German Christmas means hot wine and cold toes

German Christmas - hot mulled wine in a mug

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 now-empty fields.  Because of the glaciers that covered the land up until about 10,000 years ago, the soil is so fertile in Bavaria it’s black (thanks, Ice Age!). Rising out of the fields and forests are fairy-tale towns with church spires reaching up from the highest hill in their center.

The inhabitants out here can’t all be farmers, but they can’t all be remote office workers, either. Life outside of metropolitan Munich is very foreign to me and the sights outside the train window never cease to capture my imagination. I’m glad my kids aren’t here so I don’t have to see their reaction to my gushing about all the cute little towns, usually dramatic eye-rolling and sighs: “We’re from here, Mom. They all look like this!” True, but I still can’t get over how this landscape consistently scores 100 points on the picturesque scale, which cannot be said about the trains where I come from.

Oh wait, we don’t have trains. Forget it.

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The medieval town of Regensburg and its stone bridge Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Many villages and a measly two and a half pages later, I arrive. Regensburg is the perfect place for a nostalgic Christmas market, especially since it is a real-life Sleeping Beauty. A bustling, profitable town in the Middle Ages, it has the reputation of being “Italy’s northernmost city,” a tribute not just to its beauty but to Germans’ wistful penchant for Italy, the land where the weather is warm and the waiters are friendly, two things equally unattainable in their own country. With no money for renovations, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Regensburg attracted major companies who brought much-needed tax income. By that time, the city had come to value its unique character and chose to restore the city instead of modernizing it.

Regensburg also reminds me of one of my best embarrassing foreigner moments. Every expat has them. When we meet, we bond over our mutual shame. It was on a bike tour with German friends, and we were approaching another picturesque city called Donauwörth (Donau means Danube and Wörth is an old German word for an island in the middle of a river). The city loomed ahead of us, just behind a bridge over a river, and as we cycled closer, something dawned on me.

“Hey,” I exclaimed excitedly like I had just discovered the atom, “is that where the name Donauwörth comes from? From the Donau River?”

 “Go-oo-od, Brenda, go-oo-od!” said my friend Matthias, nodding his head the way he did to his two young sons and in the same voice he uses for his dog while patting it on the head saying “Good boy!”

My excitement evaporated.

“And what river is Regensburg named after?” he continued in his sardonic schoolmaster tone.

I had never heard of a Regen River, but this had to be answer.

“The Regen!” I said, trying to sound triumphant, defying his mockery.

This all came back to me now as I stood on a stone bridge with Michaela, looking down at the churning confluence of the three rivers that catapulted the city into the center of the medieval scene: the Danube, the Naab and of course, the Regen. I imagined how for centuries, boats carrying valuable salt from the Alps would have traveled right under us, making the city rich with customs duties. In the summer this bridge is mobbed with tourists, but now it was mostly locals scurrying across to escape the cold wind.

We certainly weren’t tourists. Michaela lives there, and I’m an honorary Bavarian at this point. Seriously, you can get a license. The test to get it involves wearing leather shorts in the fall, drinking at least two people under the table and ordering a beer and roast pork using only grunts and minimal sign language. We were, however, headed for one of Regensburg’s charming Christmas markets, which does happen to be a tourist destination.

Nuremberg has the most famous and largest market, but I wasn’t interested in bigger and better. I can get my fill in Munich, where the market is a giant red beast of shiny trinkets and lights, spreading its tentacles farther and farther every year. Beginning from the center at Marienplatz, it creeps down side streets, up the pedestrian zone, and spills into inner courtyards. There are themed Christmas markets with medieval food and wares, others with modern arts and crafts, and the general mumbo-jumbo markets of ornaments, fake Fabergé eggs (I actually bought two of those one year), lambskin slippers (bought those once too, for my niece) and lots of mulled wine (I’ve bought tons of that. Come to think of it, that might just explain the purchase of the Fabergé eggs).

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Christmas trees and mountain-style cabins characterize German Christmas markets, like this one in the Munich pedestrian zone. Photo: Brenda Arnold

There is endless food: all kinds of sausages, Flammkuchen (sort of a French pizza), French fries, crepes, apple fritters, potato pancakes and much more. People gather at stands to drink red or white mulled wine, stamping their feet to keep warm. The scent of sugar-coated nuts is everywhere. But best of all, there are Lebkuchen, a cake-like cookie dating back to the Middle Ages that is central to German Christmas culture.

For a typical sweet-toothed American like me, learning to like Lebkuchen consists of several stages.

Stage one: You take a bite of a Lebkuchen under the expectant gaze of the German in charge of acculturating you. In my case, three people shared this task: my husband and both his parents. It was his Mom who gave me my first Lebkuchen and she was very proud to introduce me to this German delicacy.

“Mmm, chocolate…” I said, trying to be positive. But on the inside it was sort of dry and crumbly, with lots of nuts and spices. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly…good.

“Interesting,” I continued, trying to psych myself into liking it. Silently I was thinking “Sorry, Americans like really sweet stuff, and this cookie-thingy needs a lot more sugar.” After all, a normal American starts out their day with a hearty bowl of Sugar Bombs for breakfast, served with milk and a sprinkling of more sugar, followed by a frosted pastry, all washed down with a latte sugerato.

In a nutshell, every dentist’s dream.

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The mountain feeling in the middle of Munich Photo: Brenda Arnold

Stage two: Your sugar addiction has subsided somewhat, after having been subjected to less sweet German cakes and other desserts for a prolonged period of time. You are beginning to appreciate the flavor for what it is: almond, chocolate, orange, lemon, and various spices, rather than the either sweet, really sweet, swe-e-e-t, and I’m-going-to-be-sick sweet of many American desserts. A wedding cake is a good example of this. It’s part of a secret series of tests for the viability of a marriage: If you can eat a piece of it while smiling and beaming at the camera and your wedding guests, you are ready to swallow all the other stuff headed your way in the upcoming years.

Those spices in a Lebkuchen have particular importance, since in the Middle Ages they were an expensive luxury. Or as my husband puts it: “Lebkuchen were the Mercedes of the Middle Ages.” But if you take them with you on the road, they don’t speed things up much. You just get chocolate on the steering wheel.

Stage three: In the final stage of Lebkuchenology, you can’t wait for Christmas to come so you can get good Lebkuchen again. They start selling the cheap ones in the supermarket as early as September, but the good ones, the really good ones, don’t arrive in the bakeries until late November. I know what I’m talking about. These are the results of a thirty-year study conducted by, for, and on me.

Back in Regensburg, I try my luck at one of my favorite little games. It’s when I try to speak Bavarian dialect without anyone noticing that not only am I not Bavarian, I’m freakin’ American. Here they speak a much stronger dialect than in Munich. This is my big chance.

“A’ Haferl woassen Glühwein, bitte!” I say to the burly guy manning the stand, smiling nonchalantly. A mug of white mulled wine, please. It looks like I‘ve pulled it off, since he gives me what I ordered, no questions asked.

That Bavarian license has really paid off over the years.

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A mug (Haferl in the vernacular) of white mulled wine Photo: Brenda Arnold

Of course, this game only works when I say a maximum of five words, preferably in the midst of a large, noisy crowd – with the wind blowing. Only then can I get away with it. Speaking dialect when you’re not from that region is on par with trying to dance ballet in sneakers. I’m talking the big, clunky, 1,000-dollar-yet-still-hideous type. You may pull off a pirouette or two, but very soon people will look down at your feet. And start to snicker (or rather sneaker, heh-heh).

With another Christmas market under my belt, I board the train home, basking in the afterglow of the mulled wine. The warmth of the train makes me realize how cold I am. Nestling down in my seat, I’m determined to make up for lost time, cracking open my book before we’ve even hit full speed.

I’m asleep within ten minutes.

Brenda Arnold

You might also enjoy:
Christmas cookies: Good, better, German
Ring in the New Year and fire the firecrackers
The 37 days of Christmas

1 thoughts on “German Christmas means hot wine and cold toes

  1. Maureen says:

    It took you ten minutes to fall asleep on a warm train? So either not enough Glühwein or not cold enough out there 😉 … I listened to this on a train and quite literally laughed out loud !!

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