I’ve been shepherding a dear friend around the local Christmas markets the last few days, which explains my absence here. As a result of her great good taste, my home is now wreathed in Christmas splendour: starry, starry lights in the window, a large lantern with a Christmas candle in it on the doorstep, crystals of various hues reflecting candlelight back at us. There are swags, bows, pine cones, walnuts and angels serving as decoration and a big Stollen cake languishing in the kitchen. The Christmas tree is not up yet, but that comes later in the month, in time for Daisy’s and my birthdays.
I have learnt to love a northern hemisphere Christmas. I’ve come from a place where we barbequed our turkeys and ate them cold with salad and chilled white wine, and now I live in a place where we roast our geese and eat them hot with red cabbage and Gluehwein. It’s fantastic.
In Germany, Christmas starts in early November, with the Laternefest. This is in honour of Sankt Martin, a kindly sixth century fellow who gave part of his cloak to a beggar in order to protect him from the cold. He then went on to become a Bishop (Martin not the beggar), and we celebrate his act of kindness by making our own lanterns, lighting them and walking through the streets at dusk singing lantern and Sankt Martin songs. I still haven’t made the connection between the lanterns and the saint, but I love the festival. It’s one of my favourites. However, as Ms Yum Yum Cafe says, it does mean that Christmas has a seven-week build-up. Which if you are the parent of three small children, can be exhausting.
My strategy is to ignore Christmas until December. While my kids have been annotating the Toys R Us catalogues for some weeks, I have been pretending not to notice. But now it’s here, and I have license to swag. I started by selecting my Advent wreath at the weekly market. The wreath has four white candles and sits on the table. You light one candle for each weekend of Advent. The children each have Advent calendars – two in fact, thanks to the lovely Frau M and I not conferring and each buying a set. Every morning, they open a little window and eat the small plastic chocolate lurking there, bringing us closer to the huge chocofest that they hope their Christmas will be. Ollie, only 20 months, can actually say “chockit”. It is a mild obsession in our home.
Then it’s time to hit the Christmas markets. This weekend, we did four different ones. Our little town has a rather bijou market compared to the larger ones, but it is perfectly formed: you can buy Gluehwein, Schweinsteaks in various forms, Lebkuchen from mini to monstrous, some beautiful wooden toys, homemade candles and angels. They have a craft tent, where for a couple of euros they take your kids off your hands and teach them how to make things. This weekend, Lily (and her mother) learned how to make a wreath. This is now adorning our front door.
We also managed the Heidelberg, Schwetzingen and Speyer markets. Both the former have open-air ice rinks attached to their Christmas markets, which adds to the atmosphere. I displayed my lack of northern hemisphere nous by taking my daughters ice-skating in skirts and tights. After an hour, children were both rather wet and I was getting looks from other parents who were clever enough both to be born in Germany and to know the ice-skating mantra, “Always in trousers”. I stand re-educated. We’ll be there next week, waterproofed.
On Wednesday, 6th December, we celebrate the arrival of Sankt Nikolaus, who, confusingly, looks exactly like Father Christmas, but isn’t. My daughters have told me on clear authority that Sankt Nikolaus is in no way der Weinachtsman. Each child will put a boot out on the front doorstep, and in the morning, this will be filled with sweets (more chocolate, no doubt) and small presents. Emphasis on small, since we still have the visit of our more familiar Anglo-American Father Christmas to await on Christmas Eve. I’m pleased to report, though, that thanks to today’s swagging efforts, Sankt Nikolaus will at least be able to warm himself next to one very large lantern. And if he’s hungry, he could have a walnut.