Friday, 28 December 2012

15: Santa's mail and Lumumba at the Xmas market

The Germans, like everyone, love celebrating Christmas. Their neighbours, the Dutch, dress-up as minstrels and drive around on tractors throwing odd-shaped sweets and vegetables at black people under the guise of Zwarte Piet. The Germans also adapt their rituals and routines to celebrate Jesus. 

Christmas markets are where Germans do their Christmas or Weihnacht activity.  These fairy light-illuminated German bivouacs, a sort of Gaddafi commercial gathering in Central Europe, squat the city centres of most German urban developments throughout the month of December.

Every sausage and mulled wine seller in the land comes to bear his finest and while the markets tend to sell handicrafts and arts too, they are basically a colourful excuse for a piss-up with pork. 

The largest of these in Germany is in Nuremberg and comes with its own adjacent children's market. Once you wade your way through the prams and the merry-go-round, you'll find the main stands in the square under the Cathedral.  

Like most other Christmas markets, Nuremberg's is designed to get you drunk without you having to declare this was your intention. It's a place for uncles, mothers, sisters and lovers to escape the sheer pressure of high street gift shopping and down a few Glühweinen while pretending to shop for snow-flaked plastic ornaments.

The further into the market you walk, the more drunk people are and the more medieval the whole experience becomes. The fairy lights come into their own after a couple of Glühweinen and if you're feeling courageous, you might want to move on to the Lumumba. This isn't an invite to join the Belgian secret service and assassinate a Sub-Saharan African president but a hot chocolate laced with a shot of rum and cherry syrup. The namesake, one can only presume, derives from the poisonous potential that the drink carries in sugar and calories.

You should be tipsy soon enough though, either on alcohol or sugar, and you may soon be ready for zwetschgenmännle, or prune men: a tribe of well-groomed metrosexual dolls made of prune and nuts. The prune men come in all trades and are an excellent present for people you'll be spending Christmas with and have never met but whose trade you are aware of. "Hi, I got you this engineer made of prunes and nuts. Merry Xmas"  

The prunemen.
The prune man
To really get the best out of the Christmas markets, you'll want to circle the square several times to make sure you consume enough alcohol. You'll want to eat a sausage at every 90-degree corner and play the lottery at the Red Cross every time you complete a 360 round.

Retire through a side alley when you no longer have any idea why you are there.

Of course, there is more to Christmas in Germany than the markets. For example, children might want to write letters to Santa at one of his eight official Bundesland addresses. In eight different towns that begin with the prefix Himmel - heaven - official Christmas Post Offices receive thousands of letters each year from children across Germany. A team of volunteer Santa little helpers reads (allegedly) through the tons of ink on paper screaming out for Playstations and iPhones and writes suitable replies.

So if your child is confused about Santa and you're not sure whether to break the news, get them to write to Himmelsfort, Himmelsberg or any other such heavenly address.

The practice is not, I soon discover, uniquely German. Several places have used their name or GPS location to cash-in on the Santa myth. The US city of Santa Claus has branded itself well for the task; the French have gone digital with their myths and simply ask you to send Santa an email. Purists will insist their children write to Santa Claus' Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, in the Arctic Circle.

If you yourself been harbouring a secret fantasy to dress-up as Santa for years and would like to share it while running pissed with hundreds of people, then one of the many Santa marathons might be your ticket. These Santa dashes are held in Mid-December across the country, often organised by local running clubs, such as this one just outside Berlin. The principle works similarly to the Christmas market: it's an excuse to get marrow-munchingly drunk on Glühwein in a Santa suit. Prost!  

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