Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, complained in her short story “The First New England Christmas” that Christmas was losing its meaning. She wrote, “Oh dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.”
So the commercialization of Christmas began in the mid-19th century, not on the first Black Friday. Stowe’s era was really when capitalism took off.
Stowe described the town with “Every shop and store glittering with all manner of splendors . . . for people that have more than they know what to do with now; to add pictures, books, and gilding when the centre tables are loaded with them now, and rings and jewels when they are a perfect drug.”
One imagines that she was not too keen on the newfangled tinsel her town had on display. She pined for Christmas pines, fires to warm, simple food and conversation, and not the newer variety of hustle and bustle she wrote about.
What was an old Christmas? There was wood, pine wood, lots of it, to be whittled, shaved, and carved, and when finished it was a testament to organic longevity. It had to have fragrance, and be sticky, even gummy. And it had to pop, sizzle, whiz, and whistle, when the fir logs were thrown onto a hot burning fire.
Wood is one of the few substances which we can enjoy with all of our senses, and in Bavaria, Christmas still begins with wood. The burning of wood is so human, so primitive, so alive, even some Floridians I know have fireplaces! However, try as they and I did, the burning of palm fronds on Christmas never transported me.
Christmas had to have snow, with chimneys poking through their rooves’ powdery blankets, with wisps of grayish smoke meandering upwards, dispersing slowly into clear starry skies. If you have the opportunity to visit a Christmas Market in Bavaria when it is snowing do not hesitate.
Take extra clothing and linger awhile. It will not be exactly as it was, damned cars, selfie sticks, and Australian tourists, but it can get a little closer. Snow is difficult to predict and impossible to order with any regularity, so it is like a Bruce Springsteen encore if you get some on your visit.
Though the locals also complain about the encroaching modernity, globalization, and commercialization of Christmas, much as Ms. Stowe did (Bavarians and Germans can be world-class complainers, though they tend to wait until after the proceedings to get in their digs), most Bavarians end up at one Christmas Market or another in search of a feeling of the way Christmas used to be.
They also search for a last minute gift for the misses or long forgotten nephew, and a cup of over-priced Glühwein (mulled wine). If you have ever been to Oktoberfest, you quickly discover that traditional alcoholic drinks at local festivals in Munich can transport you to the poor house if you imbibe too many drinks at too many of them.
If you visit Marienplatz during the Christmas Market, because you do not have a chance to go to a Christmas Market in the “outback”, there are still some things which can make your visit more authentic.
If you can go to a Christmas Market in the pampas, go! If you cannot, and only have Munich, you should still look at the wood, the wreaths of fresh pine, and see how the oven which bakes your Flammkuchen (an Alsatian specialty), is heated by wood. It is a basic sour dough rolled moderately thin, topped with crème fraiche, ham, and onions, and then baked at a very high heat.
I guarantee you will burn the roof of your mouth not once, not twice, but thrice, as you are powerless to resist these simple “pizzas”, oozing and dripping with deliciousness! While you are burning your mouth, look at the wood, listen to the wood, and stand on the wood.
In the Rindermarkt area or at Isartor, there are places to get a Feuerzangenbowle, or “fire tongs bowl”. It is a rum soaked sugarloaf which is lit on fire (a fire!), the hot drops of sugar and alcohol warming a cup of mulled wine. The Rindermarkt has open cauldron fires, which offer a chance to smell, see and listen to burning wood, and to transport yourself back to the days when wood and witches were the only thing mankind burned.
If you want to see some really crazy Bavarian/German culture go to Isartor. The concoction is almost as good, and you can watch a famous scene in a continuous loop from a movie with the same name. (Germans have a weakness for these types of traditions, which we will explain later in another story about the weird cult classic found in Germany titled Dinner for One.)
Skip the sausages and roasted chestnuts. The first one is a dime a dozen and the other tastes like unsalted or unseasoned potatoes. Candied nuts of different types are much closer to the old way. We suggest fresh waffles on a stick, or even crepes. Great old style of food, the way it used to be. On second thought, sausages can never be too bad in Bavaria.