Flensburg Files Accepting Stories of Christmas’ Past

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While Christmas is over five months away, it is the season that creeps up faster than any of the other holiday seasons of the year. It is also one that is laden with stories of presents, families, friends and lots of surprises.

 

Christmas also means learning about the history of how it was celebrated and this year’s Christmas  Market Tour Series will focus on just that- History.

 

During my Christmas market tour in Saxony last year, some recurrent themes came up that sparked my interest. In particular in the former East Germany, this included having Christmas be celebrated with little or no mentioning of Jesus Christ. In addition, we should include Räuchermänner (Smoked incense men) that were a rare commodity in the former Communist state but popular in the western half of Germany and beyond, traditional celebrations with parades honoring the miners, and lastly, the Christmas tree lit with candles.  Yet despite the parades along the Silver Road between Zwickau and Freiberg, a gallery of vintage incense men in a church in Glauchau, church services celebrating Christ’s birth in Erfurt, Lauscha glassware being sold in Leipzig and Chemnitz, and the like, we really don’t have an inside glimpse of how Christmas was celebrated in the former East Germany.

 

Specifically:

 

  • What foods were served at Christmas time?
  • What gifts were customary?
  • What were the customary traditions? As well as celebrations?
  • What did the Christmas markets look like before 1989, if they even existed at all?
  • How was Christ honored in church, especially in places where there were big pockets of Christians (who were also spied on by the secret service agency Stasi, by the way)?
  • What was the role of the government involving Christmas; especially during the days of Erich Honecker?
  • And some personal stories of Christmas in East Germany?

 

In connection with the continuation of the Christmas market tour in Saxony and parts of Thuringia this holiday season, the Flensburg Files is collecting stories, photos, postcards and the like, in connection with this theme of Christmas in East Germany from 1945 to the German Reunification in 1990, which will be posted in both the wordpress as well as the areavoices versions of the Flensburg Files. A book project on this subject, to be written in German and English is being considered, should there be sufficient information and stories,  some of which will be included there as well.

 

Between now and 20 December, 2017, you can send the requested items to Jason Smith, using this address: flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. 

 

The stories can be submitted in German if it is your working language. It will be translated by the author into English before being posted. The focus of the Christmas stories, etc. should include not only the aforementioned states, but also in East Germany, as a whole- namely Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Berlin and Mecklenburg-Pommerania, the states that had consisted of the German Democratic Republic, which existed from 1949 until its folding into the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October, 1990.

 

Christmas time brings great times, memories, family, friends and stories to share. Over the past few years, I’ve heard of some stories and customs of Christmas past during my tour in the eastern part, which has spawned some curiosity in terms of how the holidays were being celebrated in comparison with other countries, including my own in the US. Oral history and artifacts are two key components to putting the pieces of the history puzzle together. While some more stories based on my tour will continue for this year and perhaps beyond, the microphone, ink and leaf, lights and stage is yours. If you have some stories to share, good or bad, we would love to hear about them. After all, digging for some facts is like digging for some gold and silver: You may never know what you come across that is worth sharing to others, especially when it comes to stories involving Chirstmas.

 

And so, as the miners in Saxony would say for good luck: Glück Auf! 🙂

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Genre of the Week: Jesus Freak by DC Talk

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This special genre of the week is in connection with the Files’ series on Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses. The Jesus Freak series belongs to this series because of its aspects. This is part 1.

 

A while back, while looking for some information about Martin Luther for one of the articles, I happened to run across this phrase that was a complete eye-opener- Jesus Freak.

Before we look at the theme much further, let’s have a look at the theme for a minute:

 

What is a Jesus Freak? 

 

If a person is considered a Jesus Freak, what are his/her characteristics in terms of the following:

His/her behavior

His/her apparel

His/her use of the Lord Jesus Christ (especially in the context)?

When looking at this Wile E. Coyote parody produced by Family Guy, the first question that comes to mind is what makes a person a Jesus Freak?

 

But can a 45-minute lecture on the Lord make him a Jesus Freak?

Can we make a distinction between a Jesus Freak and a avid church-goer?  The answer to that question is definitely yes, regardless of what faith you are in. The question is how can a person go from being either an atheist or an indifferent Christian to a Jesus Freak?  Speaking from experience, especially from my days in college in the US, many people, who are just common people at first, experience an epiphany one night and then become true Christians, reading the Bible and teaching others about Christ. Journalist Lee Stroebel in the 1970s did an investigative report on the existence of Jesus, found his epiphany, and has since then been a pastor. The book “The Case for Christ” talks about his experience of becoming a Christian.  Others are either raised in a Christian household or were born Christian but found their love for Jesus Christ and his teachings that they embrace Him unconditionally.

 

The Jesus Freak movement started in the 1960s in Germany, and one of the catalysts behind the movement is Martin Dreyer, who has written several books about the movement, one of which is in connected with Martin Luther and his Treatises. Yet other authors have claimed that the movement started way back in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively- namely during the time of Martin Luther; one claimed that even one of the disciples of Christ (John) was considered the first Jesus freak. If that argument was the case, then the question is did the Jesus freak movement occur before or after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses?  If it occurred at or after the time of Martin Luther, then how?

 

To start this off, I would like to introduce you to this Genre special, whose title bears the topic we are going to talk about. Produced by DC Talk, an American rap/rock group in 1995, the videos and lyrics behind the song depicts the typical characteristics of a Jesus Freak from their perspective. The song was part of the album bearing the same name, which won the 1997 Grammys for Best Gospel Album. Watch the video, then take a look at the aforementioned questions at the beginning, and decide for yourself the following:

 

  1. What really constitutes a Jesus Freak and can it be differentiated from terms, such as Bible Thumper, Church-goer, etc.?

 

  1. How can a person really become a Jesus Freak and why?

 

Good luck and looking forward to your thoughts on that. Feel free to comment here or via e-mail. We will touch up on this subject again very soon.

 

Jesus Freak by DC Talk.

 

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Martin Luther and Homosexuality: The Current Trend From the Author’s Perspective

 

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Choice. If there is commodity that is underrated in today’s society, it is the ability to make decisions and live with the consequences. We all make choices in life; some based on personal experience of our past, be it childhood or a life-altering event. Sometimes one has a decision that is so pivotal that it sets the course of one’s rest of his life. No matter what the decision may be, people knowing about it need to respect one’s wish and accept that person for that decision.

In reality, however, choices we make can result in the changing in boundaries, where friends, whom we thought we can turn, to walk away; people considered strangers in the past are our closest friends; and even families are split into fighting fragments, instead of a close-knitted network where one supports and helps the other. In many cases, by making the decisions we are threatened with condemnation by our own network, be it friends, family, clubs, organizations and even the church. Sometimes are ending is violent but not just because of own exclusion, but the fear of our own “tradition” being threatened with a trend that is harmful to the organization’s existence.

Take for instance, homosexuality.  One can interpret the many scientific, social and theoretical causes of the preference of same-sex relationships, yet the bottom line is the fact that it is an act that is considered immoral to tradition yet moral to those who practice it because the choice is personal. Looking back at the time of Martin Luther, the reformist was also against homosexuality as it was considered a sodomy, sinful and the works of the devil. According to historian Ewald Plass in his book on Luther’s anthology, Luther stated:

“The vice of the Sodomites is an unparalleled enormity. It departs from the natural passion and desire, planted into nature by God, according to which the male has a passionate desire for the female. Sodomy craves what is entirely contrary to nature. Whence comes this perversion? Without a doubt it comes from the devil. After a man has once turned aside from the fear of God, the devil puts such great pressure upon his nature that he extinguishes the fire of natural desire and stirs up another, which is contrary to nature.”

But looking at the situation during that time, homosexuality and any types of sexual behavior considered unnatural and against the church were considered a sin, and those committing them were either imprisoned or put to death. Intolerance in Europe was very high during that time, and people placed homosexuality on par with other acts that were considered sinful, be it indulgence, taxing for the church, exclusion of portions of society in favor of a exclusive society, etc. Branches of the Lutheran church later adopted policies that banned homosexuality in the church, many of which go strictly along the works of the Bible itself. In fact, the book of Corinthians is one of the key sources which states that sexual sins are an act against God, with examples of such include:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body-

1 Corinthians 6:13

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion-

1 Corinthians 7:8,9

Also the book of Hebrews has statements supporting the relationship between man and woman:

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.- Hebrews 13:4

 

Even today, many branches of the Lutheran Church, such as the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods in the US, as well as the Evangelical Free Church and the Silesian Evangelical Church in many parts of Europe still have bans on homosexual behaviors and even have counseling and therapy to “repurify” those with these tendencies.  Yet other branches, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Evangelical Church of Germany as well as other Lutheran organizations have started accepting homosexuality as the norm, while some have even allowed same-sex marriages. Several major steps in the right direction for those wishing to practice it, but at the same time, several major steps in the direction of fire, for conflicts between that and the teachings of Jesus Christ have come to a head. With President Trump’s latest decree where the elimination of the separation of church and state has led to the revolving door policy between the church, political and educational institutions, where those with strict policies banning people with different religious, cultural and sexual backgrounds may create a backlash in the strive for acceptance of people who are different. Ironically, the tables have turned over the course of 500 years, where Europe has become more tolerant and America less.

 

But what would Martin Luther would say to the current trend today?

There are two ways of looking at it: One would be his intolerance for unmarried people and especially same-sex couples. Records of his intolerances of Jews and other minorities are well documented and when looking at his statement, comparing it to today’s situation, he would side with the fundamental evangelicals who would condemn the trend as an act of sodomy. Yet it is doubtful he would be able to do anything to advocate the return to purity, and therefore, he would have to ally with politicians who share his ideas. This would put him in line with Trump and members of the right-winged populists in Europe, looking up to Frauke Petry from the party Alternative for Deutschland as a holy example of how a pure Christian society would work.

Then there is the side of the tolerance and accepting people of different backgrounds. Martin Luther championed the right to free choice for people to learn the works of the Lord and provided access to the church for the majority that had been left outside, which included the translation of the Bible to German during his time in Wartburg. When we look at Christianity today, we see many people of different colors, social and cultural backgrounds and speaking different languages, one can imagine Luther at least reluctantly accepting same-sex religions in the church as long as they don’t influence others in the process. On a train trip to Landshut recently, I had a long talk with a woman who originated from India but is working for the diocese in Regensburg. Having worked in Germany for over 20 years, she felt accepted by the Catholic Church and was well liked because of her work she does there. There is a sense of normalcy for people of different backgrounds to join the church or any organization that Luther would stare down attempts to roll back the traditions, accusing fundamentals of glorifying Jesus when they too have done harm in violating the Commandments. This would be comparable to his condemnation of the Church during his time for building “beautiful” churches at the expense of the poor and selling indulgences.

And what for? Making a choice that suits the person and his/her preference?

Taking a look at the problem of homophobia and ways to fight it, one of the most impressive I have seen are attempts to address this in many creative ways, be it with the traffic lights in Vienna, Hamburg and most recently, in Flensburg, Christopher Street Day celebrations,  and even presenting the topic of homosexuality in films, such as Brokeback Mountain. However, all of them convey the main meaning that has been addressed here, which is choice. Nothing in the Bible or other religious works explicitly states that homosexuality is a sin, just the impurities which are debatable. There are no written laws that ban homosexuality. And people who are gay or lesbian are just as human as heterosexuals, like yours truly. Yet people who choose this way do it because they wish to be themselves, wholly and unconditionally. Yet people who fear this trend are afraid that the structure of the Lutheran Church is crumbling, which in all reality is not. It’s just transforming itself to fit today’s standards. If evangelicals were to say that is the work of God to condemn these people, my comment to them would be this:

 

In light of Newt Gingrich’s wife becoming the US ambassador to the Vatican City (and even Martin Luther would agree had he been alive today), we don’t know what Jesus’ sexual preferences were or what kind of hair Mary Magdalena had (when he “courted” her), but he definitely did not have a preference for blonds. 😉

 

To sum up: We make a choice which is supported by ourselves and God. That is the easy part. Accepting it is another story. And if there is a silver lining behind all this, we have started accepting the choices of others as long as the choice is not imposed onto us or others. But still, we have a long ways to go before we have a society we all can live with- in peaceful co-existence.

 

Author’s Note: Check out the Files’ Genre of the Week, looking at Sojourns and Sayings that Martin Luther mentioned during his lifetime. Click here for details.

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Salt and Bread as House-Warming Gifts?

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Let’s start this article with this scenario: Two female friends from Bavaria, who have known each other since college, decide to open a restaurant in a rural community in Hesse, where a few of their former college mates and cousins are living. They purchase this small building that has a restaurant on the first floor and an apartment on the second floor. After two weeks of moving and renovations, they have a house-warming party where they invite friends and family, as well as some helpful neighbors and even their first customers. While many they know give them some useful items for their home and business as well as some wine and food, the two girlfriends become astonished, when half the people invited give them as gifts……

BREAD AND SALT!!!!

Before going a bit further into the topic, let’s have a look at the symbols of the commodities we do know. Salt had been known as the common commodity for trade, having been used during the Middle Ages as a leverage of power. Salt has many uses, as seen in the examples mentioned in Saxony-Anhalt and in particular, Halle (Saale).  In Christian terms, the bread symbolized the body of Jesus Christ and the wine as his blood- both taken at communion. Gold and resin were symbols of birth and happiness, as interpreted during the Birth of Jesus.

But the concept of bread and salt as house-warming gifts are, believe it or not, customary in Germany. I learned about this concept through a student in one of my English classes, who received just that for his home in eastern Thuringia and mentioned that this is the traditional norm. While in normal households one is greeted with wine, food and the basic necessities for the apartment, such as appliances, knick-knacks and perhaps a good candle light dinner (yes, I’ve heard of such stories), bread and salt seemed to be the normal house-warming gifts.

In fact, after doing some research on this, one can find this tradition in much of Germany. The reason is that bread symbolizes the full cupboards and the elimination of hunger, while salt represents the flavor in life. One cannot live a life without salt. It is unknown where the tradition originated from except to say that bread and salt have their symbolic presence in Slavic, Russian, Jewish and even Arabic Cultures, all of whom have similar meanings involving life, happiness and the avoidance of hunger. They all provide the newly occupied tenants with a starting point in life, where they can prosper from there.

Yet bread and salt are not the only gifts a person can give, especially if people deem the gifts as either unusual or even inappropriate. Other traditional gifts have been given to the new tenants, each of which has its own symbolic meaning, like the following below:

  • Sugar: Means “So your life shall always have sweetness”
  • Wine: Symbolizes the hope “That joy and prosperity may reign forever”…or…”That your family will never be thirsty”…or…”So you will always be of good cheer”
  • Honey: So that you may always enjoy the sweetness of life
  • Broom: “So your home may always be clean” or “To help sweep away any evil and bad luck”
  • Coin: “So you may dwell in good fortune”
  • Candle: “So that this house will always have light” or “So you may dwell in light and happiness”

In some traditions, especially in the rural areas, a house-warming tradition includes a cook-out and potluck dinner, where friends and neighbors bring something to share with the new tenants, most of it is homemade and from farms, such as canned goods, homemade jams and juices and smoked meat, but also goods made from wood that are useful for the household. Most of these traditions one will find in central and northern Germany, where the population is more sparse than the southern half.

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While this tradition applies for new neighbors, it can also apply for newlyweds as well, as especially bread and salt represent an alliance that will never die of hunger or be boring. And when tying this in with being new neighbors in a small community, one already has established a network of friends and family that are a lifetime’s worth keeping. A sense of hope in an ever-changing environment. 🙂

When compared to the American tradition, one can consider house-warming gifts in Germany as a sign of openness and getting acquainted with new people. In America, house-warming gifts are mostly associated with the Welcome Wagon, where representatives pay a new tenant of a house a visit with a basket of flowers, broschures and infos on what to do in the community, and some small goods, as you can see in the video below:

The Welcome Wagon is not as popular today as it was in the 1970s and 80s, but some remnants of strangers stopping by for a visit are common in American culture today. Even a short visit to say hi from the new neighbors is not untypical and one that should not be considered rude:

To conclude, bread and salt do have a place in German culture and serve as a house-warming gift, however other gifts with similar meanings, as mentioned above, are just as common. They all have one meaning, which is to have a long and prosperous life, whether the two people are newly married or new neighbors or both. While other people prefer other more practical gifts to get the household started, one should not be surprised and disappointed if your next door neighbor gives you bread and salt as gifts. Each gift has a symbolic meaning which should be considered in a positive sense. With bread and salt, the tradition goes way back intime, and even if it is not practiced everywhere in Germany, they still consider the two commodities customary.  🙂

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Christmas market tour 2013 Pop Quiz Part I: The answer

Photo taken in November 2013

 

And now the answer to the first question in our Pop Quiz:

We wanted to know from you what this picture is. This was taken during our stop at the Christmas market in Gera, Thuringia. Here’s the answer:

Futterkrippe (rough translation for cratch)

Believe it or not, a manger set is not complete without a cratch for the animals. This goes back to the story of how Jesus Christ was born in accordance to the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mary and Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Yet when he was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, for the inn was full and there was no other place left to stay. The animals depicted in the manger, the donkey, camel, and sheep were present at the time of the birth and they needed to be fed accordingly. This is where the cratch came into the picture.  It is filled with fodder or other feed, and animals can eat off that, while having their heads protected from the rain, etc.  by a roof

One can see these in the manger sets at many of the Christmas markets in Germany, especially those in areas that are surrounded by forests, like the ones in Thuringia, Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria. They’re usually made out of wood from pine and fir trees and are decorated with needles, as depicted in the picture. Some are attached to the manger set, while others just stand out alone, representing a symbol of hope and prosperity that would come out of the birth of our Lord. Others are integrated into a fairy tale that has animals in there.  In real life, cratches are used on farms for livestock and in forests for wildlife, in particular, deer, boar and the like.   But in the case of the Christmas market, they are a specialty at the market for people to see. So the next time you see one of these at a German Christmas market, remember what it is, what it is used for and how it was tied in with the story of Baby Jesus and the fairy tales.

Now, back to the Christmas market tour in Berlin and the next market place visited, which is….. 🙂