We can hardly believe the holiday season is over . . . it felt as if it would go on forever.
It started in November, when Aldi started selling Torsten’s favorite treat – Dominos, a chocolate-coated petit-four with layers of gingerbread, cherry jelly and marzipan.
Inside Galeria Kaufhof, the local department store, we were amazed by the displays of Advent calendars, most full of high-end chocolate pralines and truffles but others with gummi bears, tea, lotions, toys, makeup and even beer.
Torsten’s office Christmas party was Thanksgiving Day, and everyone was taken to a country restaurant near Starnberg Lake for a torchlight hike and dinner. Sadly, spouses were not invited, so Beth stayed home and had chips and beer.
Munich’s first Christmas market, the Weihnachtsdorf, opened the next day in the courtyard of the royal Residenz, and Beth stopped by on her way to class. It had not only the usual food and gift stands, but a row of animated storybook characters and a talking moose! But it was nearly 60 degrees and sunny, so it didn’t feel very festive.
Madeleine arrived Nov. 26, and the first thing we did was go for a stroll in Nymphenburg Park. To our surprise, we heard music – it was coming from the Palmenhaus restaurant, where people were drinking Glühwein near pine trees decorated with giant glass balls that Madeleine loved photographing.
The next day, we went to the opening of the Marienplatz Christmas market and listened to the mayor give a speech before he lighted the giant Christmas tree in front of the Gothic-style City Hall.
In its courtyard, there was a hand-carved creche scene that was much like the 18th-century Bavarian creche that Beth always went to see at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (with elephants, even!) except all of the figures were much bigger and they were carved in 1950 by a local man.
Of course, we looked into every single wood stall, especially the ones selling ornaments. Thirty years ago, Beth would have been thrilled to be at a German Christmas market shopping for hand-blown, hand-painted glass ornaments. Now, she already has a beautiful, lovingly selected collection of European ornaments – all sitting on a shelf in our Minneapolis basement.
The Marienplatz Christmas market is only one of a dozen in Munich. We also went to the Medieval Market, which was like a small Renaissance Fest, and one evening we went to the market in the English Garden, where musicians were playing up in the Chinese Tower and kids were getting a lesson in Eisstockschiessen, or Bavarian curling, on a little rink.
That’s also where we had our first mug of Glühwein. The fumes of cinnamon and cloves kept going up Beth’s nose and making her cough; it was a bit of a trick to learn how to drink it.
Before Madeleine flew home, we brought in the 4 1/2-foot potted “tree” we had bought in Singen and decorated it. Madeleine had brought a small suitcase of our Christmas treasures from home, including a box of wooden ornaments, which went on the tree with a box of tiny colored glass balls from Aldi and a red topper. Perfect!
How things change. One year, about 15 years ago, Madeleine helped me bring home an 8-foot Fraser fir, and then, after I decided it was too short, she helped me take it back to the nursery and exchange it for a bigger one. I loved my Christmas trees, but those days are over.
The Advent season was just starting when Madeleine went home Dec. 2. We also went to the market in the Schwabing neighborhood, which reminded us of a tony art fair; to the alternative-style Märchenbazar, in the former slaughterhouse district; and to the comfortably in-between market in our very own Neuhausen neighborhood, where we happened upon a concert by a men’s chorus.
Beth also stopped by Pink Christmas, the gay-themed market just a block from our old Airbnb place in Isarvorstadt, and was surprised by how tiny and tacky it was. Torsten stopped by the famous Christmas market in Nuremburg when he traveled there on company business. And we went twice to Winter Tollwood on the Oktoberfest grounds, which had two big tents for shopping, two for free concerts and one for that year’s theme, Demokratie.
Other than warm sugared almonds and potato pancakes, we didn’t buy anything except a wool hat for Beth and a spray of real leaves that an artist had preserved, mounted onto stems and wired with lights. After having to give away so much stuff in Minneapolis, we’re determined not to accumulate more.
We did continue to buy a lot of Dominos and amaryllis stems from Aldi ($2, a steal), and Beth brought home two high-end chocolate Advent calendars from Galeria Kaufhof, $5 marked down from $25. So then we had five between us, but she still wished she’d bought another two.
We heard a “Messiah” at St. Joseph, where we decided that the Catholic god hates people: The soaring dome swallowed the singers’ voices as well as the heating (if there was any), and a board mounted onto the top of the pews poked into our backs – why? It was the same thing at a Mozart concert we went to in November; no more concerts in churches for us.
One wet and chilly Sunday, Torsten stayed home watching biathlon and nordic skiing on TV while Beth went to watch the Krampus Run in Marienplatz. The hairy, scary and horned Krampus is a tradition that originates in alpine villages, which annually send 200 Krampuses to stalk the streets of Munich during Advent.
Krampus is St. Nicholas’ sidekick, and while St. Nick is too nice to punish naughty children, Krampus isn’t, and he carries a switch to do it. Beth got swatted on the legs quite a few times, and also had her head patted and her ears gently pulled.
The weekend before Christmas, we joined a Stattreisen walking tour that took us from Marienplatz to the Residenz and back, learning about local holiday traditions and legends while stopping for homemade almond Spekulatius and ginger Lebkuchen cookies. Guess where the first Advent calendar was printed? In Munich, of course, in 1908.
For Christmas itself, we took the train to Torsten’s parents’ house and squeezed in two more Christmas markets. One was along the lake in Konstanz, where chestnut trees draped with twinkle lights made it the prettiest market we’d seen.
Beth finally broke down and bought an ornament, a little blown-glass hedgehog. And when Hannelore found out that Beth had never had hot roasted chestnuts, she bought a bag for us to share. They were pretty good.
The other market was in the Swiss medieval town of Stein am Rhein, just a few kilometers from Hannelore and Gerhard’s house. We watched a tiny steam train giving kids rides along the Rhine River, drank mugs of Glühwein and sang Christmas carols in the town square along with a small choir. It’s not Christmas until you sing “Stille Nacht” by candlelight!
As usual, Torsten’s mom made us lots of wonderful homemade treats, including a panna cotta with pomegranate seeds, pistachios and crumbled amaretti.
We made it home by 3 p.m. on a warm, sunny Christmas Day and promptly went out for a walk in Nymphenburg Park. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea, because the park was filled with strolling families.
We’re already looking forward to next year. Maybe then we’ll buy enough Advent calendars for the whole year, because what is life without a daily truffle? Beth will go to a Feuerzangenbowle, where a rum-soaked sugar cube is set on fire and allowed to drip into a mug of Glühwein ladled out of cauldrons. And we’ll visit even more Christmas markets and eat more Dominos.
At Christmas time, life is good in Germany.