20 December 2006

A German Christmas

While the spirit and purpose of the holiday remains the same, Germans of course have different traditions and customs associated with the it. While you wait for the glorious day to arrive you can think over these characteristics of a German Christmas, and maybe consider bringing a few to America.

Order of Celebration

Before my time here I would have said that Christmas was the 25th of December the world over, but that's not entirely so. Even in Germany there are some regional differences between the north and south ends of the country.

First off, there is more than one gift-bearing man associated with the season. St. Nikolaus visits homes on the night of December 6. Normally German childern will leave their shoes outside on this night and find candy, chocolate, and small gifts inside of them, placed there by St. Nikolaus of course, the next morning. Some say he comes with a donkey, and the childeren will also leave out some food, like carrots, for his quadruped friend. However, St. Nick also has colleagues who make their rounds on this night. Bad children receive "gifts" from Knechtruprecht. In the North he brings coal, in the South he brings switches. Sometimes an angel also accompanines St. Nikolaus and helps watch over the children and keep track of which ones have been good. Afterall, that's a tough job to do alone.

Then comes December 24, Heiliger Abend or Holy Eve, the most important day of celebration.

In the afternoon children receive their main round of gifts from another special fellow. In the North comes the Weihnachtsmann, that is the Christmas Man. Children in the South receive gifts from the Christkindmann, which one can translate to the Christ Child Man. It's the same man you see, simply a difference in names. He wears white robes, sometimes a miter hat, and carries a staff with his gift sack. In comparison, St. Nikolaus wears clothes similar to Santa Claus. In the north some say that the Weihnachtsmann comes with flying reindeer and lives at the North Pole, where he has some elves to assist him. However, the Kristkindmann lives in Heaven and gets help from angels.

On the afternoon of the 24th a parent will take the children out for a walk or somewhere else away from the house, and upon their return the Weihnachts/Christkindmann has visited.

The adults will also exchange their gifts on December 24th. There is usually a large dinner with family or friends.

Then on December 25th, Weihnacthen, Christmas. There is usually another large meal and visits with other family members on this day.

Oh Tannenbaum

The Christmas tree, as many other of the American Christmas traditions, comes from Germany. Families usually buy the tree 10 to 15 days before Christmas, but do not actually bring it into the home and/or decorate until December 23rd. People in the North refer to the evengreen as a Weihnachtsbaum. Those in the South call it a Christbaum. The translations are Christmas tree and Christ tree, respectively.

The decorations on the tree are very similar to ours in America. Originally, Germans clipped actual candles on the trees. However, since after 10 to 15 days a Christmas tree is essentially dry tender, electric lights are now used for the most part; although, the lights still look like candles. Loose or string silver and gold garland lays over the branches to sympolize angel hair. The ornaments consist of shiny balls, baked cookies in assorted shapes like a gingerbread man . . . ,

. . . figures made from staw, and mini nutcrackers.

Treetoppers exist in the forms of angels, stars, or decorative cones.

The Christmas Market

As you saw in Rothenberg, nearly any German town of reasonalbe size has an outdoor Christmas market from December 1st to the 23rd. Typical market vendors sell decorations, seasonal food and sweets, hand made products, and other goods. In the South the markets sometimes go by the name Christkindlmarkt.

Here are some views of the Eichstaett Christmas Market:

The most famous and largest Christmas Market is the one found in Nuremberg. The oldest record of the Nuremberg Christmas Market date to the mid-1600s. Today, more the two million people from around the world visit the market's hundred's of stalls every year. I had the fortune to visit the market last Wedneday with friends. You can see it here from a vantage point overlooking the market square.

The market is centered in the above photographed square in the city center of Nuremberg, but stalls overflow onto the streets radiating out from the square.

It was definitely a sight a see, and perhaps my favorite German experience yet. In this photo Mareike (German) and Olga look over some Christmas tree ornaments.

And some more photos from the market:

Here's a last one of the full group with, from left to right, Mareika, Olga, Sylvia (Hungar), Heidi (Germany), and me.

But the Christmas Market does not end your crash course in German christmas.

Food and Drink

As with any special holiday in any culture around the world, Germans cook and prepare special food items for the Christmas season.

There are a multitude of speciality baked items for Christmas, but two stand out the most: Stollen and Liebeküchen. Stollen is a type of cake usually flavored with nuts, raisins, and marzipan, and covered in powdered sugar. I may be mistaken, but I believe that it originates from Dresden. A photo of a Christmas Market vendor selling the cakes is below:

Liebeküche are small sweets that resemble cookies but whose texture is more similar to a cake. They have a glazed sugar coating and are highly seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon. They come from Nuremberg, and the translated name is "love cake."

There is also one drink that one is sure to find in bottles in stores or for sell by the cup around town during the Christmas season: Glühwein or "glow wine." Cinnamon, sugar, and other spices are added to a fruity wine, then the drink is warmed and served hot. I think it's one of those things that you either love or hate. I bought a bottle of it from the supermarket, warmed up a serving, and almost spit it out of my mouth with the first taste. In my opinion, it tasted like warm cough sryup. But I tried it again with extra sugar and cinnamon and it agreed with me much better. The Germans, obviously, love the stuff.

Incidentally, I do not see any apple cider or egg nog here, and I'm certainly missing both.

Other Decor

There is of course the typical nutcracker (which, in case you didn't, comes from Germany), but there are two other decoration items I'd like to share with you. The first is the Rauchenmann, or "smoking man." They are hallow wooden figures of men usually six inches or so tall. They have a whimsical look to them, and the man typically holds a piple. One can open a compartment on the bottom of the figures and insert a piece of lit incense. The smoke rises through the man and out through an opening in his mouth, thereby giving the impression that the man is smoking. They are very popular and range in price from a couple Euros to over 50.

The other is a an Advent calender. As you can see in the picture down below, it is usually a thin box with 24 tear-open doors, one for each day from December 1st to Christmas Eve. Behind each door lies a small piece of chocolate or candy. These too are commonly found in homes with or without children.

And with that, I believe the lesson has almost come to an end. The last item is, naturally, how to say merry Christmas in German. The German spelling is Fröliche Weihnachten, but perhaps the phonetic spelling would suit you better: "frew-licke vie-nawk-ten." Alright, maybe that's a simplified pronounciation, but it should suffice.

The Christmas break officially begins this Friday and lasts for two weeks. When we come back it will still be the first semester, which will not end until early February.

Last night was the "Glühwein Seminar," an annual Christmas party hosted by the geography department. A few Geography professors were present, but it was by no means tonned down because of their presence. In fact they served a critical purpose at the party because they had to sign our Schein. A Schein is basically a certificate of satisfactory completion that one usually receives from a university course in Germany. For each Glühwein we drank we received a stamp on our Schein, and when finished we were supposed to have the professors sign the paper. It was different for me to see professors and students together in the same party, but was nonetheless a fun time.

It's definitely Christmas time, but not quite the Christmas that I'm used to, and that by no means is a complaint. My family will arrive in Munich this Sunday and they'll stay for a week. After that I will do a little traveling of my own until classes start back. With this busy itinerary I can not say for certain when my next post will be, perhaps not for another two to three weeks. Rest assured that I will eventually post my family's visit and my travels. Enjoy the season.

Merry Christmas

Fröhliche Weihnachten

Happy New Year

Ein gutes neues Jahr

13 December 2006

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The unversity's international organization put together an excursion to the above mentioned city this past Saturday. Now I had been to Rothenburg before, two years ago for a day, but I remembered it as a beautiful medieval town and decided it was worth another visit.

From the beginning one thing was made clear, Rothenburg is not of the beaten path of tourists. One could even say the path is paved and posted with exit signs. Out of all the small towns and villages I've visited so far, Rothenburg had the most tourists. A cacophony of languages filled the streets, everything from Italian to Japanese. Aside from the year-round draw of the town's medieval charm, the Christmas Market was in full swing and undoubtedly brought in even more tourists. However, it was not too difficult to escape the throngs of people when desired, a short walk to the outskirts of the city center and one could roam the cobble-stoned streets alone.

A quick word on the name of this town. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is actually a short form of the full German name, which translates to Rothenburg over the Tauber River. The town lies on a hill overlooking the aforementioned river. For the sake of avoiding needless redundancy and extra sore fingers, I will refer to the town simply as Rothenburg.

Below is a photo of the Rothenburg snowballs, a local speciality confection. The story goes that in the past the townsfolk made the snowballs for weddings and other special celebrations. It would take ten days for the snowball's taste to mature, due to the use of some sort of wine as an ingriedent; therefore, the little spheres of surgar brought the wedding planners more time to prepare other dishes. One can find a bakery selling snowballs on just about every corner of Rothenburg, and remarkably enough each store has somehow obtained the one and only originial recipe.

In the center of town, around the cathedral and town hall, we came across the Christmas Market. Most German towns and cities have a Christmas Market of some form, and they usually last from December 1 to Christmas Eve. Rothenburg's spread out from the town's market place along the streets and back alleys. Merchants busily sold Christmas-themed gifts and trinkets, candy, food, and drinks. In the following picture one sees the cathedral in the background and the market place in the front.

Here are some more pictures from the market.

These baked hearts are typical German sweets given as gifts or special treats, and usually offer a special message for the specific occasion.

Eventually Alexi (France) and I ventured to the old town hall with the purpose of climbing to the top of the building's tower to look out over the city. Here is a view of the market place taken from our walk up the stairs.

The stairs soon turned narrow and steep, and not long after that they essentially became a set of ladders. By the end of the climb we were no longer walking through doorways at the end of each flight of stairs, rather coming up through holes in the floor. Below is Alexi coming through the final passageway and onto the tower's open air floor.

This is how wide our standing room was at the top. We could walk on this floor the whole way around the tower.

Overall, I think I had more fun with the tower than Alexi, who mentioned he has a slight case of vertigo. The climb up to the top was well worth the one euro entrance price, and the views of Rothenburg were the icing on the cake.

The view probably gives you a better idea of the obsevation deck's layout. As said, we went in a circle around the tower, feeling kind of like corraled cattle. Once one makes it back to the single passageway, he is expected to climb back down. Perhaps you can imagine how such a setup could test one's patience; one person pausing to take many pictures holds up the entire process since there's no room to pass. In this photograph Alexi grimaces about our height over Rothenburg, or maybe his face was directed towards the comments from the man in the center of the photo. I think it was about this time he told me to move along in German. Alexi metioned that he found such comments rude, and I made it a point to take a few more photos before taking another step.

Here as some more views from high above Rothenburg.

In this view one can see the old city wall in the upper left of the photo. The wall is one of the defining characteristics of Rothenburg. Nearly the entire structure remains intact and still surrounds the city center. One can even walk on the wall for its full length.
After the town hall tower, Alexi and I met back up with the rest of the group for a tour through a museum which showcases punishment and torture devices of the Middle Ages. It was very interesting and often entertaining to see how much the idea of what constitutes as a crime, the humane treatment of criminals, and the proper punishment for criminals has changed over the centuries. Below Illania (Italy) is used to display how a violin would be used to punish a bickering woman.

And there there were things like executioner's swords, . . .

chastity belts to keep wives faithful while the husband was away, . . .

witch catchers, . . .

and literal masks of shame. The one below is in the form of a fox. Men who were found guilty of telling smutty jokes were forced to wear it around during the day.

We learned about and saw other interesting things as well. For instance, during the Middle Ages the crime of stealing salt was punishable by death. The phrase "to laugh to death" comes from this time period. One form of punishment was forcing the criminal to laugh to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes the poor soul would be unable to catch his breath and actually die from asphyxiation. Baker's could be arrested for intentionally selling loaves of bread too small and charging the normal price for them. Also, perhaps may favorite, those found sleeping in or absent from Sunday church service were forced to wear a giant rosary. The oversized necklace on display in the museum would probably have hung down to my knees, and each wooden bead was a little larger than a baseball. In the small towns it was easy to tell who was absent on Sunday mornings because the churches created assigned seating for all the townsfolk. After the museum it was back to the beautiful, but crowded, streets of Rothenburg.

As I strolled along the cobble stones I couldn't help but feel like I was in the pages of a Charles Dickens story. Actually, I came to find out that Allied bombing during World War II razed nearly forty percent of the building stock in the old town. After the war, Rothenburg worked with donations from around the world to rebuild the city center, and made a point to highly respect the historical character of the community. Untrained eyes today can not tell the new buildings from the old.

Not long after the museum, Alexi, Briana, and I decided to escape the masses and explore the old city wall. The wall completes the feeling of stepping back in time that one finds in Rothenburg. In order to even enter the city center one must walk the gates in the wall. We spent our time walking through the corridors of the wall, passing the same windows used by sentries and archers 500 years ago.

As dusk set in we turned back to the city center and rejoined the bus loads of tourists.

Before meeting back up with the full group for the ride back to Eichstätt we made one last pass through the Christmas Market. Below you can see me holding my dinner for the night: a half meter long wurst in fresh bread. I've come to terms with the fact that when I return to America my cholesterol count will be twice the amount it was before I left.

Throngs of tourists aside, I have to say that Rothenburg stands as my favorite small German town that I've had the opportuity to visit. Though several of the buildings were only built 60 years or so ago, the overall historical detail mesmerized me. Further more, the Christmas Market and the Dickens atmosphere provided an all too appropriate means with which to greet the Christmas season.

I feel inclined to offer one last note, inspired by my experience with the tourist masses in Rothenburg. When you travel to a foreign place, exotic locale, or strange environment, go not as a tourist, rather journey as an explorer.

Tourists travel for the sake of vacation or holiday. Tourists arrive at their destination, see the sights, take photos, buy the souvenirs, and return home without any real connection to the place. A tourist stands out as an outsider and makes no attempt to blend in with the local culture; as such, tourists never experience the authentic soul of a place.

Explorers on the other hand travel for the sake of discovery, both of the world and themselves. Explorers acknowledge that some of the sites marked on the free tourist info maps probably really are worth visiting, but to stick with these one would only scratch the surface of a place's essence. Explorers realize that in order to experience this nitty-gritty, one must venture beyond the cleaned-up post card and t-shirt version of a place. Therefore, explorers take the time to learn a little of the local language, customs, history, and traditions knowing that only then the indiginous inhabitants will reach out more warmly to show off their world. Explorers can also leave with photos and trinkets to act as reminders and tell the story of their travels, but the most important souvenirs which an explorer comes away with are the memories, the memories of creating a lasting connection with the people and the culture of a place.

In the end, tourists can only say they visited a place. Explorers can say they discovered a place, experienced it, and lived it. Go not as a tourist, rather journey as an explorer.

04 December 2006

The Giving of Thanks: Round Two

This past week was mostly full of preparations for a belated Thanksgiving. Now that it's all said and done, I have much more respect for all mothers and grandmothers who spend every second to last Thursday in November day toiling away in the kitchen. Indeed, there is a lot of work to organize and complete.

Kristin and I went planned the event on Saturday, during a hike along the valley ridge.

The main problem we had was the fact that Kristin and I lack private kitchen space large enough to cook everything and hold the dinner. After talking with Graham, another American who planned on participating, we decided it would be best to actually have dinner at his private apartment. As for the cooking, we would cook most of the dishes in the kitchen of Kristin's dorm, and a few simple items in Graham's kitchen.

The three of us decided to hold the meal on Friday, and Kristin and I planned to cook the cranberry compote and prepare the stuffing on Thursday. I arrived at her dorm at around two in the afternoon, and we began what would turn out to be a marathon of cooking.

We already possessed most of the ingredients from the week before, when the plan was to have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving. However, some items had gone bad or missing in that one week period and we had to shop a little for the remaining items.

As one might expect, not all ingredients were easy to find. Turkeys are not as popular in Germany as in America; therefore, Kristin and I could only find one grocery store in town which sells them. The largest size the store sold was about nine pounds, so a tad smaller than the typical Thanksgiving turkey. In the end though it turned out to be good enough. Sweet potatos were probably the most difficult item to find. I spent time during the week before scouring all the grocery stores and markets in Eichstaett for them. I finally found ten or so in a little pile on the floor of one grocery stores tucked away in a hidden corner. The price sign said they were from the USA, but they were the oddest looking sweet potatos that I have ever seen. We were also lucky and found some cranberries. The only ingredient unaccounted for were pecans, and we were forced to make due with walnuts.

After shopping, Kristin and I started on the cranberry compote. In the first picture below you can see it before the baking stage, and in the second Kristin shows off the finished product.

After that we began on mixing together the dry ingredient for the stuffing. Kristin and Graham requested to put the stuffing actually in the turkey, with which I had no experience. Sure, I knew that was the idea behind stuffing, but my family has always cooked it in casserole dish, in the form of dressing. In the end there was enough to cook in the turkey and as dressing.

The afternoon turned to evening and we decided to give a green light for the green bean casserole preparation. Here we see Kristin snapping away at the beans.

When we bought the green beans fresh from a stall at the local market, we were going for the better quality beans as opposed to those in can. However, we forgot that green beans in the can tend to come softer than fresh ones; therefore, they are better for the green bean casserole. We realized afterwards that we should have cooked our fresh beans seperately first, then in the casserole. Although it wasn't so bad, the casserole simply had a crunchier texture than normal.

Unsurprisingly for us, we were also unable to find any French's Fried Onions for the topping of the green beans. However, they were simply too important of an ingriedent to leave out, so we decided to experiment with making our own. I whipped up a batter of egg whites, flour, and seasonings and we were plesantly surprised with the outcome. Here you can see our fried onions and the casserole.

As the night progressed we figured that we may as well make the sweet potato casserole as well. Those odd looking potatos were even odder on the inside with an almost sick looking orange color. After boiling them though the color came out a little more normal.

We finally finished with the Thanksgiving cooking at around one in the moring and then turned our attention to our present hunger. At some point in the eleven hour blur of chopping, seasoning, and mixing we sat down for bowls of cereal. We also got curious, or perhaps desperate, while frying the onions and fried some green beans and apple slices as snacks. I'd recommend the fried green beans, but stay away from fried apples at all costs. I'll also add that the apples were Kristin's idea, I had my doubts from before they touched the oil. After some bowls of spaghetti we were in the middle of saying good bye for the night, when two Polish girls and another Hungarian girl barged into the room and demanded one shoe from each of us.

Long story short, it was a certain saint's feast day and there were Polish traditions to uphold for this important holiday in Poland. This first of which was to place one shoe from each person in a line then move them to the nearest door in a leap frog fashion. The tradition says that the owner of the first shoe to reach the door will become married in the following year. Rather regrettably for her, Kristin's shoe won.

Next, there was the old pouring melted candle wax through a key chain hole into a pot of water to tell one's future for the coming year. Don't worry, it was new for me too. Below is picture of the candle melting in the pot. I've never actually seen a candle cooked before, so I had to take a picture.

Once all the wax melts, one must carefully pour the hot liquid through a key chain hole into another pot of cold water. As the wax lands in the water it solidifies and forms a shape. This shape is the pourer's future, and he must say what he sees in the shape. Below you see me holding up my future, we all decided that it looks like Australia, so I must be going to visit the country sometime this year. Or perhaps the Fates misunderstood Australia for Austria, because I'm only a few hours or so from the latter's border.

There may have been more traditions to follow, but Kristin and I were too tired to stick around to find out. We said good night and got our rest.

Friday morning, as Kristin and I were in Spanish, Graham was putting the turkey into the dorm oven, his own oven was too small to use. Later in the afternoon Kristin and I performed some minor last minute preparations and we began to bring the food over to Graham's apartment. If you ever want to get a multitude of strange looks, try carring a turkey, casseroles, and chairs through town, trust me on this one.

Here, of course, is our petite turkey when it was fresh out of the oven.

Graham's German girlfriend, who gave birth to a baby the week before, surprised me with the level of detail and beauty in her table setting. We finally sat down to eat at around seven, and with all the food and full plates, it honeslty felt like Thanksgiving.

In this photo we see the faces of, from left to right, Matt (USA), Kristin (Germany), Briana (USA), and Kristin. Graham is on the right in the green shirt as he turns around to check on his girlfriend, Anna, and Anna's father as they hold the new baby, Brook.

And from the reverse angle we can see the other two people, Matt's girlfriend Valentina (Germany, though half Italian), and Joanas (Germany). And actually we can also see the profile of Anna on the very left.

All of the Germans were very impressed with the amount, not to mention the taste, of all the food. We had a hard time convincing them that even though the cranberry and sweet potato dishes were sweet, they were in fact not desserts and could actually be eatten with the meal. They eventually agreed that it really does work. They were also impressed with the fact that I went back to fill my plate with seconds. I explained to them it was tradition to gorge oneself on Thanksgiving, which, according to your point of view, may or may not have been a lie. The sweet potatos and cranberries were completely new to them, as was the way in which the green beans were prepared.

For dessert, we partook in Matt's apple crumble like dish, and Valentina's tiramisu. And I went back for thirds of cranberries.

As we were cleaning up the dishes Anna's father kept picking out the remaining green beans from the casserole dish, nevermind that they were a little crunchy.

All in all, it was a great time and the many hours of cooking and preparation paid off. I'm glad we were able to share this Thanksgiving with a few Germans. After this year, I believe I will take more pride in and have more respect for all following Thanksgivings. The meal, conversation, and time spent with friends reminded me of the purpose of this day, a purpose which to me seemed to have been lost after the repetition of the same events year after year. Perhaps in order to remember why traditions exist, we must first break them a bit. Only then can we understand what we're missing.