Just a song to me, but the sound of freedom to an East Berliner
Sometimes it slips off my radar exactly where I live. I don’t forget that I’m living in Germany, but the kind of people I see on a daily basis are a lot like me. They’re Germans, sure, but they are well traveled and read pretty much the same newspapers and books that I do. We all get thunderously upset about Trump and the current state of the U.S. and the other demagogues emerging across Europe – all over the world, even! Where will it all lead? I get so accustomed to these conversations that they become a ritual, devoid of real meaning.
Trying to fake it as a local at the Regensburg Christmas market
Who lives in these towns and what do they do for a living, I wonder as I watch the landscape roll by. I’m on a train headed to Regensburg to visit my friend Michaela and the Christmas market. Two hours of reading time, yay, I think, but can’t keep myself from looking out the window at the never-ending beautiful scenery. Gently rolling hills and pine forests alternate with
“Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick!” goes the tune, referring to the guy who brings presents and eats the milk and cookies that the kids leave out. Come to think of it, they should probably leave something more substantial, considering the journey he undergoes, like a pile of protein bars. The identity of this visitor was generally accepted when I was a kid growing up in Ohio. St. Nick was just one of many names for the jolly old man in the red suit who comes in a sleigh filled with presents. As it turns out, it’s not so simple.
Here in Bavaria St. Nick is not quite so jolly. Or to be more exact, he is a nice guy but is accompanied by a nasty sidekick, known as the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht (Knecht is an old German word for squire). St. Nick and his cohort visit preschools, elementary schools and sometimes private homes. He wears the “traditional” red suit (there’s a reason for those quotes, which we’ll come to later) and has a sack of walnuts, tangerines and candy to give out to well-behaved children.Honestly, he might want to update his stash for the modern crowd. I know we’re all spoiled by modern society, but tell the truth: When’s the last time you saw a child get excited over a tangerine? If children admit that they have not been quite so good, Knecht Ruprecht, in his trendy brown burlap robe, hits them with his birch branch or with his bag of ashes. As one does.
OK, this is just the story. My kids never met Knecht Ruprecht, since in modern-day Munich, at least, he never seems to turn up. Maybe it’s too far away from his mountain home. Or he couldn’t be bothered dealing with the train system (German trains are not all they’re cracked up to be). At preschool they always hinted at his presence, at least, lending a tingle of excitement to the whole affair, but the only person to actually make an appearance was the congenial fellow in the red suit.
Saint Nicholas started his career as a bishop in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, and was known to be kind to children, which is where the whole idea of gifts for kids began. December 6th is his feast day in the Catholic tradition, so this is the day when he makes his rounds, with or without his sidekick.
What I didn’t realize in my foreign naiveté is that he is also supposed to visit children’s homes the night before, who leave their shoes outside the door so that he’ll fill them with candy.
Except for my kids. I was so busy with advent calendar logistics (see my previous post) that I didn’t even catch wind of this other German tradition. Years later, my kids told me how their classmates would brandish their goodies at school on Nikolaus, December 6th.
“What did you get? I got chocolate, walnuts and gummy bears!”
“I got chocolate Santa Clauses, candy bars and sugar-coated almonds!”
“Huh? You got candy in your shoes? I didn’t get anything!”
The truth was out: My poor kids had a clueless foreign mom, so they didn’t get any candy on December 6th. Some of their friends were so horrified that they even took pity on them and donated some from their own stash. On the upside, my kids got more candy on Halloween. Besides, witches have pointy hats like Santa, so that sort of counts, right?
Far more intriguing than Nikolaus is the mysterious Christkind in Bavaria, the bringer of presents on Christmas Eve. Literally translated it means Christ child, but upon closer scrutiny this is not who this really is.
“It’s an angel,” a friend told me.
“No, it’s the Christ child, but with wings, wearing a long, white, flowing robe,” said another.
Since when does the Christ child have wings? Or don Victorian nightwear for women? I’m not buying it.
You rarely see representations of the Christkind, because nobody really knows what he/she/it looks like. How can you market something so nebulous? And if it is baby Jesus, he certainly isn’t going to be doling out presents from the manger. After all, he’s supposed to be the one receiving them from those three guys who just arrived on camelback, two of whom are groaning: “If you’d just let us take the GPS we would’ve arrived before dark, Balthazar.”
That’s probably why Germans have also incorporated Santa Claus into their Christmas repertoire. He is the ultimate marketable entity: chubby, fatherly, benevolent and pipe-smoking. It’s basically Grandpa in a charming, fuzzy red suit. Better yet, he never hangs around to make old man noises or leave old man smells (emanating from that pipe – or worse), and never asks you to take out the trash or explain to him how skype works. It doesn’t get any better than that.
So even though it’s officially the Christkind who brings presents, it’s Santa Claus who is plastered over everything in store windows, candy boxes, wrapping paper and all other holiday merchandise. Santa Claus is St. Nick after being remodeled by Americans and if there’s anything they know how to do, it’s to market something. Just look at Coca-Cola, who turned sugary water into a multi-million-dollar business (the fact that everything else WWII soldiers could get their hands on tasted like chlorine or caused diarrhea admittedly did help). Speaking of which, it is no accident that the deep red of Santa’s suit is identical with that of the Coca-Cola company. They have succeeded in making the world believe that his coat has always been that color.
If that’s not a great marketing job, I’ll eat my birch branch.
But marketing such things is nothing new. The Christian church has been doing it since the very beginning. After all, Christmas is timed to coincide with pre-Christian year-end celebrations. These date back to Roman times, probably to the Saturnalia festivals held at year’s end. Let them keep their festivals, just rebrand them and everybody will be happy, was the thinking. Not much different from a modern corporate takeover, really.
As it turns out, Knecht Ruprecht is also related to the creepy, Grimms fairy-tale like creatures that come out at carnival time during the Alemmanische Fastnacht in Swabia and Switzerland, which is why they are practically identical. Both originate from the alpine countries. The basic job description of the carnival creepies is to drive out the evil spirits of winter, which is not so different from Knecht Ruprecht’s job.
Maybe the thin air at high altitudes caused people to hallucinate or perhaps it was something people came up with to while away the harsh mountain winters. It’s also conceivable that someone once saw an ugly person in a fur coat at night and it became a thing. Who knows how this stuff comes about.
For the rulers of former East Germany, Christmas posed a serious challenge. The population was Christian, but the state was supposed to take the place of God. How do you deal with that? You couldn’t just let people celebrate Christmas if there was no God. This posed quite a conundrum.
Somewhere buried in the higher echelons of the East German Politbüro, the country’s top ruling committee, was a group of very creative minds. They set about solving this delicate task: If only they could recast Christmas in the shape of the communist party, they could allow East Germans to continue celebrating (sound familiar?). If they could find a way to allow people to enjoy the holidays as they had before, it would help keep unrest under wraps, or wrapped, in colorful paper, in this case. Heh-heh.
They took the most visible elements of Christmas and – you guessed it – rebranded them. Chocolate Santa Clauses were still allowed, but now they were called Schokoladenhohlkörper zum Jahresende. This ridiculously long German expression has an equally ridiculous meaning: hollow chocolate figures to celebrate the year’s end.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that “hollow chocolate body” can be squeezed into one word in German. This is an admirable accomplishment in itself. One could hardly think of a more laughable name, but it allowed the communists to safe face and the East Germans to keep their chocolate Santas.
But there’s more. You might think that the communists would have at least left Jesus alone. After all, how could you possibly transform the Son of God himself to make it compatible with the ruling dogma. Challenge accepted! There was no stopping those Politbürocrats. They simply renamed the Christkind (reputed by some to be an angel, you recall) to the geflügelte Jahresendfigur, the winged year-end figurine. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.
“Hey, are you putting a winged year-end figurine on the top of your Christmas tree – I mean, on your year-end large pine tree with little lights and glittery things on it?”
OK, that was me, not the communists.
You can only imagine how those politicians-turned-marketing geniuses broke out into hysterics when they came up with these expressions, surpassed only by their glee when their suggestion was actually accepted – but only in public. In private people smirked, rolled their eyes and continued using the standard terms. These expressions are now a thing of the past, just like the Berlin Wall, and have been relegated to the dustbin like useless ripped-up wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
St. Nicholas and Santa are often confused with one another, since they are really the same thing, just in different countries. Shop windows in Munich will often show a Santa Claus figure, clearly representing Father Christmas (just to confuse you with yet another name for the end-of-the-year gift bearer, as the communists would have called him) wearing a miter and sporting a pot belly, surrounded by clouds of cotton snow and wearing the traditional blue coat.
Blue? Santa Claus doesn’t wear a blue coat, you say?
He used to. Some merchants seem to still have their pre-Coca-Cola Santa Claus mannequins which are still wearing a blue coat – sometimes even green.
It’s all a matter of what you’re used to. Until Queen Victoria got married in a white bridal gown, people used to simply wear a nice dress for their wedding. With her wedding she inadvertently created a multimillion-dollar business in white bridal gowns overnight. Modern brides now feel that this dress is a must, just as we don’t recognize a Santa unless he’s wearing that particular red.
At this point, some people might be asking themselves which one is the “real” Santa, since there seem to be so many versions, even within one country.
Well, here’s what I say: It doesn’t really matter. While tradition is a part of Christmas, I for one choose to celebrate not according to the rules, but by what’s in the true Christmas spirit: buying things, eating excessively for several days and come January, being glad that it’s finally over.
This all-American holiday is not as traditional as you think
24 November 2019
Little kids in pilgrim hats or feather headdresses that would give politically correct people heart palpitations today – when I was in third grade, everything about Thanksgiving was warm and fuzzy. Such a great American tradition, steeped in friendship, harmony and the spirit of giving. Under closer scrutiny, however, this holiday is not everything it is cranked up to be.
What a nice little festival, I thought. Little boats with lit candles inside, sailing peacefully across the lake through the darkness. Children singing against the backdrop of the picturesque Blutenburg Castle. It was St. Martin’s, a popular fall festival.
9th, is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin
Wall, the most visible in a series of events that triggered German
reunification. My German husband had assured me back in the 1980s that the country
would never reunite. They’ve grown apart, he said. They’re two separate
countries now. It’s over.
prediction was earth-shatteringly wrong, but more important it shows that he
was a child of his generation. The politicians in charge of Germany when the Eastern
Bloc disintegrated of an age that knew one Germany from their youth. For them there
was no question: Of course the two countries belonged together. The Cold
War had split Germany in half and had finally ended. Now that it was over,
reunification was the obvious final chapter in that story.
Germany fell apart, I was amazed at how all the talk was not about whether
the two countries should reunite, but when. That whole discussion was
fast tracked. It turned out that there was an underlying desire to reunite,
particularly among those in power. When the historic opportunity presented
itself, the ruling politicians at the time, notably Helmut Kohl, jumped on it
and bent over backwards to make it happen and happen fast. Hans Dietrich
Genscher, Foreign Minister at the time and instrumental in supporting
reunification, was himself from Halle of former East Germany. Given his
personal history, who could blame him for championing it?
Angela Merkel was famously in the sauna while her comrades were storming the
Wall, my husband and I were sitting dumbfounded on the couch in faraway Munich
watching the events unfold on TV. Our mouths had been pretty much agape for
several weeks as the Eastern Bloc crumbled before our very eyes. Now it was
we’re far away down south in Bavaria,” I said, clicking off the TV before we went
That illusion lasted one day. That was the length of time it took for the Trabbis, the nickname for the tiny (and only) cars driven by East Germans, to come chugging down the Autobahn on their way to Munich. Along the way they choked the highway since their two-stroke motors only allowed them to drive 80 km/h. Just imagine a caravan of rider mowers on the highway.
has ever been anywhere near an Autobahn knows that someone driving at 80
km/h is either entering or exiting the highway – but certainly not driving on
it! Unless, of course, you’re sitting behind the wheel of a Trabbi. In
no time they had arrived and lined the streets and sidewalks of Munich. The
police turned a blind eye, allowing our East German cousins to enjoy their
first taste of freedom without a parking ticket.
of this flood of tiny cars that had been designed in the 1950s gave rise to all
kinds of jokes, like this one:
A cow pie
on the highway gets run over by a Trabbi. The Trabbi stops and
Trabbi: Sorry, I didn’t see you there!
Cow pie, looking up: What in the world are
Trabbi: I’m a Trabbi, silly. A Trabbi!
The cow pie
shows no reaction.
Trabbi: I’m a car!
Cow pie: Well, if you’re a car, then I’m a
Black Forest cherry cake!
For me as a
foreigner, it felt as if a time capsule had been cracked open. Suddenly
reporters were scurrying around interviewing people all over East Germany, an
area that had just until recently been sealed off and completely inaccessible. They
were eager to interview real people on the streets, which is exactly what they
time we tuned into the news I couldn’t believe my ears
of an accent is that?!” I exclaimed to my husband. “I didn’t understand a
he said. “It’s what they speak in Saxony.”
I had never
heard anything like it. I had been so proud of my mastery of differentiating between
a Bavarian accent and an Austrian one (something that is glaringly obvious to
native speakers but tricky for foreigners). Now I had a whole new batch of
accents to recognize and understand.
for Bavarians, Sächsisch has since joined Bavarian at the top of the
list of accents to poke fun at in German comedy shows (all three of them) or
when talking to friends who are from anywhere but Bavaria or Saxony. For people
in Berlin and Northern Germany, nothing beats making fun of a Bavarian. Or a Saxonian.
Up until reunification, Bavaria had to take all the punches. It was very kind
indeed of Sachsen to line up and join ranks with their southern neighbors and
share the glory.
wall, but now what?
my sister Katie and I had taken a trip to East Germany after the Wall came down
but before reunification when East Germany’s fate was still in limbo. There was
a strange sensation afoot. What would happen now? Reunification? And if so, how
and when? What form of government would they have? It was a very anxious time
for East Germans.
This was no
ordinary vacation. During this period there were no hotels, hardly any
restaurants – and no tourists. Planning our trip was very much off the cuff. Some
enterprising individual had compiled a list of private homes in East Germany that
would host people, so that’s where we stayed.
we stayed with a woman in her early 60s. She kept referring to me as English.
After correcting her gently several times, I finally figured out what was going
on: She had had so little exposure to the outside world that the line between
English and American was blurry. I was some English speaker and whether I came
from the one side of the Atlantic Ocean or the other was irrelevant. I spoke
English; she didn’t. That’s all that mattered. For her, I may as well have been
from the moon.
In East Berlin, the heart of divided Germany, we stayed in the apartment of a nice young couple in the neighborhood of Marzahn, one of those areas that screams Eastern Bloc. It was a Plattenbau, the name for the socialist housing consisting of row after row of sterile, high-rise apartment buildings commonly found in Eastern bloc countries. Our host told us he was just about leave on an extended trip through the socialist brother countries, as fellow members of the Warsaw Pact were known. Prior to the fall of the Wall, those were the only countries where East Germans were allowed to travel since there was little danger of defection.
detail in this case, however, was that he could spend his Ostmark in
these countries. Nowhere else. He correctly guessed that reunification was
imminent and that his money would then become worthless. He was right. Up to a
certain amount East Germans could convert their Ostmark 1:1, after that
in reduced proportions, and above a certain amount it was not accepted. That
meant for many East Germans the loss of life savings.
of East Germany felt like being let out of a cage. Suddenly the impenetrable
boundaries that had been life-defining fell away. Many East Germans had
previously not bothered to dream about what lay beyond the border. Why should
they? It was an exercise in frustration. This made the shock all the greater
once they were able to travel and leave the country.
Anja from Dresden describes seeing the planes lined up at Frankfurt
International Airport for the first time.
she exclaimed, “that all you had to do was get into any one of those planes and
it would take you anywhere in the world!”
about this for a moment. Here I was, an American living on the other side of
the ocean, simply because I had decided one day that I would like to give it a
try. The only difficulties I wrestled with were in my own mind: Should I stay
for good or go back? In the end I decided to stay. It was wholly my
I could not
fathom what it would be like to have no control over where I live.
has more than made up for lost time. The only corner of the world she hasn’t
visited is really the corner – Antarctica – and possibly the Galágapos
Islands, although those two places are most certainly on her list. When I
started rhapsodizing about my amazing trip to the American West, I was quickly
put in my place.
Canyon, fantastic! I absolutely loved it. And did you go to Arches? Antelope
Canyon? The Grand Canyon?”
Not only had
she visited them all, she had hiked and camped there extensively. She also used
the opportunity to get selfies with the park rangers and got close-up shots of
all the wildlife with her giant telephoto lens, photos which are now carefully
sorted and labeled in thick albums.
not to show her my vacation photos. It’s not that I hadn’t taken any, I had
plenty on my phone. At that point I made a firm decision to sort them, too. No
problem. They’re somewhere between detailed shots of spring flowers in the yard
and my annual batch of Oktoberfest photos.
also been to Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. Together with her husband they
rented a motorcycle and traversed the back roads, hitting all the temples,
which she dutifully photographed – with her telephoto lens, of course. She took
pains to arrive at either sunrise or sunset, depending on the optimal slant of
the sun, to get just the right shot. She also knew exactly what season was the
prettiest and the best way to avoid the throngs of Chinese tourists.
Michael lived in Paris for years and came to Munich to visit. He was baffled by
Michael: Why does everything look so new?
Me: Well, they clean the buildings you
know. Come on, it’s Germany.
Michael: No, it’s more than that. Paris
looks really old. Why does everything look so new here?
Michael: It’s the bombs! Munich was bombed
in WWII! But Paris wasn’t. That’s why everything looks so extremely old there.
Because it is old. Here it’s new old.
reminded of this on our trip to East Germany just after the Wall came down.
Everything was so run down. The buildings were covered with soot and many still
showed damage from WWII, which at that point was 45 years in the past.
Buildings badly needed renovating and the facades had crumbling stucco and
warped wooden doors and shutters.
A few years
after reunification, walking through an East German city feels like walking
through the town in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Everything is freshly
renovated, painted and scrubbed, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale come to life. This
is the Solidaritätszuschlag or solidarity premium, a tax to finance
reunification, at work. There are also huge shopping malls, hotels,
restaurants. It’s hard to imagine how different it looked not so long ago.
Germany looks even newer than the West, or as my friend Michael would say, now
it’s new old.
resurgence of the far right in the new states, as the states of former East
Germany are referred to, is troublesome. To understand how this could happen, imagine
a high school where all the top students change to the private school across
town, leaving only the average ones and especially the bullies and
troublemakers. That’s what happened to East Germany after reunification. The
young, moderate, and hard-working people who had been keeping the economy
afloat left for the West.
that’s why the built the Wall in the first place – to keep everyone in. Once it
was gone, the floodgates were open.
There was not just a population shift, but East Germany is also treated somewhat like a colony. They criticize this situation, referring to themselves as an extended workbench. All large companies have their headquarters in the old states or former West Germany. There are subsidiaries in the East, but few headquarters. The federal government has made promises to relocate a certain quota of ministries in the East, but this program has not been rigorously enforced.
them eat – Stollen
are young enough not to remember the fall of the Wall or who were born
afterwards, feel more like citizens of one single country. Older people had a
much harder time adjusting and many lost their jobs. There are still
inequalities to be sure – and the right-wing movement is not to be ignored –
but most young people by and large feel like neither East or West German – just
German. It will take a generation or two, but eventually the scars from the
former division of the country will heal and fade. It will become part of the
collective memory and a chapter in the history books.