Two German Christmas Markets

Merry Christmas Everyone! This evening I wanted to reflect on the fun and interesting cultural norm of the German Wiehnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). Every year, Christmas markets are held in every town and hamlet from Berlin to Munich. Many of these have been held annually since the 1600s!  The whole country, whether atheist or Christian, seems to attend. I found out about a unique one when a coworker handed me a hand-written note with her favorite markets on it. The word Guteneck stood out to me. I  kept thinking it sounded like “good neck,” hardly a place  to have a Christmas Market. So of course, that’s where I had to go for my first Christmas market visit. I rounded up a few friends and off we went one Sunday evening. We heard that Krampus would be making an appearance.

Who is Krampus? …He is none other than the German-Austrian Christmas monster. In the alpine regions, Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas on St. Nicholas Day, which was the very day we attended this market. Children are instructed to put their shoes outside. If they have been bad, they get a rod in them, as well as a lick or two from Krampus, while the good children get candy from St. Nick. Everyone in Germany had heard of Krampus, even the American children. In fact, it was a six or seven year old who first informed me of him. I once mentioned Krampus to a man while he was pushing his children along in a buggy. As soon as the name escaped my lips, one of the little ones sat up in the stroller, looked around and said worriedly, “Krampus?!”

I wanted to see this strange creature, just to satisfy my own curiosity. I understand they’ve even made a movie about him recently, which I have not seen. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw. My friends and I stood expectantly along a path, waiting for Krampus to appear. He looked like the spawn of evil personified. Standing over 6 feet tall, he had a hideous face, ratty hair, horns, a tail and a whip. He was accompanied by other cronies who were equally scary. After giving a standing only show on the back side of the market, which we could not see for the crowds and the trees, they wandered through the market with raucous cans bouncing behind them in discordant cacophony. Babies cried, children hid, and women and men took pictures with them.  I was genuinely disturbed by the sighting. Apparently his origins are from ancient Norse mythology, and at one time the Catholic Church forbade any tribute to him during the season. Lately he has been making a comeback. On the other hand, St. Nicholas also walked around accompanied by quiet girls dressed as angels.  He smiled, waved, and took pictures with passersby as well.

There were two woolly double humped camels also walking around, providing rides for children.   A live manger scene set in modern day clothing also featured a donkey and a goat, who stood quietly eating hay. All throughout were crowds of people drinking hot drinks in mugs designed just for that particular market, buying chocolates and cookies and other candies, bratwursts, burgers, pretzels, and anything else that was being sold.

We wandered into the featured castle, a white squarish and inviting building that was hollow inside, where a courtyard was yet again packed with people. In a window right over the entrance, a band played music while people below listened. Lights twinkled, people laughed. The sky was a deep blue, the air was crisp and fresh.

The last market I visited was in the sweet town of Eschenbach. This tiny town has one main street and with a Rathaus (city hall) and several shops lining the road. A lake beckons just over the hill.  Farmland surrounds it on almost every side. Their market only lasted one evening, but it was worth the visit. When night fell around 4:30pm, the trees twinkled with their little strung lights.  In the center plaza, people had parked their cars and walked around to booths set up where individuals were selling crafts, doughy treats, gingerbread men, and more. I saw a small fencing where ducks, geese, and some other type of fowl were sitting close together. There was a pony area where several ponies gave rides to children. As I walked farther up the hill, I made out St. Nicholas, dressed like a bishop with a tall and regal hat on his head, white hair and beard, and long robes and staff. He was not accompanied by a monster, but by a non-descript character in a dark robe that hid his face. He approached people and gave them candy. As he turned toward me, I warmed. He reached out and gave me a piece of candy as well: coconut chocolate. Uhm. Thanks St. Nicholas.

In an open window of the Rathaus, a band was playing some traditional holiday songs. Children dressed in white with wings and halos wandered about. The atmosphere was mellow and reflective, a sweet evening of play and enjoyment in celebration of the Christ child.

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