There are a lot of problems associated with moving to a foriegn country: language difficulties, visa issues, and making money, to name a few. Yet the hardest part about living abroad may be difficult simply because there is no ready solution. A language can be learned, application forms completed, and money found in the street – but there isn’t much of a solution for missing your family and friends when you’re not around. This problem comes to head during the holidays when loved ones are typically in abundance. Fortunately, instead of being held accountable for abandoning my people (I imagine “accountability” involving a Christmas dinner at McDonalds), I was rewarded with an invitation to spend a traditional Christmas in Lacau, Germany – complete with real candles on the tree, a lovely family to sing Christmas carols with and a little girl to unwrap gifts. I guess the best solution to missing old friends is making new ones.
My holiday began long before visiting Germany. In the Czech Republic (without Thanksgiving) there is no demarcation signifying the beginning of the Christmas season so instead of actually starting, it creeps up sometime after St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11th). A couple of lights here, a wreath there, and then – BAM! – a three story advent calender on the Palladium and a carp vendor on every corner. Then there are the holiday markets. These small villages pop up in squares, parks and open spaces all around the city offering traditional holiday foods and wares including svařák (mulled wine), trdlnik (pastry wrapped around a spit and baked over coals) and Old Prague Ham (ham cooked on a spit over a wood fire). Other popular Czech wares are ornaments made of pressed-wood, wine, cheese, cured meats, wooden wares, and candy.
Mind you, the Czechs don’t have a Santa Clause. Instead, their gifts are brought by Ježíšek – the baby Jesus – who sneaks in through a window without much fanfare. These means that I didn’t see a single jolly fat man the whole season. On the bright side, the Czechs do celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6th) but instead of leaving candy in the kids shoes (in the Dutch tradition we celebrated throughout my childhood) they put on demon masks an terrorize the local youth. Don’t ask.
But I’m wandering off topic and this post was about a German Christmas celebration and this year I was invited to celebrate the holiday by an old family friend. Anne Reihm (and later her sister Fricki) was an exchange student living with my aunt and uncle, Arjen and Colin, when I was a kid. Anne invited me to spend the holiday with her family (Frank and 19 mo old Martha), her parents, and her sister (who now married to a boy from Otisville, NY brought a gaggle of Americans along).
I left Prague on Thursday and the train between to Dresden was a snowy dream. The white sky and snowy ground were airbrushed with a thick fog so, at moments, there was nothing visibile out the window but a blank sheet of paper. At other times hedgerows and treelines wandered away from the tracks into a white infintiy or speckled the land like an unfinished drawing.
I met Anne and Martha on the platform of Dresden’s main station. Out first stop was the Christmas market where we met Fricki, her husband Brian, siblings-in-law. While in Prague, the markets consisted of simple wooden sheds occasionally decorated with pine branches and red ribbons, whereas the 576 year-old Dresden Christmas market featured massive, ornately carved, painted and decorated stands exhibiting a huge variety of Christmas paraphernalia: traditional wooden crafts, hand-carved in the Alps (apparently Santa’s workshop), nutcrackers, woven ornaments, and beautiful, glowing stars popular in the east of Germany. There was also an entirely new set of Christmas food (extra exciting after having spent a month with the Czech holiday grub) including many varieties of wurst (sausages, of course!), Glühwein (German svařák), and pastries (we had waffles filled with cream). There was also pig on a spit but the Germans prefer roasting the whole thing at once as opposed to just the hams (showoffs…).
Yet, as I always say, “one enormous market filled with delicious goodies isn’t enough”, and there is always another. Anne led us to a second, medieval themed market, at the foot of the castle in the old part of town. Night had fallen and as we wondered the dirt path of the new market, under the towering walls of the castle, we were illuminated by torches and lanterns – creating a pre-industry feel maintained by staff dressed in medieval fineries and the market stalls assembled in an archaic fashion. There was also a black-smith bending iron, an archery range allowing practice for the boar hunt, and a hot-tub bar where you could plop down in a wooden vat of steaming water while drinking from a chandelier-table hung over the center of the tub (the guys enjoying this splashed water at approaching photographers).
After the markets we split of from Fricki and her band of Americans who were driving out to Lackau that evening. Anne, Martha and I took the tram back to her apartment in one of the snowy garden cities that surround the urban center of Dresden. There we had a beer with Frank, baked a cake for Christmas day and fell asleep before ten o’clock. Drinking mulled wine takes it out of you and there was still a whole holiday to celebrate.