Saturday, December 4, 2010

Better Know a Christmas: Germany

It's December fine readers, and you know what that means: The return of "Better Know a Christmas," my special series of entries about how Christmas is celebrated by countries that aren't America.

To get you up to speed, here are the Christmases that I've better known already:

Great Britain

Today we start the 2010 Christmas season with one of my favorite countries: Germany.

You might be surprised to know that many of our modern Christmas (or how they say it, Weihnachsten) traditions began in Germany. Take for example:

As seen in "A Very Dennis Christmas Special."
The Christmas Tree, or as they say "Tannenbaum." Yes, in a land where trees, booze, and lumberjacks are plentiful, it was only a matter of time until someone got drunk enough to chop down a tree and drag it into his house to decorate it. All in the name of Jesus, I guess. You might also find it interesting that the insipid "O Christmas Tree" song is also German, translated word-for-word from "O Tannenbaum." There's three syllables in each word, so it's only natural that whoever translates things (I still say it's the Babelfish) would take advantage of the connection.

The tree itself is trimmed on Christmas Eve, without the children being involved. It turns out they're not supposed to be in the same room, as the tree is enchanted with some elf that "loves" children that won't go away until its tree is decorated with loads of crap.

Because Germany is one of those countries that aren't in the Western Hemisphere, they also celebrate St. Nicholas day, December 6th. Only there, it's called "Nikolastag," where St. Nicholas travels to the houses of good boys and girls to give them gifts the night before the big day. If the kiddies are good, they get gifts in their shoes. If they're naughty little boys (or girls), they get twigs instead.

How does St. Nick know if you've been bad or good? It turns out that the Naughty/Nice list owes its origin to Germany, too, only here it's a book full of sins. If you appear too often in the book, then you get the twigs. Leave it to good ol' Germany to inspire frightening imagery for mundane punishments.

But if you DO get twigs, there's another chance for material wealth. On Christmas Eve, Germany heralds the arrival of its version of Santa, Weihnachtsmann, who, as the Simpsons have shown us, has two eyes in the back of his head.

It might not look like it, but this is the back of his head!

I'm not clear on any stories that involve Weihnachtsmann having a demonic helper with him like in other European countries, but not unlike Link and certain annoying fairy, he does have an Angel buddy named Christkind, sent down to Earth from Jesus himself to deliver gifts. Presumably ones that don't involve twigs or XBoxes. I assume Christkind delivers intangible gifts like learning how to dance or getting your uncle to strop drinking for a minute.

But here's another Christmas tradition that started in Germany: Advent Calendars. For those of you not in the know, Advent is that time between the First and 24th of December, mostly there to remind you that you have a certain number of days left to go Christmas shopping before society deems you an ungrateful douchebag for waiting too long. Advent itself is counted down in the form of calendars, and these range from mantle knickknacks, to Lego boxes, to Playmobil Boxes, to the ones that everyone is familiar with:

Those cardboard calendars filled with those crappy chocolates. Whichever one you choose, they all work the same: As each day passes, you open up the little box with the corresponding date and you enjoy the goodie inside. With those chocolate're pretty much taking a gamble on whether or not today's chocolate will be your last. I've yet to find a single person who likes them...yet they fly off the shelves every year.

Germany's advent gave us another Christmas tradition: The Wreath. Again, drunks, lumberjacks and trees have something to do with its origin. For each Sunday in December, one of the wreath's four candles are lit up. When all four are lit up? Hell if I know, I doubt you can summon an elf with one of those. I don't even think a Dog would want to save it, and they've devoted an entire movie of one saving Christmas Vacation.

While we got wood on our mind, with all the trees that haven't been decorated laying around, Germany also gave us the Yule Log. No, not the dessert (That's French. I'll get to that country later), but the log itself. Britain might have claimed to start the tradition first, but it's since been discovered that its roots lay in Germanic Paganism. So in my book, the score goes to Germany.

You know you're from New York when a log burning on your TV set means it's Christmas! WPIX (aka Channel 11 aka WB11 ak CW11 aka Pix11) plays it every Christmas morning, and it's an awesome substitute for the real thing!

And finally, we can't talk about Christmas without talking about the food. The traditional German Christmas Eve Feast is commonly referred to as, and I'm not making this up, "Dickbauch." But get your mind outta the giblets, it means "Fat Stomach." It's called that because of the belief that if you don't eat well on Christmas Eve, you'll be haunted by demons during the night. I'm already on board, Germany, there's no need to convince me further.

And every awesome part of a German meal is here: sausage, beer, reisbrei (a sweet cinnamon bread thing), sauerkraut, beer, maybe a suckling pig, and beer.


On Christmas itself, the feast has many of the above but with added goodness like Goose, Boar's Head, and marzipan, along with baked goods like "Christstollen" and "Dresden Stollen." I looked up what they're known as in English, and "Christstollen" is the name given to Yule Log, the dessert. On the other hand, you might want to know what "Dresden Stollen" actually is: FRUITCAKE. Score another one for Germany! Why am I so enthusiastic about that?

On that subject, we also have Gingerbread. Gingerbread itself doesn't originate in Germany (it's more of an Armenian/French thing), but the Germans did develop the type of Gingerbread used for houses, like this one:

As seen on my other blog "In 10 Words"
People who realize that their gingerbread served better as a construction material than as an edible dessert remind me of the Doozers from Fraggle Rock. Interestingly enough, Doozers also remind me of Christmas. I'm going to find some to trim my tree with. And when I say "trim," I mean impale them on small hooks and hang them on a dead tree for the next three weeks.

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