Christmas in Karlsruhe

Xandie and an inflatable Santa at an indoor "Spielpark" (playpark). Hanging wood carvings for sale in the Karlsruhe Christmas market. Booths in the Karlsruhe Christmas market. Revelers grab a bite and a glass of Glühwein at the Karlsruhe Christmas market. Xandie's boots just after St. Nikolaus filled them up.  It seems there wasn't quite enough room, so after feeding his donkey he put some extra presents in the dish that had held the carrots and oats. Geoff in a very Christmas-y mood, photographed by Xandie.
Our elf-sized Christmas tree, with real candles.  Photo by Xandie. A Flammenkuchen booth in the Karlsruhe Christmas market, just outside our window. A view of the Karlsruhe Christmas market, showing the general flavor of the scene with the crowds, the many booths, and the banners flying on City Hall in the background. Part of the traditional Christmas market celebration in Karlsruhe is the "fairy-tale wood", a larger-than-life silhouette display.  Xandie especially liked this one because we had just gone to see "Hänsel und Gretel" at the opera. "All I want for Christmas is my two front--er, one side tooth." Pat after sampling the Glühwein.

Dear Friends and Family,

As nearly all of you know, we are spending this year on sabbatical in Germany. Because of the high cost of international postage, we have regretfully decided not to mail our usual Christmas letter to everyone. But don't break out the champagne just yet—we're posting it on the Web instead.

Since you've probably been following our German adventures, we won't bother to repeat what's already been written there. Instead, we thought we should tell you about what it's like to celebrate Christmas in Germany.

As in America, the Germans use the Christmas season to immerse themselves in the universally admired principles of love, peace, and shopping. But they have their own unique approaches to the holidays. For example, they don't believe in decorating your tree with expensive but cheesy plastic ornaments and sparkling lights. No siree, not in tradition-bound Deutschland. German trees are decorated with expensive but cheesy wooden ornaments. And instead of electric lights, they believe in mounting real candles directly on the tree branches.

The usual procedure goes something like this: on his way home from work, the father stops to buy a tree. As in the U.S., there are special tree markets that are easily recognized by the traditional "Wal-Mart" sign on top of the building. The trees are relatively inexpensive: €15 (US $5279.83 at current exchange rates) will get you a nice 6-footer. The father then carries the tree to the trolley stop, where he joins dozens of other jolly dads on the same errand. On the trolley, they all merrily sing "O, Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie schön sind deine Blätter," which translates as "Please get your tree out of my nose before I stomp on your foot."

After dragging his tree four blocks home from the trolley stop and up three flights of stairs, constantly juggling his briefcase and a loaf of bread, the father proudly steps inside the door and shouts "I'm home with a tree!" The children then excitedly dash up to him and say, "But Dad, there aren't any needles left," and Mom gets stuck with the job of gluing them all back on before she and the kids decorate it.

Meanwhile, Dad has gone back out to the Christmas markets to do his last-minute shopping. Christmas markets are a charming German custom, something like swap meets in really bad weather. Directly under our window (and we do mean DIRECTLY) are dozens of booths selling all sorts of unique goodies. These aren't third-rate toys manufactured by exploited workers in China. No siree, once again that's not appropriate in tradition-bound Deutschland. These shops sell third-rate toys manufactured by exploited workers in Poland—and at high prices, too. But that's OK, because right next to the toy booth or the nutcracker booth or the what-the-heck-are-those-things booth Dad will definitely find the Glühwein booth.

If you don't know what Glühwein is, you're missing out on a truly wonderful tradition. They take a 50-cent bottle of red wine, throw in a bit of cinnamon and spices, heat it, and serve it to the suckers, er, shoppers for €1.80 (US $12,543.71) a cup. Right next door, if your bank account can handle it, you can buy several kinds of sausage or a Flammenkuchen (roughly equivalent to a bad pizza with an extra helping of grease added).

After several cups of Glühwein, the father stumbles back upstairs for the lighting of the Christmas-tree candles. This is an especially popular part of Christmas, because you never know exactly how dry the tree is. Usually, Dad manages to knock over the third candle while trying to reach around in back, and the whole thing goes up in instant flames. (If you've never seen a dry Christmas tree burn, it's impressive. When Hollywood wants a really big explosion, they use Christmas trees, not dynamite.)

At this point the kids all hop up and down, cheering, shouting "Pretty!", and warming their hands on the fire. Dad grabs the extinguisher, Mom tosses the simmering pot of Glühwein at the tree, and everybody runs for the door. On any given night in December, tradition-loving families wander through the streets, watching entire blocks of housing burn to the ground as they "oooh" and "aaah" at the Flammenhäusern.

However, we decided to pass on this particular tradition, primarily because Geoff drank so much Glühwein on the way home that he forgot to bring the tree along. But we have still managed to get into the proper German spirit. For example, in Germany Saint Nikolaus (not to be confused with Santa Claus, please) visits houses on December 6th, putting candies and small gifts in shoes left outside the door. Xandie, acting on a suggestion from her very wise mother, put out two of her tallest boots. Sure enough, they were full of candy and goodies in the morning.

The nice thing about St. Nikolaus is that he doesn't go quite as overboard as Santa does in the U.S. On the 25th, families here have a relatively restrained celebration in which they exchange traditional German gifts, such as wood carvings, sausages, motorcycles, and American automobile companies. The problem with St. Nikolaus is that we're not German, and Santa Claus knows that. He'll probably be visiting this American household even though we're far from home, and so (Santa being who he is, and Xandie's list being roughly as long as the Rhine) we're expecting approximately 30 tons of toys to drop down our chimney (never mind that we don't have one) on Christmas Eve.

What makes this holiday especially fun is that we don't have a clue how we're going to get all this stuff back to the U.S. next summer. Pat is thinking about recommissioning the Queen Mary. Geoff has a different idea. There's this little tree in the corner, you see, and if only he lit the candles...