Tag Archives: Traditions

The Language of the Holidays

Tis the season of festive lights, warm spiced wine and Christmas markets galore. In an earlier post, I sketched out a typical holiday celebration here in the land of three Christmas days (well, two-and-a-half).

As a tip of the Santa hat to the season, this time around I will introduce the language of the holidays in search of clues for how the German  language puts its singular stamp on the festive vernacular.

plaetzchen
Christmas Cookies–or Plaetzchen–are taken VERY seriously in Germany. This bad boy has almost 300 pages of recipes.
  1. Plaetzchen

    Anecdotally, I know that Christmas cookie baking is as robust a tradition in the States as it is in Germany. I have seen the scrumptious photos on my social media newsfeeds (stop it, by the way–my waistline grows an inch with every view). Which is why it is a bit curious to me that the American English language hasn’t bestowed these special treats with their own name, as the Germans have.
    I learned very early in my time here that “Plaetzchen” is the name for the hundreds of varieties of Christmas cookies that start appearing at holiday parties throughout the country this time of year. How did I learn? The same way I learned many an important word back in the early days here–I heard a friend use it (in this case, she asked if she should bring some “Plaetzchen” to a Christmas get-together I was organizing), was too afraid to lose face by asking what it meant, cooly played it off as if I already knew (surely it meant plates, which I already had plenty of) and–ruefully, so very ruefully–learned too late what I had turned away. Oh, the humanity. I’M SO SORRY JUTTA!

    vanillekipferln
    My own little Dr. Oetker, making his great-grandmother proud by baking his first-ever batch of Oma Julie’s Vanilla Crescents (“Vanille Kipferln”), a family favorite.
  2. Bescherung

    No need to bless me, I did not just sneeze. Rather, I cyber-articulated the very special word used to mean the act of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. As I mentioned last Christmas, the Bescherung takes place on what Americans call Christmas Eve.
    Fun Fact #1: “Gift” means “poison” in German. Please, no gift-giving here. Germans are swell folks.
    Fun Fact #2: “Eine schoene Bescherung!” is an ironic expression that translates to “a fine mess!”, or, as my dad might say, “a fine how-do-you-do!”

    gluehwein
    No holiday / winter season is complete without Gluehwein, best enjoyed in a dedicated mug and–of course–freshly-baked Plaetzchen.

    3. Gluehwein

    On a winter trip to Austria years (and years and years) ago, my underaged self somehow managed to nip a sip of this very traditional cozy winter drink at a Christmas Market. My taste for fine libations being unevolved as they were at the time, I thought it was disgusting. In fact, the steaming, sweet wine-y taste became a thing of lore, so nasty it was, and I was glad to have thousands of safe transatlantic miles between myself and “that stuff”. Ha!
    For perhaps the specific purpose of schooling me to appreciate Gluehwein (which has nothing to do with glue, rest assured), the universe blew me across the ocean a decade later for a more permanent stay–smack dab in the middle of German wine country, no less. Now, of course, I savor the stuff and how it warms me from the inside out.
    Ah, the mysterious ways of the world.

    4. Silvester

    Let’s take a stab at how many Americans know what this refers to, with the clues that you can already eliminate a certain Boxer-playing Italian-American actor as well as a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Anyone…anyone….?
    Now I’ll ask Germans a similar question: though you obviously know the holiday this refers to,  do you know WHY it is called this? Anyone….anyone…..?

    Time to break out the bubbly and claim your place at Times Square or the Brandenburg Gate…New Year’s Eve is upon us. As to the origin of the curious nomenclature embraced by Germany as well as several other European nations, I will quote Wikipedia directly, as there are big words and several numbers involved, and I’ve already had my first Gluehwein:
    Silvester (also spelled sylvester, szilveszter, or sylwester) is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity.[1] The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, 31 December, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve.”

    new-year-sparkler
    Silvester (New Year’s Eve) in Germany means a multitude of private firework displays, sparklers  in one hand and sparkly in the other, and raucous revelry. Just don’t plan on driving anytime soon after the stroke of midnight–thick smoke renders visibility to near zero.

    As we head down the home stretch of the Advent season and of the year 2016, wherever in the world you are, I wish you peace, prosperity and many Plaetzchen.

    If you want to avoid turning away delicious baked treats– and other language-barrier induced snafus–start 2017 off with an English Language course. And if you’re in the States, make this the year to learn a new langauge or freshen up what you learned in high school…it’s good brain training!

    adventskranz

Trees! Lights! Food! Christmas!

Currently, my social media is awash with pictures of Christmas trees. Lots of them. As usual, U.S.-folks are outdoing themselves with decorations and lights on their floor-to-ceiling, full-bodied trees (can trees be “full bodied”? I don’t know. Full figured, maybe?) By now, virtually all self-respecting Americans who celebrate Christmas have had their tree-trimming parties and are relaxing with a glass of eggnog on the La-Z-Boy.

Domhof Christmas
A Speyer landmark, the Domhof Christmas tree.

This is the first year everrrr that our nuclear family of four is celebrating Christmas at our own home (well, at our landlord’s home, but whatever). No flights to the USA or over the river and through the woods to the rural outreaches of Frankfurt. Although we will miss family time, I am excited to finally start some of our own Yuletide traditions (and not getting out of my pajamas for three days straight). And, we get to HAVE A TREE. I am so ready to put it up, wrap it in light strands (I’ll be cursing like a sailor during that part; let’s fast forward), add some baubles, throw open our shutters and give the tour groups of old town Speyer something to ooohh and aaahh at.

Me: (to German-to-his-core husband): Let’s get our tree and have a decoration evening this weekend!

Husband: Um, no. That’s bad luck. NOBODY DOES THIS. Except stores.

Me: But, we’re a German-American household! Let’s put it up just a few days before Christmas!

Husband: Seriously, nobody does this. It is bad luck. The tree comes into the house on Christmas (otherwise known to Americans as Christmas Eve). Then we decorate it, then the kids go away for a few minutes while the Christkind (the Christ child) brings the presents.

Hmmpf.

Kipferl und Quentin
Our ghostly son checking out the vanilla kipferl.

The truth is, I know the drill after celebrating about 10 Christmases here. This is indeed exactly how it is done in German households. Festivities (generalization alert!) unfold roughly in this manner:

December 24: Decorate tree, open gifts, sit down for a late dinner (many German households serve a simple dish; potato salad, carp, fondue or raclette are popular traditional fare). Break into the libation cabinet. Shuffle off to bed.

December 25: Sleep in. Then, start preparations for Christmas feast of roast pork, duck or goose (or duck-duck-goose). The main thing: lots of meat (or fish).    Start feeling the first inklings of cabin fever. Break into libation stash. Shuffle off to bed.

December 26: Don’t even think of heading out to the mall…we’re still on holiday schedule. Specifically, the “Second Christmas Day”. By now you are eating leftovers. Cabin fever is in full tilt. Take a walk, read a book, start plotting a spontaneous city getaway to take advantage of post-Christmas sales. Or, you know, hang out with your family (the libation cabinet is still in easy reach). Admire your now three-day-old Christmas tree. Shuffle off to bed, with visions of open stores dancing in your head.

Notice what (or who) is missing in the joyous festivities. A certain jolly, rotund, chimney fetishist (that was uncalled for, wasn’t it?). No Santa here, folks. St. Nikolaus does make the rounds, but on December 6. And he fills boots with, well, holiday booty. Old tradition calls for tangerines, nuts and chocolate. New tradition calls for iPhones, iPads and wads of cash. But again, I digress.

So, I will have to find a way to craftily weave in my American traditions with the German ones. The current compromise on the table regarding the tree is to put it up outside—with lights—and haul it in on Christmas Eve. I will also, ahem, stand my ground on opening at least a portion of our already minimal presents on the morning of the 25th.

Weihnachtsmarkrt
Speyer Christmas market

Good-natured snark aside, I really do enjoy the way the holidays are celebrated here. I love Christmas Markets, which for me are a completely acceptable substitute for overblown holiday light displays (though I get a kick out of touring competitive light-display neighborhoods when I’m in the States). And I LOVE that consumerism comes to a crashing halt for two-and-a-half days.

And, hey, we might not have Santa, but at least we don’t have the creepy Krampus skulking around. You (you now meaning Austrians–which you aren’t, but who’s counting) just keep those there creatures in the Alps where they belong

Gluehwein Speyer
From our family to yours, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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