This isnít really our late Christmas letter, although I did liberally borrow from one Betty Lou wrote.
The Germans seem to go all out for Christmas. The Christmas season starts December 6, called Nikolaus. (Well actually, as in the U.S., the selling season starts much earlier.) St. Nikolaus here is pretty much the opposite of ours; heís tall and slim. He does have a long beard, though and he gives fruit and nuts to good children. (And, I guess, coal to bad ones.)
Speaking of selling, every Saturday in December before Christmas the shops are open "late" – you remember: until 6. In addition, there are Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) or Kris Kringlemarkts (no translation necessary) in every town. (These are open late!) Itís like having a month-long open-air bazaar. There are handmade dolls, ornaments, lovely wooden trays and things, but also lots of trash. I guess itís the same the world over although there was one at the airport that had only good stuff and at reasonable prices. Of course, any such occasion also provides a good excuse to set up the stands selling Wurst, Glühwein and Kartofflepuffers (delicious puffy potato pancakes – the best stand had lines 50í long).
People decorate their homes with trees, wreaths, lights and candles – including us. Full-sized trees we saw for sale in Frankfurt came already wrapped in netting so although you can tell how tall they are you donít know well shaped the one you bought is until you get it home. There are some hilarious moments on the subways when people try to carry them on and off. Ours was a small one, although it came with real candles wired on. We lighted them on Christmas Eve – we had to keep a fairly close watch to snip off the burning twigs! Maybe next year weíll get one that will do justice to the 13í ceiling, though I think Iíd forgo lighting candles on a larger one. We also had an Advent wreath; you light one candle every Sunday starting four weeks before Christmas.
Christmas week was unseasonably warm, even for here, with temperatures in the 50ís and even some sun – not something you take for granted here. We walked around the city, listening to the church bells ring in harmony on Christmas Eve, watching the last minute frantic shoppers – just as in the United States, and peering in windows to see peopleís Christmas decorations and lighted trees. There are two Christmas days here, the 25th and the 26th. On the calendar they are both called "Christmas." However, the truly important time seems to be Heiligabend (Holy Evening) the half-day before Christmas. If December 23 is a normal workday, everyone is dismissed at noon, and the family festivities begin. The family has dinner, and Christmas Eve gifts are exchanged among the immediate family; on the following two Christmas days other relatives and friends come to visit, chat, perhaps exchange gifts, and eat.
Everything is closed down in the city and one has to be prepared with food and other necessities for at least three or four days. The Friday before Christmas, stores closed at 2:00 and didnít open again until Tuesday morning. Most restaurants were closed for the holiday too. Under normal (U.S.) circumstances, that doesnít sound like much. Here itís a different story – our refrigerator is about the size of a microwave oven (well, a large one). There is little space for more than a couple of daysí supply of fresh vegetables and meat, milk, butter, cheese, and so on. The freezer will hold three minuscule ice cube trays and a couple of packages of frozen food. It takes careful planning for meals – what to have on hand in canned goods and for drop-ins, and what to buy the moment the stores open. It sounds strange but one does get used to it.
Speaking of customs – New Yearís Eve was spectacular. Here itís called Silvester (or Sylvester); after St. Silvester. No one weíve asked knows why itís his day or its significance other than itís New Yearís Eve. People seem to have the same festivities that we have – late dinners, parties with friends, kissing at midnight, and toasting the New Year with champagne (or, more likely, German sparkling wine, Sekt). The major difference from our celebration is that there is a magnificent fireworks display, courtesy of the residents. In a big departure from the usual German caution, anyone can buy fireworks between the Christmas and New Yearís holidays for use on New Yearís Eve – although we did hear many "rehearsals." Many businesses sell them – department stores, drug stores or Apothekes (pharmacies!), grocery stores, wine shops, kiosks. We bought an assortment at our local grocery store. They turned out to be mainly firecrackers whose size was more impressive than their noise.
Weíd been wandering around the neighborhood for 20 minutes around midnight before I thought of getting the camcorder and there was still plenty to tape. When we watched it later it reminded me of the Panamanian invasion. There were constant explosions and people were launching rockets from empty bottles on the sidewalks, in driveways, even from balconies. (We made sure to park our car in our garage space – it's four blocks away, so we normally park on the street.) Occasionally, weíd see shattered bottles and later we heard of the kind of accidents youíd expect from such an occasion, but it was dazzling while it lasted.