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Oh du fröhliche

Text by: Kerstin Engelhart

Dear Polite Society Magazine reader,

Frohe Weihnachten! (Or Merry Christmas!)

It would be my pleasure to invite you into my home this December night to join my family and me as we celebrate with a few German Christmas traditions. It is the first Advent of the Advent period. (The Advent Period is the time of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ; the first Advent is the first Sunday during this period.) On our table in the living room is our Adventskranz (Advent wreath). It is a wreath made of fir branches, decorated with Christmas ornaments and, most importantly, four candles. The first one is already lit. Then on each Advent Sunday, we light another candle. When all the candles have been lit, it will be Christmas.

© Felicity Photography

As you walk through my house, you will see an Adventskalender (Advent calendar) for each of the children. This is a traditional Christmas calendar that begins on December 1st and ends on December 24th. Each morning the child will open a small door or opening, where a small chocolate or candy treat is found, or even a small toy. You can buy them in many different styles, but this year I opted to make one for myself. I crafted 24 gold stars and hid a few small toys and chocolate inside.

As the night progresses, we sit around the fire as we sip on Glühwein (a hot wine with spices), or the alcohol-free version, Kinderpunsch (a hot fruit punch), and you ask what other traditions my family will celebrate throughout the month.

On December 4th, it is Barbaratag, the day of Saint Barbara. As it is with many Catholic saints, Saint Barbara was persecuted for being a Christian, and as she was being brought to jail, she caught a branch with her dress and placed it in a vessel with water. The day she died, the branch was in full bloom. We remember her by cutting a few branches from a fruit tree and putting into vessels with water, hoping they will be in full bloom on Christmas day.

© Felicity Photography

Two days later on December 6th, we remember the next important Saint of this season, Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas, a bishop who had been very generous with his own fortune. This tradition is carried on as it is believed that he still carries on his generosity by visiting and bringing treats to all the children this night. On the eve of December 6th, each child puts one shoe in front of the door. In the morning, they find the shoe stuffed with nuts, mandarins, and chocolate coins. A miniature Nikolaus made out of chocolate can't be absent, of course! Very often, Nikolaus even makes a personal visit to a church or to a family's home (depending on what the parents have arranged). And sometimes he is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht who comes to punish the naughty children by leaving a birch in the shoe.

Later in the month, it is the perfect time for Christmas baking. My children and I will set aside an afternoon to make Plätzchen (Christmas cookies). The house smells of nuts, vanilla, coconut, almonds, cinamon, cardamon, oranges, and cloves — the essence of Christmas. We make several different kinds: Ausstecherle, a shortbread cookie, which the children can cut into different shapes, such as bells, hearts, angels, reindeers, and decorate however they choose; Vanillekipferl, half-moons that taste very much like vanilla; Kokosmakronen, coconut flavoured macaroons and of course, Lebkuchen (gingerbread). Later in the evening, we'll indulge in eating our homemade Christmas cookies, but most of them we have already put away in boxes to eat a little every day until Christmas Day.

© Felicity Photography

We will need to go Christmas shopping so it will be tradition to visit one of the many Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets). During a Weihnachtsmarkt, the town's marketplace is crowded with little huts decorated for Christmas where you can buy handmade gifts, ornaments, cookies, candles, mistletoe, and even gifts not specific to Christmas but welcome nonetheless. At some Christmas markets, there may even be an ice skating rink or a little petting zoo with animals such as sheep and donkeys, those that were present at Jesus's birth.

There is always a crowd of people because a Christmas market isn't just a market to buy gifts. It's a social place to meet friends (and strangers) to enjoy something to eat. You will always find a selection of hot dishes like Bratwurst (sausages), Langosch (deep-fried pita bread with dips), Schupfnudeln (thick noodles made out of potatoes served with sauerkraut), and sweets, such chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick, sugar-coated nuts, and baked apples. And don't worry about the cold — remember the Glühwein and Kinderpunsch? They're the traditional Christmas market drink, most often served in a collectible Christmas market mug that changes each year. And make sure to stay until the sun goes down. A Christmas market is especially pretty when it gets later. The different huts are decorated with all sorts of lights, Christmas stars, and candles, and sometimes you can see the stars in the sky, which lighten the dark of night.

© Felicity Photography

For some who need a change from the busyness of Advent, they stay home to a quiet evening. For us, we like to sit amongst family and friends, having lit the candles of a Weihnachtsmühle (a wooden pyramid with different figurines standing on each ledge, topped with rotating windmill-like blades powered by candle flames below), and singing Weihnachtslieder (Christmas carols). Some of the most traditional German carols that everyone knows are: "Alle Jahre wieder" ("Every year again"), "O Tannenbaum" ("O, Christmas Tree"), and "Ihr Kinderlein kommet" ("Oh, Come, Little Children"). But, of course, even my five-year old knows the chorus to "Jingle Bells," so it is sung as well.

By the end of the Advent, when it is close to Christmas, the fourth candle of our Adventskranz has finally been lit, the branch of the fruit tree is in bloom, Christmas gifts are bought or crafted, and Christmas has arrived.

In Germany, Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) is almost the most important day. In the morning of Christmas Eve, we set up our Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) and the whole family decorates it with ornaments, both purchased and handmade: wooden and glass figurines, gold and red orbs, straw stars, tinsel, and candles. Among the ornaments, there is a Christmas pickle made from glass, which is said to be an old German tradition. One pickle is hung in the tree, and the first one to find it receives an extra gift. (The funny thing is that no German has ever heard of the tradition. My husband once bought a Christmas pickle at a Christmas market, which had the explanation in English attached. We decided to make it an actual German tradition for the fun of it — at least in our family). And underneath the Christmas tree, you can see our Krippe (nativity set).

The whole day passes while the children anxiously wait for the evening to arrive. To pass the time, we go to church and attend a Krippenspiel (nativity play) performed by children for children.

When we come home, it is time for dinner. The type of food depends mostly on the preferences of the family. Some like to have fancy dinners, serving a Christmas goose or Christmas carp, while others prefer to have a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of potato salad and sausages.

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography

After dinner, the children can hardly contain their excitement, and they are sent to their rooms where they must wait: The Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) or the Christkind (a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings,) (again depending on the family) brings the gifts. The children know when the Weihnachtsmann/Christkind have come to bring the gifts. His departure is announced by the rings of a small bell. They hurry back into the living room and see the Christmas tree with glowing candles and all the presents spread underneath. We then sing a few Christmas songs, unwrap all the presents, and the rest of the evening is spent playing with our new toys and talking.

Later that evening, it is time for us to go to Church again (and this isn't traditionally German, but traditionally German Catholic). We walk there on foot through the snow and attend the very festive Christmette (Christmas Mass) to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. During the church service, I begin to think of the next two Christmas days, which will be packed with family and friends, food and gifts, merriment and play. Towards the end of the service, the lights are switched out and I feel inner peace and contentment while I'm singing with the congregation "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" ("Silent Night").

Vanillekipferl

2 c. flour
¾ c. powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
2-3 packets vanilla sugar
1 pinch of salt
7/8 c. shelled and ground almonds
2/3 c. butter
cinnamon

Directions:

Mix and knead flour with butter, egg yolks, powdered sugar, 1 pack of vanilla sugar, and almonds, then refrigerate for about half an hour. Form small crescents (mini-croissants) out of dough and bake on a greased cookie sheet at 400°F for about ten minutes. While still hot, sprinkle with mixture of vanilla sugar and cinnamon.

Zimtsterne

3 egg whites
2 ¼ c. powdered sugar
1 ¼ c. ground almonds
1 t. cinnamon

Directions:

Beat egg whites with powdered sugar. Set some aside for icing. Mix the rest with almonds and cinnamon into dough. Roll out dough, but not too thinly. Cut out stars, and cover with glaze. Roll out remaining dough again, and cut out stars, etc. Bake eight minutes at 320° F.

Kokosmakronen

4 egg whites
1 pinch of salt
2/3 c. sugar
1 pack vanilla sugar
¼ c. curd
2-2/3 c. coconut flakes

Directions:

Beat egg whites with salt and sugar. Mix in curd and coconut flakes. Put small heaps on a greased tin, and bake at 300 — 350°F for 15 - 20 minutes. Macaroons should still be light, not dark.

Nürnberger Lebkuchen

1/2 c. softened butter
1 c. sugar
4 eggs
3 c. white flour
1 T. Lebkuchen spices (see note)
2 T. cocoa powder
1-1/2 tsp. double acting baking powder
1 c. milk
1-3/4 c. ground almonds
1/2 c. candied lemon peel, chopped
1 T. orange liqueur

***Glaze***
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. water
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 - 2 T. orange liqueur
1/2 c. powdered sugar

Preparation:

Cream butter, sugar and eggs until light and fluffy. Mix in flour, spices, cocoa powder and baking powder, alternating with milk. Fold in nuts and lemon peel. Stir in liqueur.

Draw 3-inch diameter circles on parchment paper using a cup or biscuit cutter as a template.

Drop about 3 tablespoons cookie dough into the center of each circle. When the tray is full, use the back of the spoon to fill out circle, slightly mounding the dough towards the center.

Bake at 375°F for 15-20 minutes. Turn down oven to 350°F if cookies are browning too much.

Let cool for a few minutes, then remove to a cookie or cake rack to cool.

While they are still warm, make the glaze.

Place 1/2 c. sugar and 1/4 c. water in a small saucepan on the stove. Bring to a boil and boil for a few minutes. Add vanilla and liqueur. Sift powdered sugar over hot sugar syrup and stir.

Using a pastry brush, brush warm glaze over warm cookies. Let dry completely.

Dry glazed cookies for a day (to dry the glaze so it stays a bit crunchy) then store in an airtight container or freeze.

Note about "Lebkuchen spices". If you do not buy premixed "Lebkuchen Gewürz" from a German store, you may mix your own.

2 T. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground anise seed
Use 1 to 2 tablespoons per recipe.