” “Well yes, we do,” my host answered, “but we have what you call in English, a ‘pit’ toilet I believe.” I was incredulous, and frightened, I am not ashamed to admit. As much as I’ve always loved camping, I have always loathed the pit toilet. “You have a pit toilet, in your house?” I asked again, just to make sure that I got my translations right. “Yes, yes, yes. It’s right down the hall, and to your left…” I proceeded with my bucket of sawdust to what was, for all intents and purposes, an indoor outhouse, and was nauseated by a stench which I’m sure had been waylaying visitors for centuries. I returned the sawdust to my host. ‘Thanks, but I think I’ll just wait till I get home.”
Dinner ended shortly thereafter, and I quickly availed myself of one of the more delightful aspects of Christmas in Germany, public intoxication at an outdoor hut. Every city, town and village in Germany will have a Christmas Market. The Christmas Market winds its way through towns, and consists of anywhere from dozens to hundreds of wooden huts (depending on the size of the town), selling everything from sweets, porcelains, local handicrafts to, you name it.
Among the more popular destinations at every market, are the numerous ‘Glühwein’ huts. Glühwein is traditionally warm red wine, spiced with sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and lemon, topped off with a shot of rum or amaretto if you want to give it a bit of a kick. Though typically open to the elements, the nicer huts have a ski lodge feel, and usually serve their drinks in front of roaring bonfires. I am convinced the ‘Glühwein’ huts is the single biggest factor contributing to holiday cheer in Germany.
Hard day at the office? Have a Glühwein on the way home. About to brave the terrors of the mall? Start with a Glühwein and all will seem well in the universe. Due to a snowstorm last week, my train home was 120 minutes late. Rather than complain and despair, all the passengers made their way to the train station’s Glühwein hut. Not a word of complaint was heard. Only cheer and mirth all around.
Christmas in Germany is actually longer than in the United States, and potentially more dangerous. The danger is in the homes where traditionalists insist on lighting real candles on the Christmas tree. If the house is not burned by December 24, presents are opened on that evening, after a meal of goose with trimmings, and needless to say, much Gluhwein. Presents will also be opened on the 25th and 26th, thus prolonging the delights of the season.
There is also an Advent calendar which is linked to presents. Starting December 1st, every day the Advent fairies will bring the children of the house a small gift, perhaps a chocolate bar or Play-mobil figure, in preparatory countdown to the big stuff which St. Nicholas will bring on the 24th, and it is St. Nicholas, not Santa Claus who will deliver the goods.