This is the first year I will be spending the holidays without my father. It will be a rather muted celebration this year because my sister will be with her family and it will be just me and my mother. My father was the one who was very big on all holidays, but Christmas was by far his favourite. He started planning for a trip or special events some time in July I think. He never tried to top the year before, but was always thoughtful about how we prepared and spent this holiday. One year we would be in the UK and another in the United States and another in Germany. One year we were even in Portugal. Every holiday mattered really not where we were but who was there.
My mother doesn’t like a lot of fuss, and my father, her husband, was the absolute love of her life. Because the holidays were important to him she would make a huge effort, following his lead. This year we’ll have a quiet celebration and just hope not to be too sad, it’s the best we can do.
No matter where we were celebrating Christmas, each country with its own charms and traditions, by far the best place to spend the Christmas holiday season is in Bavaria. When the Christmas market opens, you know the holidays have arrived. Of course the time in between gets shorter each year “It’s that time already?” and as sure as the seasons come and the years fly by Christmas is not Christmas without the Christkindlmarkt. Mother tells me that as a child growing up the official market was not in the town square in Munich under the Frauenkirche (the most famous church in Munich), but was located on different streets, changing from time to time.
Doing some research on the history of the Christkindlmarkt I found that:
the Christmas Market dates back to the 14th century: town records first mention a "Nicholas Market" in the Kaufinger Strasse near the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) in 1642. "Goods from Oberammergau, Nuremberg Lebkuchen (gingerbread), cotton childwear, manger figurines, and chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds" were among the wide range of traditional fare on display. In 1806 the Nicholas Market changed its name to "Christkindlmarkt", but it wasn't until 1972 that it found a permanent home.
The stalls are open and all the vendors come with their homemade gifts, although my last trip home I was saddened to see commercial products being made in Taiwan and China among the kitsch.
The food is just incredible. If you can imagine a cold, snowy day, wind blowing, you are moving slowly in your heavy clothing and the smells drifting towards you beckoning with aromas and spices and warmth – the same smells that have warmed hearts for centuries – you can take your pick from roasted and spiced nuts, warm figs, baked apples, gingerbreads, Glühwein (hot spiced red wine), Reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), and for the meat lovers – sausage and other roasting scents.
Many homes in Germany have Christmas trees. But they are not quite like the trees you see in other places, especially the USA, where they are all unique and can get very creative. Munich trees are still very traditional – many people STILL use real candles on the trees. Lots of white and traditional decorations. Lots of food we put on our trees – some call them Sugar Trees because there are often lots of cookie and candies. But the biggest difference is that our trees do not go up before Dec 23 and are left up through the first week in January.
Every house has bells. Every meal we play some bells (no one in my house is very musical but some can do piano or guitar or flutes) but always bells and singing. Singing starts during Advent and goes through Christmas. Dec 6th is also a big day, St. Nicholas Eve, where the children leave their shoe out and get either candy if they were good or sticks if they were bad.
My father used to cook the Christmas dinner himself. He wouldn’t let my mother do anything for it. It was really the only time he cooked, and it wasn’t as good as my mother’s cooking but it was still tasty. Duck, potatoes, puddings – he would cook enough food for an army to eat for a week.
He also used to spend an extraordinary amount of time selecting the perfect gift for everyone. Only one gift, but it was always something that meant a great deal. One year I got a silver antique jewelry box to keep my beads in, one year a leather bound trunk to pack my belongings for my move to America, one year a thick Irish sweater that, according to him, “matched the color of my hair when I was a child.” Always something precious.
I am going to miss my father this Christmas.