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Christmas in Germany

Our family visits make us ­reconcile good and evil

As children, Ruth and Helen meet St. Nicholas in Munich.

Once more this year, my family and I spent part of the Christmas season in Germany. The tradition began because of my husband Jonathan’s good memories of the year his family lived in Munich, when he was 10.

Street vendors sell wurst in ­the Christkindlmärkte in Nuremberg.

    We go because Christmas in Germany is magical. Outdoor markets — die Christkindlmärkte — enliven every city’s square, many since the Middle Ages, with brightly lit wooden stalls decorated with fir and pine and displaying handmade crafts. Smells of grilling bratwurst, hot-spiced wine and cider, candied nuts and roasting chestnuts fill the air. While we walk the cobbled streets, past castles and stone buildings with red-tiled roofs, history finds us.
    History is thickly layered in this ancient country, but most haunting to us are the years just over a decade before Jonathan and my births.

Evil …

    On our first visit, when our daughters were in elementary school, we toured St. Sebald in Nuremberg. In the restored 13th century church, we saw photos from World War II of the church in rubble. Jonathan’s father remembered. As a sergeant doing reconnaissance for the U.S. Army, he witnessed the destruction firsthand when he arrived in Nuremberg two weeks after the British bombed the city.
    When the girls were older, 13 and 15, and had read The Diary of Anne Frank and Night, we took them to Dachau. I was surprised how quickly we got there on the train from Munich. It was not hidden far from sight. In the museum, the horror of torture was laid out in photos and stories. We read slowly.
    Then we walked through the field, past the one reconstructed barracks, to the buildings we weren’t sure we dared enter. First the holding room, the one before the so-called showers, the gas chambers, next to the crematorium. Historians ponder if the gas chambers were used here or not, for accounts vary. But I heard the voices. A barrage emanating from the concrete walls. I whispered, I’m sorry. I am so very, very sorry.
    After that trip, Helen, our eighth-grader at the time, wrote a poem. She told us that when she read it to her class they were silent, listening to how she felt. The poem begins and ends with the same four lines: I was scared and frightened / All my muscles suddenly tightened / I was cold and empty / Our footsteps echoed.
    Helen credits this visit to Dachau as a major influence in her continuing to study the Holocaust in high school and college and on her choice of the Japanese internment camps in our western states as her senior thesis topic as a college history major. We, too, are far from blameless.

St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig.

And Good

    Helen and her sister, Ruth, also remember the magic of Germany — marveling at Christmas lights that fill streets and squares … spending all day outdoors walking through architecturally stunning old cities … listening to concerts in lofty churches … wandering through the Englischer Garten in Munich with the snow falling, past the frozen pond where their daddy learned to skate and where they met St. Nicholas, on December 6, St. Nicholas Day.
    Ruth so enjoyed being appreciated by locals for her efforts at speaking German that she studied it, along with Spanish, all through high school and college.
    We return to Germany to stand in the winter air and eat wurst; each town has its signature recipe. To drink hot-spiced Glühwein and punch served in ceramic mugs, in different designs for each year and city, which can be returned for washing and reuse and a refund, or kept as a souvenir. Our Christmas windowsills are lined with them.
    We hunt for gifts amongst the outdoor stalls, each one right where it was the last time we visited. Glass balls, carved ornaments. The small matchboxes that, when opened, reveal a tiny wooden scene inside. These hold a special memory for us.

Woodworkers in Seiffen carefully chisel layer after layer of wood into curls to make glorious Christmas trees.

    About 10 years ago, we went to Seiffen, a rural town tucked in the Erzgebirge, the Ore Mountains. When the ore played out, the townspeople turned to the forests, creating gifts from wood. Here we met artisans, many working out of their modest homes. The man who makes the matchbox scenes lives up the hill from the church. We knocked and he opened the door to the entryway, where our family crowded around the small glassed-in shelves to look at all the designs he had to offer. We peeked into his cramped living room where family members worked on the miniature creations. Jonathan chatted with them in German while we paid for our treasures.
    This year, we returned to another favorite cottage industry in Seiffen, to the house at the other end of town, where women carve whole bouquets of tiny flowers, exquisite pieces almost too delicate to be real.
    We watched a Seiffen woodworker take a slice of tree trunk and, with a lathe and carving tools, deftly create small animals. Another took thick wooden dowels and carefully chiseled layer after layer of wood into curls to make glorious small Christmas trees. The ball of her thumb, from years of pushing, was flattened to a round disk.
    Their artistry is addictive, and over the years, we have all returned home with craft supplies we can’t find here in the U.S. I glean wool felt and simple wooden dolls to make tree gnomes. I buy colorful treated papers to fold into origami-like stars, either flat window stars or 3D hanging stars with lights inside.
    Jonathan finds empty matchboxes to fill with his own scenes, sheets of paper covered in crèche scenes he glues to wood before sawing out each piece. His inspiration fueled, he comes home to fold and cut intricate paper stars and to cover blown eggs with foils or painted decorations. One year, he made a hanging multi-layered wooden pyramid full of carved animals that turns when we light the candles around its base.
    He credits his year in the German Waldorf School, the Rudolf Steiner Schule, for setting him on a path of art and wonder.
    Jonathan has tried for years to perfect the Nuremberg bratwurst we all crave. Having finally achieved a delicious facsimile, he now makes hundreds each Christmas to share with friends, to be eaten at night in our back yard around fire pits, the way they should be eaten. Sauerkraut bubbles over the Coleman stove; Glühwein and hot-spiced apple cider make our Nuremberg party complete. In the German tradition, we use our collection of ceramic mugs, plus compostable plates and flat wooden forks.

When Worlds Collide

    At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., Helen and I saw a movie about Nuremberg. We watched as Hitler hailed troops marching into the city square. As the camera panned the scene, we saw, above their heads, the fountain. The elaborate fountain we always visit at the edge of the Christkindlmarkt, opposite the glockenspiel that chimes and performs at noon, the fountain where, ever since she was eight years old, Helen has reached up to rub the brass ring for good luck. As she looked at me, I watched her worlds collide.

Modern Nuremberg is bedecked in lights, above, with the stalls of the ­Christkindlmarkt  in the foreground, St. Sebald Church in the background and the fountain aglow to the right. All has been rebuilt since World War II, when Adolf Hitler hailed Nazi troops as they marched into the same square, right.

    In our travels this month, we met kindness upon kindness; witnessed beauty upon beauty; encountered history in layer upon layer. In Leipzig, we entered St. Nicholas Church, where J.S. Bach was choirmaster in the mid 1700s, where thousands met in a candlelight peace vigil in 1989 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. We glide through time when we visit Germany. We walk through Christmas splendor, but our footsteps echo with the past.