Christmas Spirit Bavarian style

Germans love planning and preparation. No where is this more evident than during the festive season, when Germans seem to enjoy getting ready for Christmas more than celebrating the big day itself. Cute traditions swarm Bavaria at this time of year and are guaranteed to get even the biggest Scrooge into the Christmas spirit. Here are my top 5 Bavarian Christmassy thingies.

1. Biscuits galore – not Jaffa Cakes.

Bavarian biscuits home-made by my German in-laws

Bavarian biscuits home-made by my German in-laws

Bavarian housewives are baking crazy at the best of times. But in December they become total baking maniacs, who froth at the mouth while making the finest home-made biscuits you’ll ever set your tongues on. The beauties – often made with cinnamon and coconut – are baked from the very start of December, not just in the days before Christmas. Pay a visit to a Bavarian family home during this month and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon a biscuit factory. If you banked on pigging out on Christmas Day and watching your diet for the rest of the month, then well, you’re literally stuffed.  If you’re offered these exquisite delicacies, saying no is not an option. Doing so is considered ruder than pooing on the hallway rug. If you want to create the illusion of being the perfect Bavarian housewife when you’re not, then fear not, because the biscuits are sold at the Christmas markets for a very reasonable price.

2. The Advent candle wreath. Home-made of course and not from the Bavarian equivalent of Homebase.

Another popular tradition harking back to Bavaria’s religious roots is the Advent candle wreath. You won’t find many lights switched on in Bavarian homes in December as most will have one of these burning away  somewhere. The evergreen wreaths usually have four or five candles. One is lit each week from the start of Advent on November 30, with the final lit on Jesus’ birthday – Christmas Day.

3. The Christmas Markets. Bavaria at its best.

Christmas market food stall

Christmas market food stall

Pretty, atmospheric and ever so Christmassy, the stunning Christmas markets spring up in almost every village, town and city from the end of November. They’re a great place to stock up on gifts and/or line your stomachs with food and alcohol. It’s a good job the markets exist too. Shop opening hours in small-town Bavaria are hit and miss to say the least, thanks to the distinct lack of recession here. All shops except those at petrol stations close on Sundays. Then most shut early on a Saturday (even the Saturday just before Christmas, as I found out the hard way last year). Many also close on Wednesdays, and also for about two hours at lunchtimes on the days they finally do open. So if you live outside of Munich, work normal hours and fancy a lie-in on a Saturday, then you’re totally buggered for getting any shopping done.

Therefore the Christmas markets are more of a saviour than Christ himself. They tend to open late afternoons and even encourage the lazy shop-owners nearby to stay open for a bit longer. I love the way Bavarian shopping streets are so  traditional, diverse and individual, unlike the monotonous high streets overtaken by chains that blight England. If German high streets want to fight off online competition and avoid the same fate, then shops need to open more. Rant over.

4. St Nicholas. Like Santa but earlier and with an evil helper.

Nederlands: Sinterklaas tijdens het Het Feest ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

On December 6, German children wake and eagerly check the shoes they left outside their door the evening before. If they were good, they will contain small presents. But if they were bad, they’ll find a lump of twigs where their toes should go. St Nicholas, a bishop celebrated for his good deeds, is the man responsible for rewarding the well-behaved kids. But his evil helper, Knecht Ruprecht, punishes the naughty ones with the twigs. Apparently most children are extremely scared of Knecht, and I often wonder if any parents are mean enough to put twigs in their kids’ shoes instead of say, an iPhone 5 (Bavarians are pretty rich). Ironically, St Nicholas was born a Greek. If he really were real, I doubt he would be rewarding German children today in the current economic climate.

5. Mistletoe. Really does grow on trees.

So this isn’t really a Bavarian tradition as such, but Bavaria has changed the way I look at mistletoe forever. I grew up seeing mistletoe as a tiny branch we brought for £2 at Christmas time from the local garden centre. Never once did I contemplate how mistletoe looked in the wild. In Bavaria, once the leaves have completely fallen off the trees, you can see mistletoe growing in them all over the countryside. From a distance they look like large birds’ nests. In fact, mistletoe is a parasitic plant, which can kill host trees. Sometimes you’ll see 20 of these bunches in a single tree. Now I realise we were completely ripped off paying £2 for such a tiny amount of mistletoe back in the UK, when you can climb a tree in Bavaria and get a huge bunch for free! Christmas kisses really should be available to all.

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Go Small Town Bavaria for the Best Xmas Markets

Star Lanterns

Nuremberg and Cologne may boast Germany’s most popular Christmas markets, but for a more authentic experience head off the beaten track and you’ll be rewarded with some real gems.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas practically every Bavarian town and village hosts its own Christmas market. Historic castles, beer gardens, town squares, quaint high streets and church grounds all over the land are transformed into picturesque Christmas scenes. The markets are so prevalent that you could easily visit a few different ones each week throughout December without travelling more than 10 miles. They range in size from a few stalls set up over one weekend to those with a good 20 traders operating every day for a few weeks. Each one is different in its own way. But at every market you will certainly find locals huddled around sipping mugs of Glühwein (translates as ‘glow wine’, a German mulled wine) and feasting on waffles, crepes and Bratwurst sausages. In fact many Bavarians seem to go to the markets mainly to drink and eat rather than shop. The goods on offer can vary, which is why I find it’s better to visit a few of the smaller Christmas markets rather than relying on one for finding everything you need.

Steamy Gluhwein!

Steamy Gluhwein!

One of my favourites is in a town called Diessen on The Ammersee. Its one-weekend-only market is small, incredibly festive, and extremely cosy and cute. Stalls lit up by fires and fairy lights sell hand-crafted goods such as woolly hats, soaps, candles, and wooden decorations. A team of blacksmiths showcase their art under the eerie lights of the imposing baroque-style church. And shoppers sipping on mulled wine sing Christmassy songs around a campfire (in German of course – not quite the same, but still). It’s definitely one of the prettiest Christmas markets I’ve been to. Another personal favourite is in a historic town called Landsberg on Germany’s famous Romantic Road. The market – held throughout December – is set around a large square lit up by a Christmas tree in the middle. The wooden stalls spill out onto the cobbled high street, teamed with its high and narrow, colourful buildings. Too pretty for words – especially when covered in snow.

Traditional Christmas market food stall

Traditional Christmas market food stall

When I lived in England, I relied mainly on the big high street names for my Christmas shopping. The Christmas markets in Bavaria have taught me a valuable lesson. Even though they’re all different, they all support small, independent craftsman and businesses selling unique, quality goods. Real people creating real things. I know who I’d rather see my hard-earned pennies go to at Christmas- or at any time of the year! Just be sure to visit one the markets at dusk. When they’re all lit up in the dark it really adds to the atmosphere.

Landsberg Xmas Market

Landsberg Xmas Market

Servus! How to Say Hello in Bavaria

When I first moved to Bavaria, I thought who is this Christie, and why does she keep phoning my boyfriend? I soon learned that when Markus was answering phonecalls he wasn’t saying ‘Hallo Christie!’ but ‘Hallo Grüß dich!’ a common Bavarian greeting which means ‘greet you.’ Bavaria is one of those lovely places you see in adverts where people shop with woven baskets, cows really do eat grass in fields backed by snow-capped mountains, and strangers still say hello to one another in the street. Even teenagers. And when you walk into cafes people will look up from their coffees and welcome you.  Having lived in London for ten years – where you’re more likely to be stabbed for your chips than greeted – such friendliness is a strange but welcome revelation.  And aren’t Germans famously cold? Obviously not! As well as Grüß dich, Bavarians  also say Grüß Gott (greetings from God or God bless you), Servus, which can also be used for goodbye, the German hello, hallo, and less commonly, hi. So how do you choose the greeting that’s right for you and the situation? See my guide below.

Grüß Gott:  The favourite of catholic housewives aged 40 and above, of which there are many in Bavaria. Very formal. Use it when greeting people you don’t know, or ones that you are meeting for the first time, such as your new landlord or boss. Laughed at by northern Germans, who don’t seem to like Bavarians very much. That feeling is mutual.

Grüß dich: Slightly less formal. Favoured by older people or used by the younger generation as a joke. My neighbour says it to me a lot.

Servus: Say it to friends – or to someone you don’t know at your own peril. Informal.

Hallo: This is the German way of saying hello. Therefore, it is not strictly Bavarian. Bavarians don’t really do German. If you really want to be one of the locals, then see above. Avoid Guten Tag (good day) in Bavaria for this reason too.

Hi: Possibly the quickest way to offend a Bavarian, unless they’ve said it to you first. Says ‘I’m proud not to be one of you, I’m far too cool and down with the kids’. Or an actual kid. Besides foreigners, the only person I’ve heard saying it here is our 12-year-old neighbour.

To confuse matters further – in good old German fashion – you can also use a combination of these greetings. Popular ones include ‘hallo Servus’ or ‘hallo Grüß dich.’ Good luck!