Spending Christmas in Germany was like living out a modern-day European version of a Norman Rockwell illustration! The whole experience kind of reminded me of a movie... a foreign movie, largely without subtitles. It's interesting to be the foreign observer in these kind of ritualistic times because you get to see a lot of things that you normally would not. I guess the only problem is that, by not speaking the language, I certainly missed a lot. I like to play this game where I'm actually imagining what they are talking about; ad-libbing inside my own head.
So, back to the story! We packed the car full of presents, tons of food and wine, with the dog situated nicely on top, and headed out of Milan in the middle of the night for a 9-hour drive to the town of Gummersbach, near Cologne.
In Germany, it's customary to celebrate Christmas on the 24th, so we were trying to get there by late morning. Of course, when we came out of the first Alpine tunnel heading north, there were suddenly fat snowflakes falling, which slowed us down a bit. It was a complete shift in the weather from the south-end of the tunnel, where we had been not 3 minutes earlier.
In spite of the weather, we made our destination by about 10 a.m. and then quickly headed out to the local fish farm. This place is located in a nearby valley, down a snowy one-lane street lined with kids on sleds.
Apparently, a native family has owned this place for generations, but now that extensive supermarket chains are moving into the area and the people who know how to clean and prepare local fish are fading in numbers, their customer base is dwindling. I hope the Slow Food movement makes it up there soon enough to save this place. Nevertheless, it was packed on Christmas Eve. I guess fish is pretty popular!
The afternoon was spent tracking down a Christmas tree (we got the last one in town), having kaffee und kuchen (that's coffee and cake... with creme, butter, sugar, and more butter). Then we put the tree up, which consisted of hacking the trunk apart, stuffing it into a big blue vase, and arranging firewood around the base so the tree wouldn't lean...
This is a much more labor-intensive approach that your typical American "shove it in the Christmas tree stand and go" approach, but also much prettier.
The finishing touch on the tree was a little surprising... it was not a star on top, it was not tinsel around the branches. It was actual candles. When I saw these being put up, I thought, "Huh. Kind of weird to put up candle sticks when you can't light them." Wrong. They were lit. With matches. With each one, I actually grew more nervous - probably a lingering side-effect from growing up with a very worried grandmother. The visual effect was lovely, but the psychological effect was not. Now I was thinking, "Where is the fire extinguisher?"
After dinner, we went to see a Christmas mass in a little chapel from the 1600s. Christmas carols in German- that is a new experience for the ears!
On Christmas, we went to another house for what amounted to an amazing 5 hour dinner (mostly in German, but I'm sure the conversation was interesting!) complete with rounds of sekt, white wine, then red wine, and then liquor followed by a cocktail. Whew! Of course, there was another candlelit tree right next to the table, which kept me slightly sober. The most surprising part of the night (for me) was when the flute came out. Seriously, they played the flute and sang together around the dinner table in between courses! (I'm telling you- Rockwell!)
In the next days, we were lucky to get some sunshine, and so we headed out to take part in a local tradition that apparently occurs whenever the sun shines in the winter, which is not often. We went for a walk in the forest. It was incredible, with the late afternoon light and the crisp air. 3 miles later, we headed back indoors to atone for the mild workout and had another round of kaffee und kuchen.
Our last night there, we had another big dinner which was probably the most unusual of all. It consisted of smoked salmon covered with mounds of broccoli and cauliflower, another layer of salmon, a layer of fish pate, and then rows of sliced potatoes on top. Whatever it was, it tasted good!