Though technically winter doesn’t start until the solstice—that is the shortest day and longest night of the year around December 22nd—for me the season is heralded by two things, regardless of the date: snow and Christmas markets. So now it finally feels official: though the Christmas market has been up and running since the end of November, the first snow arrived on my doorstep yesterday. The holiday season can begin.
In Germany December is dominated by Christmas celebrations. Red and gold and green and silver bobbles adorn shop windows and street lamps. Twinkle lights and bits of greenery are draped across streets. Little stands selling roasted chestnuts pop up on city corners, and the shopping district fills up with more traffic than it has seen all year. A part of every German city is transformed into a hut-speckled marketplace filled with visitors drinking Gluhwein (mulled wine), eating their way through the large selection of greasey or sugary snacks, and shopping for trinkets and gifts.
Growing up in America I had never been to a Christmas market, and then I marked the beginning of the season by the appearance of Santa Clauses around the city—sitting in temporary cabins at the mall for photos with children or ringing bells on street corners in order to collect donations for one charity or another. But you won’t see Santa Claus anywhere in Germany in late December. Here Santa, or St. Niklaus, comes on December 6th to fill children’s shoes, while it is the Christkind that brings presents to German children on Heilige Abend (December 24th).
Despite the fact that the Christkind is a part of every celebrating German’s Christmas tradition, I have yet to meet someone who could explain to me who exactly this person in white actually is and why I should expect it to bring me presents in late December. “It’s some sort of angel, I think,” a friend once told me. “Everyone has to leave the room and then the Christkind comes and puts the presents under the tree. Then a bell rings and you can go back in and open the presents. So you usually don’t even see him.”
“The name makes it sound like it’s Jesus who is bringing the presents,” I replied.
“Yeah, something like that,” was his vague answer. So finally I did what I always do when I want to know the story behind a foreign concept, and I turned to wikipedia. There I learned that the Christkind was an invention of Martin Luther during the Reformation, created “explicitly to discourage the figure of St. Nicholas.” And who is the Christkind exactly? Says wikipedia: “The Christkind is a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings. Martin Luther intended it to be a reference to the incarnation of Jesus as an infant. Sometimes the Christ Child is, instead of the infant Jesus, interpreted as a specific angel bringing the presents, as it appears in some processions together with an image of little Jesus Christ.”
After over six years in Germany, my Decembers are now marked by many new traditions. Every year at least one visit to the Christmas market for a glass of something warm and a bag full of roasted chestnuts or a crepe smothered in Nutella. Far less snow than I was used to in upstate New York, but a sprinkling or two to keep me in the winter spirit. And though the Christkind won’t be visiting our house (neither will St. Nick for that matter), when bells start ringing in houses across Germany on December 24th, at least I’ll finally understand why.
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate! And for those who don’t: what makes your Decembers special?