Monday, November 22, 2004

The Thirteenth Month

This week, all Germany is humming with energy. Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, an event which is merely a statistic in most parts of the world, but resonates like the starting bell at a racetrack here. Already, the Weihnachtsmärkte have opened, Christmas bazaars selling handcrafts, traditional foods, knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and, of course, Glühwein and sausages. The most famous one is in Nuremberg, where I found myself a couple of years ago when I went there to do a story on the Nazi Documentation Center. I definitely needed cheering up after that, and headed back into town to the huge crowd (largely Japanese, for some reason) milling around there.

There's apparently another famous one in Dresden called the Striezelmarkt, which I missed despite being in that city at that time of year once. But pretty much every major city has one: I was assigned a boneheaded story on Christmas in Leipzig last year -- Leipzig not being famous for its Christmas stuff -- and found a very good-sized one strewn all over the market square and throughout the old town. Berlin has several: I saw the little huts being built last week both in Alexanderplatz and around the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche over by Zoo Station, and almost certainly the one by the Opera House on Unter den Linden will fire up again this year.

It's pretty certain that I'll wind up wandering through one of them, because they're so inescapable, and, as always, I'll probably check out the latest from Seiffen, a small town in the extreme southeast near the Czech border where the citizens turned to making hand-carved wooden toys when the tin ore in the local mines ran out in the 18th Century. (There's a good history of it here, but, unfortunately, no pictures). This was a major hard-currency source for the DDR back when it existed, and you've undoubtedly seen the nutcrackers -- albeit probably Chinese copies. But they also do these complex little figures called Rauchermännchen, or little smoking men. They come apart at the middle and you insert an incense cone, then put them back together. In a few seconds, the mouth begins to puff smoke. They come in all manner of forms, representing a huge variety of occupations: the year I was in Seiffen, the big deal was computers, which had basically just hit German consumers, and there were lots of little guys seated in front of terminals. The next year, they were using cell phones. One of my favorites was a little guy pumping gas -- uh, a little unclear on the concept, dude?

Because I don't eat much sugar, I miss out on the big attractions of the Weihnachtsmärkte, the food products. In Nuremberg, this centers around Lebkuchen, a flat piece of pastry somewhere between a spice cookie and a gingerbread which is made with leavening which comes from fermenting flour with honey. The firm which invented them back in the 1300s apparently still does this slow fermentation throughout the year in its basement. The Christkindlmarkt there is loaded with variations: frosted ones, chocolate-covered ones, with nuts, without nuts... There's also something called Früchtebrot, the distant and more palatable ancestor of our own fruit cake.

Dresden has its Stollen, which my mother used to make. This is subject to innumerable variations; my notes from Leipzig mention "Our Best" (no idea what that was about), Kunath Christstollen, Kunath Butterstollen, Dresdner Mandelstollen (with almonds), Mohnstollen (with sweetened poppy-seeds), and special Stollen for diabetics. Dresden's other contribution to the Christmas larder is Pfeffernüsse, tiny hard cookies made with black pepper which are usually made at home -- again, my mother used to make these, and they're not really good until several weeks after they're cooked, when they're hard as the nuts they're named after.

Berlin, of course, has no particular culinary tradition, so we get what we get: a mixture of all of the above, leaning perhaps a bit closer to Dresden -- I can get that exact Stollen on the link there in my crappy supermarket. There's always a huge wok-like pan of Grünkohl with Pinklewurst (kale with little hot-dogs) and vats of Glühwein (bad red wine mulled with plenty of sugar and spices), the very smell of which gives me a headache when I walk past them.

And these markets are packed from the minute they open until they close, as are the department stores and the shopping malls. The reason? Many (but far from all) German workers get something called Weihnachtsgeld, a Christmas bonus equal to a month's salary. Civil servants almost always get it, but so do plenty of private employees. A collective spending mania then descends on the general population right up to December 23, at which point it just stops. I'm wondering how much Weihnachtsgeld I'll be seeing this year, though, with Berlin currently suffering 20% unemployment. Guess I'll find out in a week.

1 comment:

Daniel Rubin said...

Now you're making me homesick. Luckily, most of these items keep for at least a year, so we haven't run out. We made it out of there with some little smoking men, too. We also have a gnome named Juergen who sits on my cd case. He's a parachutist, and some German friends gave him to us - an Eastern German tradition, they said.