Advent adventure

Paar auf dem Weihnachtsmarkt

As my fellow observer of the German culture Adam Fletcher writes in his new book How To Be German – Part 2, Christmas is serious business in Germany. And it all starts with the run-up to Christmas, which is Adventszeit (Advent season). There are certain things any self-respecting German should do. Here’s a bit of Adventiquette …

Christmas seems to be coming sooner each year. Supermarkets started displaying Christmas paraphernalia such as Lebkuchen (a type of gingerbread), Spekulatius (spicy biscuits) and not to forget the all-German currency Dominosteine (cubes of layered chocolate, gingerbread and marzipan) in late September this year. So you’ve just waved off your beach towel into hibernation and, poof!, it’s Christmas!

And every year I make the mistake of thinking I have plenty of time till Christmas. And every year, the Erster Advent (first Sunday of Advent) comes as an utter surprise. We interpreters have high season in November. So there I am, working my arse off with no figurative room to swing a cat, and I suddenly find myself hauling my exhausted body into the catacombs of my home to find the box with the Christmas decorations because – Lesson 1 – Germans perfuse their places with Räuchermännchen smoke and clutter them with tinsel, an Adventskranz (advent wreath) and possibly even a Christmas tree the fricking second the clock strikes 24th December minus four Sundays, which was 27th November this year.

Lesson 2: Have Adventskaffee on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In the hardcore (read: default) version, this includes offering a home-baked variety of at least three different sorts of Christmassy biscuits you prepared earlier in life. Not to forget the lighting of the candle(s) and, should you be so inclined, a dollop of Hausmusik.

Lesson 3: Craft an Advent calendar for someone. Honestly, parents go mental just before the end of November. My friend saw one of her friends in a shopping frenzy the other day because when confronting her fourteen and fifteen-year-old daughters with the fact that she assumed they had ‘outgrown’ Advent calendar age, she saw tears dwelling up in her teenage offspring’s eyes.

My own mother, much to my amusement, kept doing Advent calendars for us until we moved out. Thanks to her, I will never run out of little ‘useful’ things such as permanent markers and paper clips in my whole life.

Regarding the crafting front, I went on strike this year, though. After giving my older daughter one little present a day from 1st to 24th December for several years, seeing her roll her eyes at most of the gifts I had so lovingly and carefully selected, I decided it was time to opt for the path of least resistance, hop on the capitalist toy industry’s bandwagon and buy a Playmobil Advent calendar. And what can I say? They. Just. Love it. Every shitty little farmer’s fork provokes outbursts of limitless delight. I’ve spent less time and money, and they are happy as shit. Win-win. What more could a parent’s heart desire?

Lesson 4: On the evening of 5th December, children put one of their (polished!) boots outside the front door and wait for Nikolaus to fill it up with goodies (read more here). Yes, this is on top of Advent calendars and Christmas presents! I know: in November most German parents are left with nothing but heels to chew on while their children feast on the horn of plenty. Modern German Parenting 101.

Lesson 5: In the ample free time that is not used on crafting, baking, decorating, shopping, cleaning boots or playing music, see to your other Germanic duties such as downing some Glühwein (mulled wine) or Feuerzangenbowle (read more on this here) at the Christmas market, eating some Grünkohl (kale – yes, forget the smoothie movement – we started it many moons ago) and, most importantly, joining a round of Wichteln (Secret Santa) or Schrottwichteln (‘Scrap Secret Santa’ – find the most horrible gifts).

Any questions?

Ah, did I mention it’s one of my favourite times of year?

The Pommes Buddha says: Have a lovely German December!

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Booty

Sinterklaas . Dutch chocolate figure

If you live in Germany, you may have noticed that, on the evening of the 5th December, children put their boots – or sometimes just one boot – outside their front door. The next morning, these boots can mysteriously be found filled with gifts, such as a fir branch, nuts, tangerines, chocolate and one or two small presents. What is that strange custom, so shortly before Christmas?

The sixth of December is the day when Christians remember Saint Nicholas. He was the Bishop of Myra, who died on that date in the year 343 and was said to have performed various miracles and good deeds. One of the latter, legend has it, was giving presents to three virgins, hence the custom of filling boots with goodies (and telling children that Saint Nicholas did it). This, however, is but one of several assumptions regarding the origin of the tradition.

Der Nikolaus, as he is called in German, may even appear in person – for example in school or at sports clubs. He will come with a bag of goodies and question each child as to whether he or she was good in the past year. And, to make matters worse, St Nicholas may chose to drag along his sidekick Knecht Ruprecht, whose sole raison d’être is scaring the children by threatening to punish the naughty ones with a twig thrashing.

Saint Nicholas is often portrayed not as a bishop but as a hefty man with a white beard in a fluffy red coat. This depiction of Santa Claus, as he became known in the US, or Father Christmas in the UK, gained global ground in the 19th century and was cunningly used and thus made even more popular in soda giant Coca Cola’s advertising campaigns. So, historically, St Nicholas and Santa Claus are identical. In Germany, however, most people will say that der Nikolaus is different from der Weihnachtsmann, the latter bringing presents on 24th December. More on this is to follow nearer to Christmas.

Next week, we’ll remember another important date.

The Pommes Buddha says: Are you all booted up?

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