The morning of Christmas eve – the day after I arrived in Dresden – Anne, Frank, Martha and I set out for Lackau where Anne’s parents Reinhard and Marita live. There had been freezing rain throughout the night which left a fine layer of ice over the city but the Autobahn was cleared with German efficiency and we were able to safely reach speeds exceeding 180kph on the straightaways.
It hadn’t yet started snowing but there were patches of fog popping up as we sped north-east, into the Spreewald (not far from the border of Poland). The German landscape in is almost mystical in the winter – the sky as white as the fields. As the scenery alternated between field and forest the horizon was only defined by forests edging the fields and where the trees were hidden by hills the horizon vanished. The only color in the land came from the pine forests; their trunks growing red as they reached up into deep green bows. Courier and Ives eat your hearts out.
We arrived in Lackau around eleven just in time to help prepare for lunch. Marita and Reinhard live in the house that has serviced four generations of Reihms. It was a three-story, two family building that was served as the Soviet intelligence headquarters during the war (during which time Reihms lived in the church where were to celebrate Christmas services). Directly across the street there was canal which served, in addition to a wall, as the olde towns primary defense.
German Christmas seems to be based around meals. We set and cleared the table a dozen times while I was there, starting with the traditional Christmas eve lunch of Carp which we ate shortly after arriving. This big, clumsy fish is popular in both Czechland and Germany for Christmas. In Prague, it’s avalaible from street vendors in every neighborhood who set up with blue plastic tubs teeming with fish. Usually there are two men working a stand: one who wrangles the choosen fish from the tub, weighs, and beheads it and another who cleans and wraps the fish for travel. In Lackau, our Christmas carp was purchased at the local pet shop who, strangely, service this need more readily than the market. In both countries many people prefer to bring the fish home live a day early so that it can live in the bathtub before being dressed for the meal – this tradition has roots in fattening up the fish but is now about entertaining the kids.
So, barely an hour after we arrived we sat down for out first meal. Carp boiled in a vegetable broth, served with boiled potatoes and vegetables. Carp is a bland (and bony) fish so it’s also served with melted butter, fish broth, and horseradish. It’s not a bad (and especially dramatic) meal served with the head and tail book-ending the serving platter.
After lunch we prepared for church while snow began falling outside (we were expecting a white Christmas but it wasn’t until Sunday that I learned it was the whitest Christmas on record in the area). One of the main differences between the European and American Christmas is when the gifts are opened. In Germany (and CZ) the gifts are unwrapped on Christmas eve instead of Christmas morning. When it’s time to open gifts a bell is rung three times summoning everyone into the main room decorated with all the Christmas trimmings (this bell would reappear constantly throughout the weekend though I never saw it rung). In one corner there was an ornately set table covered in cookies, small cakes and holiday sweets. On the other side of the room was a small fir decorated with a few ornaments and illuminated by real candles. A German tradition is for everyone to have a basket of goodies set out near the tree (so when we weren’t’ eating meals there was always sweets at hand). We spend most of the weekend in the dining room basking in the light of the Christmas tree.
After coffee and snacks there was caroling. Anne’s family is very musical (all of the women sing in the church choir) so with the lights turned down, illluminated by candles from the christmas tree with snow falling outside we sang German and English Christmas carols. Silent Night was the only one that I could participate in but the gesture was still lovely.
Following songs, we took a quick trip to the Church of St. Nicholas, just down the street, to reserve our seats for the evening and morning masses. No one knows exactly when this church was built, but the original building was established some 800 years ago. After Lackau experienced trade wealth the church was renovated to it’s current stature featuring an enourmous gothic exterior and baroque interior. It’s the biggest building in the town and features an enormous, unheated central hall. Above the entrance was an enormous wooden structure that supported the massive organ (with pipes extending fifty feet up), room for an orchestra and, above them, space for the choir. Typical winter services are held in a small room on one side but for the crowded Christmas services the unheated main room of the church is used. We brought blankets.
Later, after opening Martha’s (Anne and Frank’s daughter) gifts we came back for the service. It was an hour long and mostly music. The main hall was half lit with candles and the pastor alternated with the choir. Silent Night was sung in German. Once our tooshes were frozen and the singing was done we adjourned to the house for a bowl of hot, matza-like soup. Then we opened gifts, drank and played games until everyone fell asleep in preparation for the morning service.
At 5:15, the mysterious bell rang again. Silently I rose and dressed in all the clothes I brought. We left the house in the dark, the falling snow illuminated by streetlights. Yet, it was too easy to imagine generations of Germans making this same walk, lit by lantern and called by bells. This morning the church was a dream. The entire, cavernous space was lit solely by candlelight and filled with quite churchgoers. Two firs trees, unadorned except for dozens of candles, glowed softly in the back. Above us, amid the hundreds of organ pipes, sat the choir (all the Reihm women in attendance) and a small orchestra. I couldn’t follow the music or the sermon nor would I have wanted to. The whole service was like a glowing dream any memory of words would spoil it.
Halfway through the service a second choir assemebled at the back of the church, lit dozens of candles on extending holders (like those protective gates for toddlers that you unfold at the top of stairways) and began combatting the verse of the primary choir with their own parts of the song. From then on the song alternated between the choirs while the candles of both choirs slowly moved – adding another layer of visual mystery to an already stunning show. For me, this was the Christmas victory. I would spend Christmas in Lackau next year soley for this show.
After the service ended we headed back to the house for brunch. The morning was just starting to break and the snow was piling up. More than one car needed a stout push out of the church parking lot. Then there was brunch. If the service was my favorite part of Christmas, this brunch was my favorite meal. It’ was all hors d’oeuvres: baskets of warm bread, butter, German cured meats, deviled eggs (with caviar), a dozen cheeses, olives and veggies marinated in oil, asparagus marinated in balsamic, all served with coffee, juice, and a lot of good cheer. This meal isn’t just for the family and it’s the time that friends go around and visit each other – a rather nice Christmas tradition – which introduced me to a few of the families local friends.
The rest of the holiday was more meals, naps and snowy walks. One meal was just cakes. One of savory veal and cheese dishes served elegantly in giant shells and the final one featured a Christmas goose.
What can I say? The Germans know how to celebrate a holiday with bells, baked beasts, candles and snow.