Christmas is very Christmassy in the land where they invented it

by Cathrin Schaer / 25 December, 2017

Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz on December 17, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Photo/Getty Images

Nobody does Christmas better than the Germans. By the beginning of December, Christmas lights are twinkling on every street corner, wreaths, candles and pine trees are on sale all over the city, and the legendary Christmas markets, with Ferris-wheel rides and gingerbread hearts, are just kicking off. If it snows, as it usually does at least once before Christmas, Berlin feels especially charmed.

It’s not just your correspondent who thinks Germans make a better job of what they call Weihnachten.

“Many people, indeed, maintain that no other Christmas can compare with the German Weihnachten,” the British folklorist Clement A Miles wrote in his 1912 book, Christmas Customs and Traditions.

“Christmas without Germany! For me the one state is unthinkable without the other,” Australian-British-American journalist Ida Alexa Ross Wylie wrote in her tome, The Germans. “There is no country in the world where Christmas is so intensely Christmassy.” Nowhere else did Christmas find “so pure an expression”.

But why are the Germans so good at this stuff? Do they enjoy predictable Christmas rituals in the same way as they like rules and regulations? Or is it because, as Wylie suggests, Germans are “simple, warm-hearted and unpretentious”?

I’m not sure about that, but when I asked friends and colleagues, almost all – with the exception of one Polish accountant – agreed that a German Christmas is the best Christmas. When I asked why, it became clear that it has much to do with local conditions: when the temperature is below zero and it gets dark at 4pm, the only way to stave off seasonal affective disorder is to stare long and hard at the pretty decorations and drink a few gallons of hot, spiced wine.

“The other thing,” an Italian living in Berlin explains, “is that it’s everywhere: you cannot escape Christmas in Germany.”

Delve even deeper into the German talent for Christmassery and you’ll find a lot of the things we typically associate with the season actually originated here. They pretty much invented the contemporary Christmas, which is an odd mixture of the pagan, consumerism and Christianity.

For example, the first mention of a Christmas tree was in 1605 in the German (now French) city of Strasbourg. Folks in a small German village invented the first glass Christmas-tree decorations. Some of the most popular carols, O Christmas Tree and Silent Night among them, were originally in German and the lyrical form owes much to German religious poetry of the 16th century.

Cultural analysts will tell you that the modern vision of Santa Claus, as a chubby bearded guy, was first popularised by German-American illustrator Thomas Nast around 1863. Having emigrated to the US at the age of six, Nast apparently based Santa’s sartorial style on childhood memories of Saint Nicholas in his flowing robes, and the woolly, bearded god Odin, known as Wodan in Germany, who, legend had it, regularly led a wild hunt through the snow during the pagan festival of Yule.

So, it turns out we’ve all been caught in some kind of über-enchanting feedback loop. Germans believe their Christmas is best because, in cultural terms, many of its basic elements are the foundation of a Yuletide fairy tale we’ve been buying into for years.

Does that make a German Christmas better than a New Zealand one? I’m not sure. But it’s definitely food for thought as we expatriate New Zealanders, half-jealous, half-enchanted by our own snowy streets, watch you guys from a world away, firing up the barbecues and chilling the sauvignon blanc.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the December 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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