A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt. 2: Nutcracker Men and Merry Cherubs!

saxon christmas 7True to his word, on the first Advent eve, Opa started putting up tiny decorations in special places around our home—or was it really the work of the Weihnachtsmann?

saxon christmas 1One by one, a miniature choir of chubby, wooden angels began to appear in the glass kitchen cabinet. Every day, a new one, each with a musical instrument—some playing a trumpet, or a harp, or an organ.

On the kitchen reading table now sat four deep red candles in a thick WeihnachtsKranz (Christmas wreath), to be lit one by one—one for every Sunday of the special Adventzeit.

And then there were the traditional, handgemacht (handmade) figurines of the Erzgebirge, little Raüchermanner (Smoking Men) who puff scented smoke when a Raücherkerze (incense cone) is lit inside, and wooden nutcrackers.

saxon christmas 2Now, the particular Nutcracker guy we have isn’t really a nutcracker at all, but a bushy-browed fellow on horseback, wearing brightly colored uniform! He’s always looking fierce, to represent those harsh German authorities of the Ore Mountain mines in the late 1800’s.

saxon christmas 8This region in East Germany bordering the Czech Republic, besides it’s delicious food, is also famous for its grand mountains, forests, and mining industry. It’s become my once-in-awhile-home since my son was born here in 2009.

An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony
An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony

The wooden figurines are well-known Erzgebirge handicrafts made by the local communities since hundreds of years. The ones that sit on our kitchen table now aren’t newly bought decorations; they’ve been in the family for years, sort of vintage artifacts—heirlooms—that resurface every December.

The little prune-men, with their bodies made of dried prunes, are some of my favorite. A family friend last week, added another artifact to our collection: a lucky prune chimney sweeper.

I’ll never forget the first time one I met a real chimney sweep, five years ago, in this house. My husband had told me that if the black-uniformed men ever came to your door, they were believed to bring good luck! I was pregnant at the time, and hoping for all the luck (blessings) in the world for my new baby who was on his way!

So when the doorbell rang one day, and a very tall, smiling man in a top hat and buttoned-down uniform cheerily appeared to sweep the soot off our chimney, I felt like a little child shaking hands with the Weihnachtsmann! (I only found out much later that he’d been hired, of course, to work that day.)

But innocence is bliss, and Christmas is for innocent children—and children at heart.

saxony christmas 6It’s what I love about my two kids’ ages right now (nearly 2 and nearly 5): they are still young enough to be whisked away in the mind to a place where wonderful things happen at Christmas!

We’ve read together, of course, the real story; they know about the angels and the Star, and the baby Jesus—but I do think a little of that other magic is fun too, when you mix traditions with culture and throw in a little of your own twists.

Yes, we can have real evergreens and traditional Saxon figurines…but we can cut out simple paper snowflakes and string them on the windows, too. We can tell stories about surprises and magic …but we do know that love is the biggest magic of it all.

And when Saint Nick leaves two gigantic chocolate men on the doorstep to eat, and more chocolate surprises in their winter boots (as he did last December 6)…

saxony christmas 4…or when you can write wish lists and be on your best behavior for the Weihnachtsmann, or when soft snowflakes flutter down, sprinkling everything in the village like the frosting on a birthday cake…

…and when you can enjoy all these simple pleasures with the wonder of a little child, then Christmas becomes, not a stressful occasion, but a lot of FUN.

I know it won’t be long until they’ll be older, and perhaps jaded. So, while their little eyes are still wide with wonder and delight, I’ll be enjoying the season’s magic, too.

saxony christmas 3Yesterday, as the son and I skipped through a slushy path on the way home from school, he looked at me thoughtfully and then posed a very serious question.

“Mom, do you know who actually gives us the uberraschungs (surprise gifts) at Christmas?”

“Um…the Weihnachtsmann?” (I’m hoping he hasn’t found the secret stash of packages hiding in our cabinet.)

“Well, someone else, too! Do you know? There’s the Weihnachtsmann, and Niklaus, and…do you know who else?”

“Tell me!”

Splashing his boots through the half frozen mud, with an intelligent look that only a nearly-five-year-old can properly pull off, he said:

“The postman, of course.”

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A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt 1: Festive Fun and Pyramids

pyramid“Mom, do you know what day it is today?”

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.

Saxon PyramidDelicately 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.

schwiboogen saxonyAlso 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!”

wunschzettelwunsch2

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.

german christmasIts 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.

bratwurst2Opa 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.”

pyramid1Weihnachtsmann arrives, and my son disappears in the pile of kids; he must give the Christmas-man his wish-list!

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…

weihnachtsmann1Soon 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.

saxon pyramidSuddenly, we hear the jingling of bells and the clopping of hoofs. A horse-drawn carriage passes us by on the road, its driver waving merrily.

horses“It’s cold!” my son says, skipping to keep warm.

“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.

saxon christmasAnd yes…everything is more special at Christmas—especially in Saxony!

Merry Christmas, even when Silent Nights are Cold and Dark

Sometimes we feel all “Christmasy” and magical, but sometimes, we don’t.

Many of us have experienced lonely Christmases, sick Christmases, depressed Christmases.

And that’s okay.

Remember that the first Christmas was probably filled with pain as the new mother gave birth; anxiety for the future, as they just arrived in strange Bethlehem, and the fear of where they would lay their heads to sleep the following day.

It took courage for the new parents to keep their hearts filled with hope for what was to come, to start their new life as a family together during those hard times in Judea. I imagine they must have been very cold and unsure what would happen next.

Did they even know how to care for a firstborn child?

It must not have been easy, or very festive, or very merry, for that matter.

In this part of Europe, the days are so short. I am typing this at 4pm, when it’s already dark. The light fades fast, and the cold, cold weather can make everything feel a little grey.

Yet the stars shine brighter, and the moon’s glow lights up my bedroom when all is dark and silent. And of course, the twinkling Christmas lights on the trees outside are even more brilliant.

There’s still something beautiful about short, wintry days.

Maybe we can keep Christmas in our hearts after all, by remembering the tender love of a mother, what new life and new beginnings mean. Even when you have nothing, or no one left, it’s a place to start again, and think of everything as new, especially the coming year.

It can be a time to give thanks for what we have, and who we have still with us…and even if you are on your own, you can celebrate a joy that comes from hearts in solitude, those whom have learned to make peace with themselves, and the world.

When you find that joy, it’s a wonderful place to be.

As we say here in Germany, Fröhliche Weihnachten!

A Kid at Christmas

From the decorating of our house to unwrapping presents at midnight, Karsten was beside me this year, and I remembered what it was like to be an eager child again, reveling in the tinsel and glitter, looking forward to surprises, opening up those big boxes.

Sometimes we forget the wonder of the season, lost in its commercialism; caught up in its stress. But when my baby boy, on Christmas Eve, woke up at midnight to find the whole family gathered around our tree on a rare occasion, and joined in the fun, I was glad that I could see it through his eyes, and feel the magic in his smile.

I hope I never lose that feeling.