13. December, 2014 My first Christmas in Germany; my first Christmas not spent at home; my first Christmas without my family. It’s a strange and rather melancholy season, this.
At the same time, though, it is beautiful here. It’s funny: in German classes in America one learns all about various holidays and traditions in Germany–Karnival, Fasching, Oktoberfest, Silvester, St. Martins Tag–but Christmas is rarely on the list. And yet, only halfway through December, I can say that Christmas in Germany is turning into the richest, most lovely season I have experienced here. Even in a largely secular country, Advent is something to revel in, anticipated for months and welcomed with joy.
At the center of it all are the Weihnachtsmärkte, the Christmas markets, some nearly a thousand years old, found in the squares of every decent-sized town in the country. They are open every day during Advent, and full of lights and music and very good food.
In Mainz, everyone goes to the Weihnachtsmarkt, and not just once–on Sunday afternoons with the family, in between classes, on Friday evenings before hitting the clubs, during intermissions at the theater. Here, removed from major centers like Frankfurt or Nürnberg, it’s not so much of a flashy tourist affair, but rather something more local and grounded. If you want to brush up on your local dialect, it’s the place to be.
In terms of food and drink, Glühwein–wine, red or white, mulled with oranges, cloves, and cinnamon–is at the center of it all. It’s hot, bitter and sweet at the same time, served at the market in tiny ceramic or glass mugs. Up on the university campus, you can buy it for a euro and drink it from a plastic cup in between classes.
When it is freezing and raining, which is always the case in Mainz in December, it is very easy to drink three mugs on a Thursday evening before you really know what you are doing. You sit on a stoop out of the wind and look at the lights and the people, and the air is full of cathedral bells, and the entire world is enchanted.
Below, some of the sights from the Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt–minus the cobblestones, the church bells, and the smell of hot almonds and orange rind. To get those things, you have to be here.
Wurst from a local butcher.
Heiße Maronen–hot chestnuts, served in little striped paper bags. Gebrannte Mandeln–roasted almonds, rolled in coffee or powdered sugar or cinnamon–are also common. And delicious.
Lebkuchen–gingerbread, here a specialty of Nürnberg. Often heart-shaped, strung on ribbons, with sappy sayings in icing.
Hand-made wooden ornaments.
Reibekuchen, also known as Kartoffelpuffer, Erdäpfelpuffer, Reiberdatschi, Reibeplätzchen, Dotsch, Kartoffelpfannkuchen, or Kartoffelplätzchen depending on where you are in Germany. It’s a sort of fried potato pancake, served piping hot with applesauce.
Feuerzangenbowle–untranslatable. Basically an open cask of hot mulled wine with rum-soaked, flaming sugar loaves above it on a rack. The burning rum melts the sugar, which drips down into the wine. Impressive, delectable, and extraordinarily unhealthy.
Schneebälle–literally snowballs, a specialty from Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Basically just balls of sweet dough covered in marzipan or sugar and dipped in chocolate.
And of course Glühwein, and countless other variations of hot alcohol–Kirchwein, Kinderpunsch, Glögg, Glümost, Jagertee, and a dozen other regional specialties that I haven’t yet tried. I’ve still got two weeks, though.