My nearly-five-year-old, who—if left to his own devices—would normally sleep until midday, is wide awake and smiling at 8am.
“No, I have no idea,” I feign.
“Today, we go to see the Pyramid! The peeeerahhhhhmeeeeed!” he is ecstatic, but as people are very proper around these parts, I tell him he will have to wait until exactly 4pm, the scheduled time to go.
He isn’t talking about taking a trip to Giza, of course. The Christmas Pyramids are part the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) traditions here in Saxony.
Delicately carved out of the finest wood and intricately handcrafted by local artisans, they are triangular in shape with several layers depicting Christmas scenes—angels, forest animals, nativity figures, or busy German coal miners of the famed Ore mountains near where we live.
The real magic happens when the base candles are lit and the heat from their flames spin the pyramid’s tiers round and round. Heat continues rising to the top, in turn spinning the crowning propeller.
Looking like a multi-layered carousel, the moving light and shadows dance. When winter dark wraps these snowy villages, the Erzgebirge Pyramid stands. Tall and bright like a bedecked Christmas tree, it glows with warmth. They can be miniature in size, or as huge as a house. In traditional Christmas markets, they’re the most popular purchase.
Also in true Erzgebirge tradition, some place a wooden Schwiboogen or floating arch (see photo above, from Waldiland Blog) candle-holder in their windows. Lit at dusk, it came from the tradition of the Ore Mountain miners, who would hang their lanterns at the mine or cave entrance, to find their way back out and home. In turn, villagers would hang lanterns in their windows, so that fathers, brothers and all the hard-working men would find their way back home.
Our house, as of this evening, has not a single Christmas decoration yet.
“We are very traditional,” explains Oma—Karsten’s grandma—later over lunch. “It came from his family’s side.” She gestures to the kids’ grandfather, who was born into a Saxon Protestant family.
“I remember learning it when I first married him. Christmas was a quiet, reflective time. Not a big noisy party. It was celebrated with deep meaning. No schmuck, no kitsch. Only proper wooden Christmas ornaments—and the Weihnachtsbaum only on Christmas Eve! Not a day earlier.”
“With real candles lit,” adds Opa.
It takes us a good half hour to wrap up, layer upon layer, for our walk after 4pm. Already, the streets are dark, only lit with a few lamps, plus the wonderful Christmas candle arches in some house windows. We pass other pedestrians with the same destination.
Pretty cold, but the kids are too excited to complain. After all, the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) is also coming to light the giant Pyramid, and my son has brought his wunschzettel, or wish-list. (He’s also tried to be a very good boy lately.)
“Of course it has to be in German,” he’d told me this morning, as he sat penciling the most words at one time he’s ever tried to write—all on his own! “The Weihnachtsmann is definitely German!”
We follow the lights, and a kilometer later, the scent of brewing Glühwein and grilled Bratwurst smoking over a charcoal fire bring us to the Pyramid.
Its lighting celebration is being held outside the village’s fire station. Many folk are gathered, already sipping spicy winter wine. Children are bundled up from head to toe, and the Apple Queen, with her crown of flowers and apples, greets us. Fireman capped with red elf hats are serving up food and drinks.
Opa orders three Thüringer Bratwursts, the special spicy type from this region. The kids love the crunchy and delicious giant sausages, usually 20cm long. I take mine with mustard; they prefer ketchup. Then, we sip piping hot Glühwein, as you always must in winter.
“This is typical German,” he laughs, everyone leaves the warmth of their houses to stand in minus 3 degrees and eat.”
When later, the crowd disperses back towards the food stalls for more eating and drinking, we are the few brave ones to request a photo with Father Christmas. People take pictures of us taking pictures with the jolly old white man…
Soon it’s time to head home; again, we enjoy the stroll through streets lit by the warming glow of the floating arches. Some houses have more than one in their windows. Opa tells us more stories from his boyhood, how it was when they celebrated in December.
“It’s only minus 3 degrees,” Opa smiles. “Cold is minus 20 or more–and your mom has lived through that!”
He goes on to tell us about when he was a boy and they survived a very harsh winter—minus 30 or so, it was. When we reach the little footpath leading to our home, the son asks where our Christmas star and decorations are, why don’t we have a floating arch in our windows, or a pyramid?
“Tomorrow,” replies Opa, “Tomorrow is the First Advent. We’re doing Christmas very traditionally. Tomorrow will be something special!”
“Special!” my daughter, who barely talks, has been repeating her new word since yesterday.
“But now, it’s time for you kids to get a good night’s sleep, and for your mommy and I to drink a hot grog,” Opa concludes, as we reach our front door.
“What a good idea!” I reply.
We’ve spent Christmas both in Asia and in Europe, plus I’ve enjoyed a few in Africa. Now, with children of my own, my favorite season sparks new meaning and magic.