Gatherings & Celebrations: Celebrating Christmas in Germany - #116

Of all the gatherings and celebrations in the Western world, none is more important  than Christmas.  Originally it was a purely religious occasion, celebrating the birth of Christ.  Commercial elements in our modern society, however, have made a great effort to broaden the event.  Their hope is to have Christmas include everyone who could possibly buy something. Anything!!!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the fourth century, the emperor Constantine the Great declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Very often when a new religion takes over, it marks the days for its feasts at about the same time as the days for the feasts of the old religion.  It makes the transition easier.  Christmas is a good example of what I mean.  December 21st is the day of the year with  the longest night.  The ancient Romans used that day for a feast to say that even though you couldn’t see much sun on that day, the sun was unconquerable and eventually would return.  The idea of light returning became a symbol for Christ.  As a matter of fact, for hundreds of years one of Christ’s titles was “Unconquerable Sun.” And that’s one of the reasons that light plays such an important part in the Christmas feast.

The straw, radiating like rays of light around the baby in the manger, is a graphic symbol of the idea.

This is the German city of Trier, and it was once the home of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great.  At the time, Trier was considered to be among the four great centers of the world, along with Constantinople, Rome and Alexandria in Egypt.  Trier is thought to be the oldest city in Germany, and we’ve come here to take a look at the celebration of Christmas.  We decided to look at Christmas in this part of the world for a very simple reason.  As our research on the history of Christmas traditions got started, we found out that many of the rituals of Christmas in the English-speaking world actually began in Germany.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There are two important periods of abstinence during the Christian year.  The first is Lent, which takes place during the six weeks before Easter, and the second is Advent, which takes place during the four weeks before Christmas.  In both cases the idea is to prepare for a feast by not feasting.  The word Advent means “Coming” and it is a period that is marked by a heightened sense of expectation.

These days Advent calendars are found all over the Christian world, but the custom began in Germany.  The calendar starts with the first day of Advent, and there is a little door for each day until Christmas.  Inside the door there is a picture or saying or a little gift. On each day of Advent one of the doors is opened.  The sense of expectancy increases as the number of days to Christmas is visibly decreased.

Germany is also the home of the Christkindlemarkt. It is an ancient market that starts each year on or about December 4th.  It is held in the old marketplaces and continues until Christmas. 

BURT WOLF:   Are you obligated to kiss if you’re standing under the mistletoe, or is it an option?

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Well, I don’t really know -- I think one can call you on it, but it always depends, you know?

I learned about this market in Trier when I came to this area of Germany to talk to Barbara Rundquist-Muller about the Christmas traditions of the region.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  During Christmas time, obviously a lot of candles are used, but mostly green, white and red.  And now you have them also with all the kind of flavors to them.  This here’s called “Christmas Miracle.”  And you can smell it...

BURT WOLF:   Oh, it has a wonderful smell!

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Yeah.  It’s a little bit like in a church, you know?  The real Christmassy --

BURT WOLF:   Oh yes --

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  -- the little traditional Christmassy way...

BURT WOLF:   Not quite a miracle, but not bad.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  No!  And that one... this one is Christmas tree.


SHOPKEEPER:  That one tastes cinnamon, very much like...

BURT WOLF:   Cinnamon? 

SHOPKEEPER:  Cinnamon, zimt, that brown one.

BURT WOLF:   Zimt?

CUSTOMER:  Do you have candles for pyramids?

SHOPKEEPER:  No, we don’t...

BURT WOLF:   Oh, yeah! 

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  (laughing)  Eat it, eat it.

BURT WOLF:   I’d take a bite outa that if it was any more cinnamonny.


BURT WOLF:   Thank you.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Here you have all the pieces of the traditional crib that is used under the Christmas tree, carved out of wood -- the donkey, the ox, the Child, mother Mary, Joseph... you just have the whole scenery that is traditionally put under the Christmas tree for the kids to look at. 

The idea of gift-giving is actually a major part of the story of Christmas. The Christ child is seen as a Christmas present from God to humanity.  The three kings also brought presents.  And human beings are expected to respond to God’s generosity by continuing the giving of gifts.

Of the things that are offered for sale in the Christmas market the most significant are the foods and things made of food.  One of the most important rules in any festival is that the festival itself and most of the objects within it must be temporary.  A festival by definition is something out of the ordinary, different from everyday life.  It must come and then it must go. If it stays around too long it will lose its impact.  Food is perfect for this role because it doesn’t last.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Now, this is a typical specialty also for the Christmas market -- it’s mulled wines.  It’s spiced wine, you have cinnamon, you have clove, and it’s hot, and that’s what makes it most attractive on this kind of market.

BURT WOLF:   Warms your inside and your outside.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Yes, and especially the hands and everything. 

The market has stands with Pfefferkuchen, which means “peppernuts.”  There are lebkuchen or honey cakes, frosted cookies with elaborate designs. The foods that are part of a feast like Christmas must feel ancient in order to fulfill their role of connecting us to the past. Using pepper and strong spices in cakes goes all the way back to the time of the ancient Romans and the birth of Christ.

The traditional pre-Christmas meal is rather simple.  The main dish is usually fish, most often carp.  In Germany it’s lucky to receive the roe with your portion. The common idea is that a lot of little eggs mean a lot of good fortune.   The vegetable dish will include cabbage and beets.  Red and green are always the colors of Christmas.  Red is there for the warmth and brightness; green is a promise that the leaves will return to the trees which are now barren.  There are lots of special breads and cakes. One of the most typical is Christstollen, filled with nuts and raisins, and other dried fruits.  It is almost the German version of the English Christmas pudding.  And there are dozens of different baked sweet cakes and cookies -- marzipan, anise cakes, almond cookies, hazelnut macaroons, chocolate pretzels.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Apples are also very important at Christmas time.  They are bright and shiny, very much part of our modern diet.  But they are also a symbol of the apple on the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  They show our intelligence, our resourcefulness, our ability to keep foods edible during the long winter.  They are another symbol of light and hope or during a time of darkness.

Nuts keep showing up.  They represent the puzzles of life.  You must open them up to find your destiny. 

Traaben-Trarbach is a picturesque town on the Mosel River, and in the middle of the town there’s a great little restaurant called Die Goldenen Traube, with means “The Golden Grape.”

BURT WOLF:   In the front hall there is a Christmas tree that is famous for its nutty decorations.  It’s covered with hazelnuts, and the technique is rather simple.  You take the nuts, with the shells on, you put them into boiling water and you keep them there for ten minutes.  Then you drain them from the water, and while they are still warm, you crack it, but you don’t crack it all the way through.  You just want that little opening, and you hold the opening open, and you put it over one of the needles, and it closes up and stays on.  Ally, is this an old thing in your family?

ALLY ALLMACKER:  It’s a very old thing in my family, from my grandfather, who did it as long as he lived, and he was born in 1885 and started it about 1910.  And since that time, he did that tradition every year.

BURT WOLF:   Is it done by other families, or it’s just your family? 

ALLY ALLMACKER:  It’s just our family doing it still today.  The old families knew it years ago before, but actually it’s a lot of work!  (laughs)

BURT WOLF:   It’s natural, it’s beautiful -- oh, sorry -- and you can eat your mistakes.

ERIK LUNDQUIST:  You know, these steep vineyards are very important...

Barbara Rundquist-Muller and her husband, Erik Rundquist, help manage the family winery, which is named after her grandfather, Rudolf Muller.  Making wine in the Mosel is not easy work.  This is some of the hilliest country in Germany.  The slopes along the river banks are nearly vertical and the cultivation and harvesting is really work for mountaineers. 

ERIK LUNDQUIST:  When the Romans came north, about two thousand years ago, they brought winegrowing with them.  And winegrowing this far north is only possible due to these very special climatic conditions.  It’s a microclimate, where the steep, slatey vineyards go down to the Mosel River.  You know, sugar in the grapes develops by the sun shining down on the leaves.  So the more inclination the vineyard has, the more sun touches the leaves of the grapes, and the more sugar we have.

The Mullers are some of the most traditional winemakers in the Mosel valley.  Their family has been making wine in this area since the 12th Century.

ERIK LUNDQUIST:  So this cellar was carved here into the rock under the Berncasteler Doctor vineyard about 350 years ago.  The constant temperature here in the cellar is 45 Fahrenheit, and the grape must is brought in here after being pressed and put in these wooden barrels, where it is then fermented into wine.  Okay, bye-bye.  I’m gonna get some wine for our lunch.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  My favorite wine, actually, on an everyday basis, is our Bishop of Riesling, which we named in honor of the local archbishop, [his name], who was not only an archbishop but he was the local governor.  And actually two hundred years ago, he issued The Riesling Decree.  In the valley there had been growing a lot of other, or minor grape varieties; he forced the growers to do away with them and to replant the valley with Riesling, because he knew that that gave the best results and made the most beautiful wines here.

BURT WOLF:   What a good bishop!           

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  It’s a fantastic bishop!  And we decided to honor him by naming our most widely-distributed wine in his honor.

BURT WOLF:   And the Doctor?

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Well, that is the best we have.  That’s our whole pride.  The Berncasteler Doctor is actually right above us, the vineyard, and the vineyard was given its name after a legend.  The legend says that in the Fourteenth Century, there was a prince living in the castle.  He was very ill and he was about to die; his doctors couldn’t help him.  So he sent them away and said, “At least let me die in peace.”  But the local people, they liked him very much.  So one grower from the town, he took his best barrel of wine and carried it all the way up to the castle, and offered it to the prince and said, “Well, this wine has always helped my family; why don’t you take that?  It might cure you.”  And believe it or not, the prince, he sat and sipped and sipped and sat, and by the time the barrel was empty he had recovered.  So he called again for the grower and said, “What can I give you?  You saved my life!”  The grower said, “Well, there’s actually nothing I lack.  I’m just happy the way it is.”  So the prince said, “Well, if I can’t give you anything, then please do something.  Call this wine from now on The Doctor, because it’s the only real doctor in the world.”

BURT WOLF:   Seven hundred years later my doctors are giving me the same advice.


BURT WOLF:   Let’s go to the kitchen.

The wines of the Mosel are naturally low in alcohol content, which makes them a naturally good companion to food.  Which is my not-very-subtle way of leading up to the fact that Barbara is going to teach us one of her family’s traditional Christmas recipes.  It’s a vegetable and Riesling soup.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  I’m cooking together turnip, leeks and onion, and turnip basically takes the longest to get soft.  So when I grate it very fine, which it does on every food grater, then it will kind of cook at the same speed as the onion and the leeks.  I use about the same quantity of each three of them.  Now I have the basic ingredients, so I’ll take a pan, and I take some butter -- just a lump of butter -- and I add the turnip, the onions, and the leeks.  Now I put the pan on the stove and let basically the butter melt on it, and then slowly cook the vegetables in the butter.  You have to stir them constantly so that it won’t fry; they’re not supposed to get brown.  They’re just supposed to get soft.  Now that the butter has melted and they’re a little bit soft, I take some white wine; I mostly use -- basically it’s a Riesling soup, so it’s Riesling.  I take The Bishop of Riesling; it’s a hundred percent Riesling from our area, and I let it boil in the wine, because like that the flavors of the vegetables and the flavors of the Riesling get together.  You have to stir it to make sure that they don’t get browned, you don’t want them brown.  You want them just cooked in the wine.  Now I will take off the pot from the stove and I will use a food blender, and I will puree.  Doesn’t have to be completely pureed; it’s just that the whole flavors kind of get together.

BURT WOLF:   A little chunkiness is kind of nice; I like that.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Yes, it’s better -- I think I prefer that to having it completely mashy.  Now what I do, I take some beef broth.  As you can see I used about half a bottle of wine, and so I add the same amount of beef broth to it.

BURT WOLF:   About two cups.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Yes, about two cups.  I put it back on the stove.

BURT WOLF:   That’s a very easy soup.

BARBARA RUNDQUIST-MULLER:  Yes, but for me, that’s what holidays are all about.  I love cooking, I love to cook for my family and friends, but at the same time it’s also supposed to be a holiday for the housewife.  And so it’s nice to have something that is tasty but that is easy to prepare, where you don’t have to run for hours to get the ingredients home, and you don’t have to stand for five hours in the kitchen.  And just to round the whole off, about a cup of cream -- just a little bit for the taste.  So this is our perfect holiday starter in our family.

BURT WOLF:   Beautiful!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In Europe, every country has its own Christmas foods and its Christmas Eve dinner rituals.  In Poland, people will often put a piece of straw under the tablecloth so that the dishes sit on a slant. It reminds them of Christ’s poverty.  In Russia they will often invite a foreign visitor to dinner, or leave a chair open for a passing stranger.

In many towns St. Nicholas actually comes to the homes of the residents and meets the children.  The parents will often slip him a note with information about each child.  He reads the list, announcing what each child has done throughout the past year, both good and bad.  The children have no idea how he knows.  Very often good old St. Nick is accompanied by a “darker self” -- a frightening figure.

In parts of Germany where St. Nicholas does not actually appear but passes in the night like Santa Claus, children will leave a shoe or a stocking beside their beds or outside the door. In the case of a good child St. Nicholas will leave a present; bad children get a stick. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When I was a kid, the custom in my family was to leave a bad child a potato and a piece of charcoal, which is, of course, why I know so much about cooking potatoes. 

Sometime around the year 10 B.C., the Roman legions marched into this part of what is now the German city of Wiesbaden.  They were attracted by a series of hot springs that came up in the area and built a fortified camp on the spot.  The Romans loved hot springs.  They felt that a nice warm bath was an essential part of preserving good health.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  About a hundred years later, the Romans built a fortress in what is now the very center of town. A few years after that, they turned the fortress into a spa for their troops, a little place for the soldiers to stop between battles and maybe have a facial or a pedicure.  You know, they wore those open-toed sandals and they were very sensitive about the way their feet looked.  During the Middle Ages it became an inn, and in the 1800’s it was turned into a hotel, which eventually became known as the Nassauer Hof.  All of which is to say that people have been having a very good time at this location for over 2,000 years.

The hot waters of the spa are still here. And the rest of the Nassauer Hof is pretty hot stuff, too.  The hotel’s restaurants are considered to be some of the finest.  And they really turn it out for Christmas.  Chef Andreas Hauk has put together a table of his Christmas favorites.

ANDREAS HAUK:  So we start with the Red Cabbage. 

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

ANDREAS HAUK:  First we have to cut him  [sic; he uses “him” for “it” often].  This is a special machine there, yah?  We put in some clove...

BURT WOLF:   Cloves...

ANDREAS HAUK:  How you say...?

BURT WOLF:   Juniper berries!

ANDREAS HAUK:  Juniper berries, oh.  Laurel leaves, cinnamon, salt -- season it -- and some pepper.  We put some red wine on him;  then you have to press him, you know?  That’s better to get all the wine in there.  Now we put cling film on the top, put it twenty-four hours in the fridge. 

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

ANDREAS HAUK:  To marinate it, yah?

BURT WOLF:   Yeah.

ANDREAS HAUK:  Okay.  So now, put in some sliced onions, press the cabbage to get the wine out.  He must be cooked down.  Sometimes you have to taste it.  Put in some sugar.  He must be cooked very softly, you know? 

BURT WOLF:   How long?

ANDREAS HAUK:  One hour.  Soft, yah?

BURT WOLF:   Low flame.

ANDREAS HAUK:  Low, low.  Now we have to grate an apple in there, peeled apple.  So that’s normally the red cabbage finished now, yah?  It’s one of the most favorite in Germany on Christmas.

In some German homes you will also see a “Star of Seven,” a seven-branched candlestick that was inherited from the Jewish tradition.  They are lit every evening during Advent, and eventually carried to the midnight service on Christmas Eve.  The custom was one of the rituals that eventually led to the lights on the Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree was already a well-established tradition in Germany when Prince Albert, the German husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, introduced it to England during the 1840s.  The Christmas tree then made its way from England to North America.  It also used the more direct route from Germany, coming over with the great immigrations of the 19th Century.  Families may have home-made Christmas tree decorations, often extremely elaborate, and often inherited as family heirlooms.  Each will have its own story.  Who made it.  When.  How.  Stories about things that happened in connection with it.  The decorations and the stories are a way of keeping the family’s memory alive.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In obedience to the rule that festivals are only temporary, the tree must come down right after Epiphany, on the sixth of January.  The tree is there for the feast and only for the feast.  Germans are very strict about this rule.  They feel if the tree is kept up too long, the house will be haunted by bad luck.

And finally there is Santa Claus -- the symbol of a benevolent figure, giving gifts, laughing, old and vigorous like the history of the Christmas feast.  He comes out of the sky and brings happiness to children.  Nice guy, but at some point we discover that he is not real.  A fictional character put in place by the adult world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Some people believe that Santa Claus was developed as a clever initiation device, and that a child would find out The Truth about Santa Claus when it was time to make the passage between the age of innocence and the age of reason -- a passage that I certainly made when I was a kid.  But as I got older I began to think that maybe there were additional messages from Christmas -- that perhaps  the greatest gifts of life were not the material objects being offered me by adults, and perhaps the greatest light was not the light around me but the light inside me.  And those two became the most important messages of the season for me.  Well, that’s alook at Christmas in Germany; I hope you will join us next time as we travel around he world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.