If Christmas in New York is magical, then Christmas in Berlin is the magician’s favorite trick. The city is at its finest at this time. After all, it is the German capital. How could it not put on its Sunday best? Simple white lights illuminate the trees in Unter den Linden, horses and buggies parade through the night in the chilly winter air, and numerous charming Christmas markets feature delicious German foods, hand-made crafts, children’s rides, and a specialty hot wine commonly referred to as Glühwein. As part of the German holiday tradition, nearly everyone drinks Glühwein. “It’s an acquired taste,” a friend informed me. (Of course, when you’re freezing your arse off at a German Christmas market, you’ll drink just about anything to keep warm.)
Kathleen and I took part in the holiday spirit and had our fair share of Glühwein and Christmas market goodies. We attended, in borderline arctic temperatures, two very lovely holiday markets, both serving as a nice tribute to our Berlin Christmas experience….
Christmas gifts, in Germany, are opened on the evening of the twenty-fourth. Having to come to terms with the fact that good ole St. Nick’s hard work would indeed not be on Christmas Eve, and that he, Santa, can’t possibly be real unless he moonlights was difficult. Nevertheless, we ate the traditional meal of wieners and potato salad, exchanged warm hugs, opened gifts, took pictures, and celebrated like a bunch of happy bears. We even embarked on a holiday chemistry experiment after the ceremonial gift exchange.
To a common man, it would have appeared that we were lighting a large crack rock over a glass bowl of junk-filled red wine. But this was not the case at all. In fact, we were experiencing the distinct flair of a German holiday alcoholic drink that is Feuerzangenbowle. It packs a bit of a punch, so I inevitably oozed into my guest bed with a big smile and a handful of Pfefferkuchen (German specialty cookies).
On (the real) Christmas Day, we traveled to the quaint home of Kathleen’s aunt and uncle for an afternoon session of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake). Nearly starved in the hours leading up to our visit, I was perfectly fine with having a cow’s leg or five pounds of meat and potatoes. My bizarre expectations were not fulfilled, however, and instead we assembled in a most sophisticated fashion in the dining room for coffee, tea, and various German holiday cakes. As all the guests received their warm coffee and tea, I wondered what would happen if I refused Kaffee und Kuchen:
No, thanks. I’m not in the mood for sweets and coffee at the moment. I’ll have a sandwich. Got any ham or turkey breast? I thought to myself. But really, what would happen if one wasn’t up for this afternoon tradition? Incredulous stares. Looks of horror, disbelief, and panic. Verbal scoldings. I could only wonder, anyway, as I certainly didn’t want to be a jerk and upset the apple cart. After all, it was just a fleeting thought, as the experience proved ultimately enjoyable: there was soft music playing, respectful conversation, and the raising of our glasses of Sekt (sparkling wine) for a special holiday toast. It was sort of like a big date.
That evening, dinner was held at a typical German restaurant. On the way to our table, I practically tripped over two large furry dogs that had been lounging in front of a nearby table. Contempt showed up and I could be seen making an array of angry faces. But I had to be cognizant of the fact that I was living in Germany, so eventually I settled down and took my seat like a gentleman, while only secretly giving those furry dogs the evil eye every chance I got.
The food—a traditional goose dinner—accompanied idle chatter and proved to be much like many of my American dinner experiences. And whenever I felt like I wasn’t contributing enough to the conversation, I’d throw in a Frohe Weihnachten for good measure. Although the experience was pleasing, it was not without its challenges, though, which were mostly related to speaking and eating. So it goes, knife in right hand, fork in left hand, eat with left hand. I’ve see people eat pizza with a fork. Fries with a fork? This is Europe. I can do this. It’s simple table manners. That was my rational thought process. Then my irrational self would take over: Son-of-a-bitch, why do I have to be so proper? Make this stop. I’m American. I wanna eat with my hands, dammit!
Then there’s Silvester (New Year’s Eve) in Germany, which is this whole other deal. To celebrate New Year’s Eve, in Berlin, for example, one must ardently participate in the fireworks celebration at Brandenburg Gate, a street celebration basically consisting of champagne toasts, bottle smashing, screaming, and chaotic fireworks displays enacted by none other than … everyone there. Fireworks are legal in Germany and all hell breaks loose at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In a deranged sort of way, it’s an invigorating feeling to be involved in such mayhem without fearing immediate incarceration.
Ah Berlin, if you didn’t already know, is one fine place to spend the winter holidays.