Diary of an Expat, Part 15
Christmas and the Christmas market, irony not included
As the season trends inexorably towards true winter, Germans find solace in... well, ice cream, for one — for reasons that are not wholly clear to me, "ice cream weather" is a 365-days-a-year thing for Berliners. Beyond this, they also indulge in warm things like pretzels and roasted chestnuts. But as December inches onwards, it's increasingly clear that one of the things that most warms the cockles of our hearts here is Christmas.

The streets are done up in lights — all along Unter den Linden, trees are festooned with them, and the city takes on a carnival atmosphere. The fairy lights — mostly white, at least in the more stately parts of town — contrast starkly against the black sky up above that, here in Berlin, descends now right around 5 in the evening. The sun has disappeared long before then.

I don't really mind this predilection much, to be honest. Christmas is a guilty pleasure of mine — not the rampant consumerism and macing people at Wal-Mart (though that has its place, too) but the twee, sappy bits — lights and woodsmoke and terrible music, people generally pretending to be nice to one another, opportunities to consume large amounts of sugar in various baked and confectioned forms. A vague, warm sense of togetherness to beat back the winter chill. The smell of pine.

Happily, Germans agree. In the United States, retailers sometimes catch flak for the commercialization of Christmas, and the way that it seems to creep earlier and earlier every year. No, no. We have you beat, don't worry. Germany doesn't have Halloween and Thanksgiving to occupy the minds of decorators, so they start decking the halls and putting out ornaments and things in... oh, I'd say I started to notice it towards the end of October. Now it's pretty much omnipresent.

Beyond street vendors and tinsel, though, there is perhaps no place where the German love of the season is more pronounced than the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market. It is called a market, but this may give the wrong impression. It's something more than that, and, strictly speaking, the market part is not necessarily the entire point. But they are quintessentially German — there are literally dozens in Berlin alone — so let's take a moment to get acquainted with them.

At a Weihnachtsmarkt, you have rows of stalls, yes. They sell about what you would expect — handcrafted Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers, assorted trinkets, scarfs and hats and so on. The demi-artisanal aspect is key; at most markets, or at least the ones I've seen, there is no large corporate presence. All the vendors at least appear to be self-employed. At the more touristy markets, things tend to be overpriced, although it's possible to not get too terribly ripped off.

But the point isn't really the baubles, anyway. The point is the market experience itself. They may have entertainment in the form of live music; many have rides for children, including here in Berlin the oldest operational Ferris wheel in Germany, I am told. Carousels are common; the market at Alexanderplatz goes further, and looks for all the world like a boardwalk. It's loud and garish — pretty much like Alexanderplatz in general.

Even if they have no entertainment, they have things to eat. None of them are very good for you; all of them are delicious. Germany is heavily invested in sausage, so you can get that here; raclette, a dish formed entirely out of cheese melted over potatoes (from the people who brought you fondue — raclette is itself some unholy marriage of fondue and the cheese-covered chips you find in some restaurants), is also seasonally popular. Some places serve pizza, although I gather that this is less common.

The process is multisensory, although like many things involving food the scent is what first draws you in; Christmas markets smell amazing. Many items are cooked over an open flame, which means the odor of fresh food being prepared hits your nose at the same time as that of wood smoke. Standing downwind also treats you, in the cold evening air, to occasional bursts of heat from the cooking. Eventually you buy actual food, and discover that, like street vendor food in general, it's peculiarly satisfying.

When you tire of this, it is time to move on to the baked goods. Lebkuchen is a gingerbreadish thing, and quite good; you can also find marzipan in quantity, as well as a variety of fruitcakes if this is appealing to you. The star of the show, though, is stollen, a Dresden delicacy that is not quite a bread, although it tries. It consists of fruits (raisins in my case) and nuts, plus zest of some zitronish fashion, and is then topped with powdered sugar. You wander around, and nosh on this, and feel generally conciliatory towards your fellow man.

You do this also because you are very slightly inebriated. Or not so very slightly, I don't know. Glühwein is the drink of choice — it is indeed, the only thing that Germans appear willing to give up beer for. Their love of it borders on the fetishistic, although honestly if you have not had it you're missing out. Mulled wine is not quite as popular on the American side of the pond, but basically what you do is you boil red wine with various spices — cinnamon sticks and cloves and vanilla generally — and add in sugar. Also a shot of rum, if you're daring/particularly cold.

Mulled wine is drunk warm, and it is a lovely experience. You sip it, with your friends, and you watch the steam that curls from the rim of the mugs, and you look around you at people enjoying a crisp winter evening in the company of other like-minded adventurers. This is what is most appealing to me, about Christmas in Berlin &mash; in the United States, there would be some semblance of irony to it all. There would be hipster kids sniggering at it, and the cheesiness of it all (from the raclette, no doubt).

Here this is not done. Germans are serious about their Christmas markets, and they are serious about enjoying them. It's a genuine, honest love of the atmosphere and the food and the company and the glühwein that is refreshing for someone so accustomed to a sardonic, jaded view of celebration — the first time I went to one, I was almost confused by the earnestness, earnestness being alien to my people. But no. And I suppose, really, that unapologetically cheerful worldview has a lot going for it, particularly at this time of year.

And if you disagree, well, at least there's the glühwein to fall back on.
La Chevre!
11.12.2011 - 4h36

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