Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Traditions - Weihnachtsteller - Christmas Plate

The Christmas Plate - As a kid it was impossible not to love this. How could you not... Each plate had a fun festive design (snowmen, santa, Christmas scene) on it which was made of cardboard, aluminum or ceramic and it could be a nice keepsake afterwards as well.

Of course the plate was of little consideration by the kids since it was usually burried under the treats which usually consisted of the obligatory Christmas Santa but also had...
  1. A Niederegger marzipan loaf
  2. Christmas cookies - a wide assortment of shapes and styles - star, round, christmas tree shaped shortbread, Pfeffernüsse, marzipan, lebkuchen and the list goes on
  3. Dominoes - a cube with 3 layers (gingerbread, Jam and Marzipan) covered in chocolate
  4. Jellies in the shape of circles and stars
  5. Marzipan pig (it represented good luck)
  6. Gold chocolate coins
  7. Marzipan balls
  8. These cool little chocolates in the shape of christmas packages wrapped
But as my dad said along with the treats you had to get healthy things as well
  1. Walnuts & Hazelnuts
  2. An Apple
  3. Clementines
My dad  had so much fun putting these together for each of the kids on Christmas Eve. As you can see from the list you can really go overboard

And no, this wasn't something I got, but you have to give the guy who put this together credit. Like all Christmas traditions these days it seems quite commercial, it was for the kids and could be quite simple and made completely with home made cookies and treats.
The hardest thing about this tradition was that they'd give us these before our Christmas Eve dinner and we couldn't eat anything from the plate until after we finished our meal. But boy did the "goodies" taste good after having to wait.

Christmas Traditions - Christmas Pyramid

The Christmas Pyramid was one of the other things that never really caught on in North America as much as it did in Germany. Although there are some parts of the U.S. where they are quite popular. A neat little bit of science that added another dimension to the Christmas decorations in the house. If anyone remembers Christmas Vacation, this is what kept being knocked over and Clark kept trying to rebuild. Unfortunately I couldn't find a picture of it. But I had to get a shot of Eddie in here.

They say it was the predecessor to the Christmas tree. A kind of Carousel with 4 - 8 sides and anywhere from one to six or more tiers it has a propellor at the top. Each tier has a specific type of scene portrayed usually involving Christian motifs.

The neat thing is that they have candles at the bottom and the heat from them turns the blades of the fan at the top. This then moves all the levels of the carousel. A really cool bit of technology.

In some of the Christmas Markets they build them to over 45 feet. These Weihnachtspyramide are from Dresden and Aachen

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Traditions - Stollen & Fruit Cake

The fruitcake... The brunt of endless jokes at Christmas time. Some say it's heavy, not sweet and that there is only one in existance, circling the earth, being regifted from one person to the next. As I am not a fan of this Christmas cake I would tend to agree with the above statements. I am however a fan of it's sister... The German Stollen.

Dating back to the early 1400's the first Stollen was made in Dresden. During the time of Advent, Catholics were not allowed to use butter and milk in their baking so it was rather tasteless and heavy. Forty-years, several petitions and 6 popes later the bakers Guild of Dresden was given permission to use butter and milk in their Stollen but only for the Prince-Elector his family and household. Others could do so but would have to pay a fine which would go to building of a Minster (Church) in another city (Freiburg - quite a distance away)

It is now baked throughout Germany and the world and goes by many different names in German: Stollen, Dresden Stollen, Strutzel, Striezel, Stutenbrot, or Christstollen. The traditional German Christmas cake, is a colorful collection of nuts, raisins, currants, candied orange and lemon peel, traditional spices of Christmas such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, mace or cloves, brandy or rum and lots of butter. Personally, it has to have Marzipan in it as well. It's that little extra sweetness that does it for me

However,  just like "bubbly" can only be called "Champagne" if made in Champagne, only in Dresden can you get the official Dresden Stollen. Only 150 bakers make this "brand" which carries an official seal.

The shape of the cake was originally meant to represent the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes but now it can carry many different shapes and sizes. Although not as dense as fruitcake they have made one weighing over 4200 pounds

This was made in the city of Dresden for, get this, "Stollenfest". A festival for cake...
I am so there.

Christmas Traditions - Gingerbread House

Ah, gingerbread houses. Where would they be without Hanzel and Gretel?

Gingerbread was brought to Europe about 1000 years ago and was baked for religious ceremonies. Since Germany was the centre of the spice trade, ginger was in abundance. Due to this abundance the bakers were very creative baking gingerbread using molds of animals, fish, and bible scenes wieghing over 100 pounds.

Although no one knows when the first gingerbread house was made, odds are Nuremberg and it's Christmas Markets dating back to 1614 were probably where it was sold to the general public. In fact there was a Guild of master bakers called the Lebkuchlers that had exclusive rights to baking gingerbread in that city.

It probably wasn't until the brothers Grimm brought the tale of Hanzel and Gretel to the general populace of Europe and North America in the 1800's that the houses really caught on (went viral so to speak).

Now you can get completely insane creations

Our family cheated a bit with our gingerbread houses. My dad actually made ours out of cardboard. Decorated it with all the goodies... Marshmallows, gumdrops, icing etc... And then applied a very liberal layer of a shellac or something like that. At the end of the Christmas season we'd pack it away and pull it out the next year. I think one house lasted us on average 5 years or so, looked pretty good and it was as solid as a rock. Even the marshmallows.

Christmas Traditions - Weihnachtsmärkte

Liepzig Market

Something that I haven't yet experienced are the Christmas Markets in Germany. From my understanding, they pop up in nearly every city and town in Germany at the beginning of the Advent season in the town squares. Lights, music and the traditional food in the area are served up. Oh... and did I mention the drinks. Beer, this is Germany we're talking about after all, but also apple cider and a wonderful hot mulled wine called Glühwein.

Lübeck Market

They date back to the 14th century and you can buy baked goods, decorations, candles, toys and everything else Christmas related and yes, just like American malls, it gets incredibly busy.

Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt

The Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt is one of the older ones and has been going for almost 400 years.
As much as I don't like crowds this must be an amazing enviornment to be in.

Christmas Traditions - St. Nikolaus's Boot

Although North America has adopted a lot of European Christmas traditions (Christmas tree, Advent Calendar etc...) one that didn't catch on was St. Nikolaus's boot. This is a tradition that lots of European countries have (in the Netherlands I think they use clogs).

On the evening of December 5th, St. Nikolaus came to your house and put something in your boot. If you were good it was a small treat. If you were bad it was a lump of coal or a switch to punish the kids. Yikes. I always got a treat :) .

My parents took it a step further... They had St. Nikolaus come every day between the 6th and the 23rd. I think it was their attempt to keep me in line for the weeks leading up to Christmas. But if I was bad, very seldom I might add, they wouldn't put anything in the boot. I'm glad they didn't go the switch route.

Sometimes my enthusiasm to see what St. Nikolaus got the better of me. To this day I remember the night when I was around 4 years old and I didn't go to sleep right away. I heard something at the door and when the coast was clear I peeked out. When I checked, there was something in the boot. My parents weren't too pleased about the initiative I showed. I didn't sneak a peek after that incident.

This was a really fun tradition and I still have the boot (above) that I used, more than 35 years ago, that my 4 year old uses today.

Christmas Traditions - Advent Wreath

An Advent Wreath with candles was another sign that the Christmas season was here. It would be placed out on our living room table 4 Sundays before Christmas. We would light the first one on that Sunday night, two the next Sunday, three the next and all four on the Sunday before Christmas. On Christmas eve we would light all four and place a big candle in the centre and light that one too.

I loved the smell of those candles. The TV went off, Christmas music came on and we just relaxed and enjoyed the time together. The candles had such a warm glow and created such a cozy atmosphere.

This is a wonderful tradition that I'm carrying forward with my family.

The Advent wreath has some very powerful symbolism which was something I didn't realize growing up. The 4 candles can represent many things. Literally, it represents the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas. Metaphorically, each candle can also represent 1000 years of the 4000 years that passed between the time Adam and Eve and the birth of Christ.

The candles also remind us to remember those that we love and are with us today and those that have passed on. The candles also have a more formal reminder...
The first candle recalls the Patriarchs; the second recalls the Prophets; the third recalls St. John the Baptist and the final candle recalls Our Lady. The progressive lighting of the candles also symbolizes the growing expectation and hope of Christ coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming.

We usually used red candles but the symbolism can be carried further by using 3 vilot and one rose coloured one (used on the 3rd week). This represents the colours used by the priests during the mass for that week. Cool.

The circular wreath itself represents eternity and the greenery is symbolizes hope and renewal.

It's such a small thing but it is such a powerful reminder of why we celebrate the Christmas season.

Christmas Traditions - Advent Calendar

I loved advent calendars. They were the first signs that Christmas was getting close. Aside from the Christmas decorations going up in the stores right after Halloween.

For some reason, the ones with the glitter made it a little more special. They all have 24 windows/doors and the first few that were given to had a cute picture of a toy or Christmas theme when you opened the door. I didn't get ones that had chocolate behind each door until I was older. I think I prefer the ones with the pictures now, although I've actually order one with Marzipan treats inside from my hometown in Lübeck, Germany. Although, It had a market scene like the calendar above.

Now everyone seems to make one. Lindt, Nestle; Even playmobile and Lego have them now. The marketing machine at full power.

I bought one for my eldest (4 years old) and it helps her learn the days and, best of all, keeps her from asking every day if it's Christmas yet.

One of the nicest things about the calendar scenes is that you could emmerse yourself in the scene and image what a wonderful time everyone is having there.