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While German celebrations differ, shopping is still king

STUTTGART, Germany – Getting into the Christmas spirit is easy in Stuttgart, Germany, since it has one of the biggest and most famous Christmas markets in Europe.

But the spirit itself? Well, to an American, it’s just a little different.

For instance, Santa Claus ( Weihnachtsmann) does not hold court in Karstadt, our local department store. Yet I have seen him around town a few times during our two years in Stuttgart.

The first time, Santa had a bottle of beer in each hand. Instead of a sleigh, one of his elves was squiring him around in a shopping cart. He was certainly jolly.

I noticed parents desperately trying to distract their kinder as Weihnachtsmann and his trusty elf careened down the street.

Frohe Weihnacht (Merry Christmas!),” he bellowed, as he clattered out of sight.

Maybe the elf was Kneckt Rupert, the menacing sidekick of German lore, whose role is to frighten children into good behavior.

Recently, I spotted a seemingly more sober Weihnachtsmann playing Christmas carols on his accordion. A paper cup was prominently displayed for tips.

One of the joys of being an expatriate in Stuttgart is the Christmas Market ( Weihnachtsmarkt). Dating to 1692, it is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe, with more than 280 stalls surrounding the Church Square ( Schlossplatz) and Schiller Square ( Schillerplatz). About 3.6 million people per year visit the Stuttgart Weihnachtsmarkt.

I can’t resist the gingerbread ( lebkuchen), hot spiced wine ( gluwein) and roasted chestnuts ( heisse marone). The stalls are wooden chalets, and each vendor decorates the chalet roof with a Christmas theme with twinkling lights, pine branches, angels, ornaments and Nativity scenes. There are stalls selling Christmas ornaments, clothing, jewelry ( schmuck), toys, food and drink.

Many of the items are handmade. Christmas music is piped in, and there are always street musicians playing “Silent Night! Holy Night! ( Stille Nacht! Heillige Nacht!).”

Ice skaters twirl, and occasionally fall, in the winter wonderland ( wintertraum) ice rink set up in the Schlossplatz. The only thing missing this year is the schnee (snow). There is something magical about wandering through the Weihnhachtsmarkt with snow falling.

Advent is an important part of the Christmas traditions in Germany. The origin of the Advent calendar can be traced to the 1800s, when German children drew Christmas pictures on 24 pieces of paper to hang in the house to help count down to Christmas Eve.

While searching for Advent calendars for our three grandchildren, I found one that puts a new and foamy spin on tradition: the “Christmas Brewery Advent Calendar, with 24 Various Beers.”

The picture of Weihnachtsmann on the front of the box shows him with a beer in one hand. His rosy cheeks, I suspect, are not the result of cold weather.

The tradition of decorating a tree at Christmas started in Germany in the 16th century. While many families in the U.S. put up their Christmas trees soon after Thanksgiving, German families always put up their Christmas trees on Dec. 24 and take them down on Jan. 7.

On Christmas Eve, German fathers entertain the children while mothers decorate the tree. When the decorating is completed, and presents have been placed under the tree, she rings a bell to signal that the children may enter.

My husband and I, on the other hand, decorated on Dec. 1 to prepare for the visit of our daughter-in-law. People in neighboring apartments can see into our living room, and they have no doubt added “premature decorating” to the list of cultural blunders we have committed in the past two years.

German friends have invited us to dinner on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve meal is referred to as dickbauch (fat stomach). We have been advised that we must stuff ourselves.

The story is that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. We certainly would not want to tempt fate. Following dinner, assuming our fat stomachs will allow it, we will help trim their Christmas tree.

Most Germans follow the tradition of placing real wax candles on the tree. Yikes! Our friends assure us that the tree will be supervised at all times. Is a fire extinguisher a proper hostess gift?

We will be hosting Christmas dinner at our apartment. Thank goodness, the custom of serving boar’s head at the Christmas feast is no longer honored. Wild boars, according to one German authority, have become “difficult to find, and dangerous to catch.” And it takes a week of preparation to make the boar presentable.

Substitutions include roast suckling pig or goose. We believe in following German traditions when we can, so maybe I’ll ask my husband to load a suckling pig in his backpack and bring it home.

Or maybe I’ll go ask Weihnachstmann and Kneckt Rupert to bring us one. After all, they have a shopping cart.



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