Without a doubt, one of the hardest aspects of being an expat is spending the holidays without family and friends surrounding you (hence the previous blog about Christmas movie viewing). Needless to say, every year we look for new and exciting ways to celebrate and curb the loneliness that comes from living abroad, while still keeping the traditions that we grew up with alive.
This year, our Christmas holiday season began with a trip to Germany, where we visited the town that invented Christmas: Nuremberg. Now, when I say invented Christmas, I don’t mean the entire holiday. The human observation of the daylight growing longer and overcoming the darkness dates back to prehistory. However, many of our contemporary western ideas relating to the festival of lights come out of Germany and other central European nations.
One way that many of the European cultures celebrate is through the markets. Christmas markets can be found all over the continent, but they – like many other traditions – originated in the area of Germany (ie. trees, wreaths, and Sinterklaas). The oldest of these is in Nuremberg where instead of Christmas market, it is called the Christkindlesmarkt.
Christkind translates to ‘Christ Child‘ in English and specifically in the Bavarian region (yes, we ate real pretzels and bratwurst), children write letters to the baby Jesus asking for presents. The letters are decorated with sugar to make them sparkle. The Nuremberg market opens on the Friday prior to the start of Advent, and a young girl with ‘Christ like’ qualities is chosen to participate in a parade as the Christkind. She wears a long, white dress and has blond curly hair with a gold crown atop her head. Sometimes she even wears wings like an angel.
Nobody really knows how the Christkindlesmarkt traditions began, but its been theorized to date back to 1628. The oldest piece of evidence is a wooden box with that date inscribed on the bottom alongside the words: Kindles–Marck. Additionally, the words Kindleinbescheren (handing out presents to children) or Weihnachtszeit (Christmas time) were used in official Nuremberg city documents as far back as 1610. Most historians believe that the markets gradually evolved between 1610 and 1639.
Most, if not all, of the Christmas markets in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other countries take place in or around the town square and Nuremberg is no different. The Hauptmarkt is the area of the town beneath the Frauenkirche – a very unique cathedral that appears to have jumped out of the pages of a steampunk novel, complete with a mechanical clock dating back to 1506 (but commemorating the Golden Bull of 1356).
There was a time when traveling meant capturing great photos of some far off places and experiencing the feeling of simply being there. That was when I took trips alone. Going on a holiday with Jen, however, is a completely different story. While I spend time researching hotels, airlines, and sights, she spends her time vigorously combing through internet forums for what people claim are the best souvenirs to buy. If I’m lucky, she chooses one. At a Christmas market though (at any sight with the word ‘market’ in the title), I felt lucky to get out of there with only a small handful.
During the trip we strolled through markets in Prague, Munich, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Nuremberg. And after seeing the various styles of markets, I believe we made the right decision in doing all of our souvenir shopping in Nuremberg. The quality of hand–crafted goods far outweighed options at the other markets. Rothenburg ob der Tauber was such a small market, there were more Christmas shops than stalls (shops open year round so I’m told). Both Prague and Munich had a plethora of cheap, factory made chintz. It was frustrating to walk kilometers (literally) around the markets only to see the same junk being peddled at every booth.
On the other hand, Nuremberg showcased a variety of goods that none of the other markets had on display. For example, we purchased two very cute Christmas decorations. The first is called a smoker and is similar to a nutcracker. While the nutcracker sits on the shelf looking Christmasy and not doing much else (unless you really want to try cracking a nut), the smoker opens up and a small incense cone goes inside. The smoke comes out through a hole in the mouth, filling the room with the scents of pine trees, warm apple cinnamon, or anything else you might want.
The second is the Zwetschgenmannle, or Prune Men. They were supposedly invented in the 18th century by a man who only had wire and a plum tree. He wanted the perfect gift for his children so he created these little figurines. Today, the prune men come in all shapes and sizes (some even ride Harleys). It’s impossible to visit the Nuremberg market without getting at least one. They range in price from 3 to 20 euro, and unlike many of the other potential souvenirs (wooden ornaments, gingerbread, spiced wine, and more), the prune men can only be found in Nuremberg.
Another interesting aspect of the markets are the mugs. Visitors pay a deposit of 2 or 3 euro and get a special mug (every year has a different design and the date printed on it). You take your mug with you to every drink stall and order whatever hot beverage you prefer, whether it be hot chocolate, apple cider, or mulled wine. At the end of the evening, you can choose to either return your mug for the deposit, or keep it as another souvenir. We took a mug home from both Rothenburg and Nuremberg. Two more souvenirs and many cups of hot beverages that kept us warm while we shopped.
So, we enjoyed our short Advent trip to Germany and the Czech Republic. Next, we’ll be traveling to Italy, Austria, and Hungary. We both miss home and hope that all our family and friends are enjoying the build up and preparations for the holiday season… Stay tuned for more stories from our adventures!
Hasta la Proxima…