Travelogue LXVIII: Weihnachten

St. Bonifatius watches over the Christmas Market in Mainz.

St. Bonifatius watches over the Christmas Market in Mainz.

December 23, 2015 For such a unapologetically secular country, Germany does Christmas like nobody’s business. Here, Christmas is not just a day in December preceded by weeks of materialism and bad music on the radio, but rather a real season, full of ritual and traditions that transcend packed department stores and Santa kitsch imported from America.

Christmas day (the 24th in Germany, not the 25th) is the final tiny door on the advent calendar, the last mug of Glühwein, a simple plate of potato salad and sausage because the lady of the house doesn’t have to cook. Weihnachten, halt.

The Market in Ingelheim, in the ruins of an 800-year-old church.

The Market in Ingelheim, in the ruins of an 800-year-old church.

At the center of Christmas in Germany are the Weihnachtsmärkte, the Christmas Markets, opened all day every day starting the beginning of Advent. Almost every town has one, small or large–a few stands in the local Dorf, an entire village in Frankfurt or Nürnberg.

The Weihnachtsmärkte are not universally loved. Many Germans have to get a certain amount of complaining/general grumping out of their systems on the topic: It’s a lot of standing around in the cold…too commercialized nowadays…cheap alcohol and sugar. But somehow, everyone ends up in front of their favorite Glühwein stand anyway, tipsy and eating Bratwurst and generally having a marvelous time. And not just once. The translation company where I work had not one but two Christmas get-togethers at the Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt within the space of two weeks.

Glühwein--hot mulled wine drunk from mugs--is at the center of Weihnachtsmarkt cuisine.

Glühwein–hot mulled wine drunk from mugs–stands at the center of Weihnachtsmarkt cuisine. 

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If Glühwein isn't enough, there's always Feuerzangenbowle: mulled wine with the addition of a rum-soaked, flaming sugarloaf. Bam.

If Glühwein isn’t enough, there’s always Feuerzangenbowle: mulled wine with the addition of a rum-soaked, flaming sugarloaf. Bam.

And of course there's meat.

And of course there’s meat.

Lots of meat.

Lots of meat.

But also roasted chestnuts....

But also roasted chestnuts….

...and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) hearts...

…and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) hearts…

...and Schneebälle (snowballs), sweet dough strips covered in chocolate and marzipan and nuts.

…and Schneebälle (snowballs), sweet dough strips covered in chocolate and marzipan and nuts…

…not to mention Reibekuchen (fried potato pancakes), Flammkuchen (thin-crust French pizza), Dinele (wood-fired flat bread), Stollen (like fruit cake only 1000% better), hot potato soup, candied almonds, chocolate-covered fruit, and Crepes with Nutella.

During the Christmas season in Germany, the Weihnachtsmarkt is pretty much the place to be.

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Travelogue XX: Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wurst from a local butcher.

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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.

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Candle makers.

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Lebkuchen–gingerbread, here a specialty of Nürnberg. Often heart-shaped, strung on ribbons, with sappy sayings in icing.

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Hand-made wooden ornaments.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.