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.
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: email@example.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! 🙂
Record Flooding along the Baltic Sea Coast- Flensburg, Hamburg, Lübeck, Wismar and Rostock among others underwater
Snowfall in most of Germany- heaviest in Saxony and Brandenburg
Pure Chaos on the Roads
Arctic Blast to Follow
FLENSBURG/CHEMNITZ/USEDOM- Much of Germany is cleaning up from a hurricane that broke 10-year old records along the Baltic Sea Coast, while others are bracing for one of the coldest spells in over seven years. That is the theme of the Low Pressure front Axel, as the weather system wreaked havoc through much of Germany yesterday and last night. High winds combined with storm conditions resulted in water levels along the Baltic Sea coast to rise above the dikes and flood barriers, causing widespread damage. The hardest hit areas were in the Lübeck area as well as areas in Mecklenburg-Pommerania. According to information from NDR and SHZ, high waves overwhelmed dikes in areas, like the island of Usedom, destroying houses and businesses and flooding streets. The historic districts of Wismar and Lübeck were blocked off as many streets and pedestrian paths were underwater. Even Hamburg was not spared from the flooding and damage as much of its market Fischmarkt was underwater. The same applied to Rostock and Kiel, where automobiles were diverted away from their respective business districts. Cars parked along the water were flooded and/or swept away in Flensburg, Kiel and Lübeck while businesses and residents experienced flooding in their basements and ground floors. Flood levels surpassed those set in 2006 and 2002, respectively- an eye-opener to many who had expected less. To see how bad the situation was, here are some samples:
The storm front has also affected much of Germany with up to a foot of snow (30 cm) to be seen in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge) in Saxony, Thuringian Forest and the mountain regions in Bavaria. Low-plain areas also received some snow, but with that, ice and the result of numerous accidents. Over 200 accidents were reported in Saxony, according to the Free Press in Chemnitz, including many in Chemnitz and Freiberg as well as along the Motorway 4. Like along the Baltic Sea coast, high winds in places like the Harz Mountains in Saxony-Anhalt and the Fichtel Mountains in Bavaria resulted in blowing snow and fallen trees. Here are some samples of the events in that region:
While the storm front Axel will leave Germany by Friday, the system will bring another component many in Germany are preparing for: icy-cold temperatures. With temperatures going down to as far as -25°C, many places in Germany will experience cold weather in this fashion for the first time since early 2012, with records expected to be broken. After four winters with above-normal temperatures and some tropical Christmases, Old Man Winter is making a comeback with a vengeance, and right after the holiday season is over. That is unless you celebrate Epiphany, like in Bavaria and parts of Saxony-Anhalt. Then tomorrow will be a treat for children and families starved of white holidays. 🙂
German Christmas markets are one of a kind. They feature unique architecture in the form of Christmas huts, the Christmas pyramid, lighted arches (Lichterbogen), some historic buildings as a backdrop (like the city hall, stores and even churches), murals, a giant Christmas tree and a stage for performances. The theme of the Christmas markets depend on the planning by local governments and residents, although most Christmas markets follow the models presented by the ones in Nuremberg and Dresden.
Yet despite large cities in Germany (and parts of Europe) and the US having the Christmas markets going on during the Advent period, the question that many smaller towns and villages have is can a person create a Christmas market in their community? When looking at the German-named villages in Minnesota alone, not one of them exists. Not even in New Ulm, which is the most German of these communities. Yet New Ulm’s population, topography and size is comparable to the Christmas market I visited in Glauchau (Saxony), which justifies the need for a Christmas market to complement the German businesses that exist in the town of 14,000 inhabitants, such as Schell’s Brewery, Veigel’s Kaiserhoff and Domeier’s German Store.
Then again, when looking at a village like Heilsberg in Thuringia, which is only a fraction of the population size of Glauchau and New Ulm, one can see that it is possible to have a Christmas market, if members of the community are willing to cooperate and sell typical items while using the money collected for a good purpose.
Located 13 kilometers north of Rudostadt and 25 kilometers east of Stadtilm in the Thuringian Forest, Heilsberg has only 200 inhabitants and has belonged to the community cluster of Remda-Teichel since 1997. However, its existence dates back to the 820s AD, when the city was first mentioned in the record books. The lone attraction of Heilsberg is the St. Boniface’s Church, which was built in 1718, with extensions in 1764. Despite thorough renovations during the 1990s, the church still holds service for the congregation, most of whom are from the village.
Since 2011, the village has hosted the Christmas Market, which is held on one Saturday during the holiday season. From three in the afternoon until ten at night, residents of the town, including family members and guests would gather, drink a spiced wine, try a local, family specialty and listen to carols from the church choir. The set-up of the market is rather simple, especially when everyone helps. The venue of the Christmas market is usually the bus stop, which consists of a loop-like parking lot that is not only enough for busses and cars to park but also for adding a half dozen huts, a stage and some entertainment.
The arrangement of the Christmas market is very simple: On the morning of the market, a team of volunteers would arrange the market, where the bus stop is converted into a combination of a stage for performances and a bar which sells spiced wine (Glühwein) and mead (Heisser Met). Next to the bus stop (on the right for this year’s market) would be the Christmas tree, consisting of a pine tree cut down in the nearby forest and hauled into the village, a day or two before. In the middle of the bus stop in front of the tree and stage would be the fire pits, where wood and charcoal are burned in steel barrels and people can warm-up in the evening. Next to them are the picnic areas, where people can sit, eat and converse. And surrounding them and the fire pits are the booths, where eateries and goods are sold. Arranging them in a horseshoe format, a total of eight booths were arranged, each of which were built from scratch or improvised out of trailers and/or parts of trucks. Each of them is equipped with electricity which is provided through generators and extension cords from nearby houses. The lone exception is a ninth booth, which is the blacksmith. His is located behind the picnic area opposite the stage and Christmas tree and is also equipped with two fire pits of his own- one of which is of course for the metalwork, making swords, shields, necklaces and figures out of steel.
But the production of metal goods is not the only homemade items one can find in a local Christmas market. Each booth has its own set of products to sell, but it has to be agreed upon between the coordinator and the rest of the community that is involved in setting up the market to avoid any overlapping and competition. Apart from the booth selling hot drinks, there is one that sells meat products- namely bratwursts, steaks, kabobs and burgers. Another one sells homemade Eierlikör (in English, Advocaat) with original, chocolate and chili flavors. Another booth sells Bratapfel (baked apples with or without stuffing), again homemade and available with almond paste, chocolate, cookie and nuts, as well as with spices. The same applies to another booth that sells Christmas cookies and other candies. There is a booth that sells potatoes in a form of baked, fried in chips or fried French style- homemade and served with mustard, ketchup or even mayonaise. There is one that sells fish products- raw, baked, pulled (like Flammlachs) or smoked. Then there are two booths- one selling used goods and one selling handcrafted items, such as windlights made of glass bottles. There is one selling crepes, which is the French version of pancakes, and lastly, the market is not complete without a booth selling beer and other beverages. In Heilsberg’s case, there was no handcrafted beer, yet with this hobby becoming the norm in American households, one should put that into consideration if the beer crafted in the past has been embraced by those who enjoy a mug or two. Products are sold at a relatively affordable price, and proceeds go to the cause of choice. While in the case of Heilsberg, the money collected goes to their church for the renovation of the church bell (which is expected to be completed by the end of next year), other Christmas markets in nearby villages have donated money to charity helping the children in need, school or church programs that foster the child’s growth, local sports teams for new equipment. In one case, a nearby village collects money for a children’s hospice care facility in the north of Thuringia in Nordhausen, located west of Leipzig.
And while markets like the one in Glauchau feature a pair of modern pyramids, an Adventskalendar, an ice skating rink, some lighted arches (Lichterbogen) for sale or decoration pending on the size and preference, and Räuchermänner, they are not really a necessity if one compensates these with musical performances from local groups. In the case of Heilsberg, a local church choir singing carols is enough because of its population size. Even a little Christmas comedy and story-telling about the birth of Jesus and miracles at Christmas time are enough to bring in crowds from both inside as well as from surrounding areas. This is what makes a local Christmas market like this one really special. 🙂 Just don’t forget to invite Santa Claus. 😉
After all the drinking, eating, singing and conversing, the market is taken down the next morning, most likely after the church service, with the Christmas tree being taken to the church for use during the Christmas masses on Christmas Eve and the 1st Day of Christmas. In Germany, we have three days of Christmas from the 24th to the 26th, in comparison to only two in many countries like America. The tree remains there until the Day of Epiphany, when it is taken down. As for the booths, they are converted back to their original uses, the leftovers eaten up or given away to the poor, the unsold goods donated, and the ideas back to the drawing table to see how they can better the market for this time next year.
As small as the Christmas market is in Heilsberg, a day for a few hours will do. However the bigger the community the more likely it is necessary to extend the market by a day, another weekend or even more. It depends on how seriously a community takes its Christmas markets. As mentioned in my column about my last Christmas market in Glauchau, as big as the city is and with as much history as it has (read more about it here), one Advent weekend is not enough, especially because of its predominance of Lutheranism. But there may be some reasons behind that. Werdau, located 10 kilometers west of Glauchau, has a three-hour Christmas market that takes place on one Sunday and that’s it. Too short to German standards, but one that best attracts people to this community of 18,000. Having a Christmas market takes a lot of planning, which includes where to have the venue, when to host it, who is ready to sell goods, how many people will come and esp. what will the money collected from the sales be used for. That alone is the core of the market.
While only a few Christmas markets can be found in the US- namely in large cities, like Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Atlanta, as well as areas strong in German heritage, such as in Wisconsin and Ohio, plus Amana Colonies in Iowa, it doesn’t mean it is impossible to host one in your community. Especially in the German-named villages, like the ones in Minnesota, people will profit from having one, even if it is on a weekend. All it takes is looking at this success story of Heilsberg, look at the recipes for the products typically sold at the markets below, collaborate as to where to have it- be it in the business district, at a park or church, put some booths together, and make it as typically European as possible. With the last one, one might want to look to German communities as references- not necessarily Nuremberg or Dresden, but others that have held these markets for many years in smaller communities to collect some ideas before starting this adventure. There are enough examples to go around, especially when looking at the markets visited and profiled by the Files since 2010. Then it is off to the races.
Can you imagine a market in front of a church or at a bar and grill restaurant in Bergen? Or what about Marktplatz in New Ulm? In front of the Catholic Church overlooking the lake in Fulda would be a traditional smash hit. Or at a ski resort near Luxembourg, in front of Heimey’s Bar and Grill in New Germany, in the parking lot of Flensburg’s Bar and Grill- all one hot spots. Add this to New Trier’s Snow Days and that would really attract a crowd. But then again, other non-German named communities should try the concept as well. All is possible. It’s just a matter of interest, planning and making it happen.
All photos and the map are courtesy of Michael Fox, who also provided some information on the Christmas market in Heilsberg. A special thanks for his work and the homemade advocaat that will be tasted over Christmas. A guide on the Christmas markets including the ones visited this year (so far) is available here. It also has a list of German-named villages in Minnesota worth visiting.
Day 35 of the German beer marathon, and I’ve decided to open this entry up for forum, especially with regards to this candidate, the Ur-saalfelder. This beer is produced by the brewery located in the southern Thuringian city of Saalfeld, located 40 kilometers south of Jena along the Saale River. There is a unique history behind this brewery, but there is another beer produced by the same brewery that will be tasted later on, and I intend to play the mosquito and suck the information out of the people at the brewery about that and this beer! 😉
The Ur-saalfelder represents an example of a typical “Märzenbier” which if translated, means strong dark beer. This terminology is cloudy because it can be mistaken for a “Schwarzbier,” which also means dark beer, but with a black color and in most cases, with a strong alcohol content. So the translation and definition alone are rather confusing. In the case of the Ur-saalfelder, the beer is not as dark as it is described, for the beer has a copper-like color, a decent clearness, a persistent head, very lively carbonation and a thick full body. The alcohol content is between 5.7 and 6%, and when drinking it, it has a slickness to it, coating the mouth, and leaving an everlasting taste to it.
However, as far as aroma is concerned, despite its rather sweet smell thanks to bread malt and floral hops, the aroma levels are rather low, meaning one can hardly smell it when opening it up. The flavor on the other hand is a bit different. When tasting it, the Ur-saalfelder has at least four different malt flavors (grain, bread, sweet and toast) and is quite hoppy with herbal and floral dominating. The end result is a clash between sweet and bitter, creating a strong intensity where it is unknown what exactly is in there and what ingredients outdo the other. Nevertheless its excellent craftmanship combined with its balance between neutral and bitter has this beer becoming a tasting experience one should try, and one where a lot of questions are open and need to be answered, such as:
What is the real difference between a Schwarzbier and a Märzenbier, when both mean dark beer?
What are the exact ingredients in the beer? Are they what was sensed while drinking or are there different/additional ones ?
Is having too many hops and malt flavors really that good for the beer?
To our German and/or beer experts, this one is for you to answer, even if it means trying the Märzenbier like the Ur-saalfelder to figure it out. So go for it and let the author know what you think. 🙂
And as for the people at the Saalfelder Brewery, I’ll be back! 😉
Note: Click on the logo below to take you to the beers that author has tasted so far, so you can try and comment on them…..
The last stop on this year’s Christmas market tour takes us 70 kilometers east through the heart of the German state of Thuringia to the small town of Gotha. With a population of 44,000 inhabitants, the city, located between Erfurt and Eisenach may look appalling at first when getting off the train at the station.
Plus a quarter of the buildings in the city may appear run down, like this former publishing house:
Don’t let that scare you. 😉 Speaking from experience with other German cities, you cannot judge one just by the train station alone. One has to go further to see what it really looks like from the inside. 🙂 When walking or even biking towards the city center, you can see that Gotha’s architecture, much of which originated from the days of the Renaissance and the Reformation have been intact. Only a small fraction of the buildings were damaged or destroyed in World War II, including the railway station. Another small fraction was neglected by the East German Socialist government during the Cold War, most of which have been restored since 1990.
Gotha’s cityscape features not only a mixture of old and new buildings, but also seven- count them- SEVEN palaces located in and around the city center! :-O The most notable ones are the Friedenstein Castle and the Friedenstein Towers, located on the hill overlooking the city to the north. Built in 1643, the palace was part of the duchy of Saxe-Gotha (later annexing Coburg) which ruled Gotha until Germany’s defeat in World War I. Ernest Pios of Saxe-Gotha founded the duchy three years earlier. But apart from that, many of the historic buildings in Gotha that are still standing come from this time period, including the Historic Town Hall (built in 1574 and has still been used since 1665), the Ekhof Theater (built in the 17th Century and is the lone theater left that uses the original stage machinery), St. Margaret’s Church at Neumarkt (built in 1543) and one of the youngest from the era, the Insurance Museum at Bahnhofstrasse (built in 1820 and was the site of the Gothaer Insurance Company. Now a combination museum and labor court).
But beyond the history, the insurance and even the distillery Gotano, which produces wermouth for the region, Gotha’s Christmas market provides tourists with a bunch of surprises that will keep them in the city for longer than planned. When looking at the market itself, consisting of three different markets at Butterplatz, Neumarkt and Hauptmarkt/Rathaus, and by viewing the shopping areas in the background, one could say that the markets are nothing spectacular. Just typical small-town markets that come and go every weekend.
Guess again! 🙂
Each of the markets has at least one unique feature that one should visit while visiting Gotha. For instance, looking at Butterplatz, the place is flanked with two pubs but its main attraction is the Medieval theater, where plays and concerts are performed every evening and people can enjoy food directly from that period. It does serve as competition to the pubs, especially the Irish Pub, which is behind the stage, however people staying there can still enjoy the music and other performances while drinking their Snake Eyes and Newcastle Ale.
The Hauptmarkt has their display of items in front of the historic town hall. The first impression of the market is that only small rows of red huts with eateries and mulled wine (Glühwein) make this a pure open-air restaurant. However, there is more to it than just that. This open-air site features the largest Schwibbogen in the world, as seen in the picture above, where visitors can walk in and enjoy a hot drink and a meal in the glass covered facility. The Schwibbogen is eight meters high, 13 meters long and 5 meters wide, providing 65 places for visitors to eat and drink. Opposite the place is the stage where cooking contests with prominent celebrities take place on weekends, competing with various German TV cooking shows that are broadcasted on frequent occasion. Adjacent to the Schwipbogen is a piece of artwork worth seeing. A manger set was created by Rüdiger Noldin and his friends depicts life-size figures of Baby Jesus, his parents Joseph and Mary and the animal figures, all woodcarved using chainsaws. The artwork is remarkable as the details are carved out, lookig like the real scene.
And if you are tired of seeing the red-colored huts with the eateries, you can also purchase souvenirs typical of the town and region at the Gotha Adelt. While not part of the market scene, it is highly recommended if you are looking for items for your loved ones that don’t represent the typical items found in a grocery store or bookshop, like mustard, local beer, Gotano wermouth, liquour, oil and spices, books on the history of Gotha and/or its palaces, refrigerator magnets and the like.
Despite what the Hauptmarkt offered on the north side of town hall, I wished that there were more huts and small shops featured on the south side. Between the town hall and the Friedenstein palace along the former Leina Canal, there is a vast amount of space that is open and could potentially be filled for the holiday occasion. Why this space was not utilised is unknown but the area where the Leina Fountain in front of the Palace is located provides a splendid view of the buildings alongside the streets, leading directly up to the town hall. Looking at the picture below, could you imagine what the area woould look like if the Christmas market extended to here and not stopped in front of the town hall on the north side? 🙂
Thinking about that while leaving Hauptmarkt, we head to the last market square, which is Neumarkt. Surrounded by a mix of historic and modern buildings, the market features a backdrop in the St. Margaret’s Church, which looks splendid at night. However the largest of the huts at the Christmas market are located here. This includes the bumper car hut and this interesting place- a two-story hut that is a restaurant serving local specialties of venecin and wild boar and many varieties of hot drinks. At 7.5 meters high, 15 meters long and eight meters wide, Weisheit’s Schlossmühle, which is the only one known to the German Christmas market scene, can house up to 200 guest.
But what stands out the most at this market place are the various foods that a person can try. It is a well-known fact that the Christmas market in Gotha is laden with stands serving Thuringian Bratwurst and its various sorts. The origin of the bratwurst and why they are very popular all over Europe is one to be written at another time. However another meat product worth trying is the Grillschinken, known as the grilled ham slices. The pork products are grilled on a rotating spit, similar to the one used for döner kebaps, which is typical in Germany. Slices are taken off and with the fixings (onions, barbeque sauce and cheese), become a tasty sandwich. 😀
Having that together with the Erdbeerkönigin, a hot drink mix consisting of strawberry liquour and honey met liquour, it is very hearty and one that puts a crown on a couple hours exploring the market and purchasing last-minute items before Christmas. By the way, the Erdbeerkönigen drink can be bought at the honey stand, where other honey liquours and other honey products (spreads, candles, candies and bars) are available for purchase at the corner of the church.
Given its location in the flat agricultural landscape, the Christmas market in Gotha is best described as one that features unique huts with a historic background, offering local goods coming from local farms which can attract the visitors, providing them with a chance to taste everything. And while everyone is familiar with the Thuringian Bratwurst, Gotha’s products, which one can rarely find, clearly depicts what the town has to offer to the people, when visiting the town. And it is a good thing too, after going through seven palaces and dozens of Renaisance-style buildings, one can use a break by trying something that is not typical for Germany but one for Gotha.
As observed in my visit, Gotha has a lot to offer with the Christmas market, especially given its setting, and it definitely plays down the firsthand impressions of the city, as mentioned at the beginning. There are towns that deserve to be ignored because they are too modern or too dilapidated and unappealing. Then there are towns like Gotha, where going beyond the run-down train station, one can see some jewels of the town just by going 100 meters away from the station. When you see that, keep going. Chances are very likely that more will be found, and with that, more information on the history and culture of the town. So keep looking and start exploring. A lesson learned for the trip home by train……
Author’s note: This sums up this year’s tour of the Christmas markets in Germany. If you want to view the other Christmas markets, please click here and you will find a list of Christmas markets visited since 2011. If you know of a Christmas market the author should visit next year or in the future, please use the contact form and mention this. Chances are, the author will have a look at it and take whatever suggestion you give him. Many thanks and wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 😀