Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss

I gently giggled when the woman in front of me proudly announced to the German border police: “I’m here with my son to see the Christmas markets.” Doesn’t she know that Germans aren’t so forward or friendly?

“Oh, really,” he smiled. “Do you not have the same markets and shopping in the US?”

“No, we don’t,” she responded. “We’ve been planning this trip for five years.”

While Mom told me that mothers have eyes in the back of their head, it was this mother’s smile that I could see from behind.

The elderly couple in front of me shuffled their feet toward the counter next.

“Das ist meine Frau, und wir sind hier für die Weinachtsmarktes.” (This is my wife, and we’re here for the Christmas markets.) They continued the conversation, split between the husband’s German and his wife’s broken English.

With my turn to show my passport, I wondered if I needed to announce to the border agent that I was merely returning to work after spending Thanksgiving in the States and I was not entering Germany for the Christmas markets like everyone else (apparently). This pattern gave me pause: maybe I shouldn’t take for granted the multitude of Christmas celebrations while I live in Germany. I generally feel that outside of work I live a cozy life with minimal rush to explore the quintessential cultural and touristic sites, and I like the fact that foreign discoveries fold into my day-to-day rather than separated as distinct experiences.

While it’s not the best known in Germany by any measure – I’m looking at you, Nürnberg – Berlin hosts dozens of Christmas markets. Some last the duration of advent, others only weekends, and still others pop up just for one weekend. Many of the markets in the center of town – Alexanderplatz has two – host a kitschy flavor of Christmas with vendors that repeat a similar mix of Christmas decoration, alternating with stalls selling glühwein, savory bites including sausages, and sweet treats like Lebkuchen (a gingerbread-esque cookie). Some specialty markets focus on local artisans and designers, and these events are more sensible places to shop for legitimate Christmas gifts. And then you have your one-of-a-kind markets that cultivate a special nostalgia for Christmases past.

Enter: Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss, the “Christmasmarket in the hunting palace”

While glühwein warms the heart regardless of quality, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the actual market – the things to buy. Knowing full well that the best way to experience the Christmas markets is to make plans with friends, one colleague mentioned a market in the forest that would only take place this weekend. Weiwei and I browsed a few markets together last year, so I suggested that for this year’s date we should be atypical and leave the city center.

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Grunewald is the “green forest” (literal translation) in the lakes region bordering Berlin’s west side (not West Berlin ;). When the weather is warm enough, I favor cycling the journey along Berlin’s central promenades and into the forest, yet I didn’t know the forest played host to a castle or a Christmas Market.

See for yourself: this Sunday afternoon adventure was a one-of-a-kind part of the Christmas season. Combined with the commercial nature of many markets, Berlin is a rather grungy city, so finding a warm, cozy atmosphere in a Christmas market was a truly special discovery.

We enjoyed a variety of snacks: a fish cake, caramel cheesecake, glühwein (the quintessential mulled wine), freshly roasted chestnuts, and bratwurst. Actors entertained the kids with a live rendition of Hansel & Gretel. Does it get more German fairy tale than watching the Brothers Grimm in the forest? When dusk fell and the sky faded to black, we stepped into the central house, where the state maintains a museum of antique hunting art and trophies from the time when the property was a Prussian hunting lodge.

After a few hours, with our stomachs full, we followed a cloaked man carrying a lantern back to the bus, on to the train, and returned to the bustle of the concrete jungle. Next time I hear an American announce to the German border police that they came for the Christmas markets, the sparkle in my eye will mark a new appreciation for this special tradition.

Still Here & Holidays

When I blogged in Denmark, I aimed to write a post every or every other week, and I succeeded. That’s the life of a student, I guess. You deal with assignments, and it’s easy to assign yourself one extra piece of prose, especially when the rest are optional engineering problem sets.

Fast forward six years, as a working man, the pace of life is a little different. I have plenty of writing and communication to do at work. With traveling and spending time with loved ones at Christmas, I don’t prioritize blogging, though it’s good for me. So, I figured I’d list a few discoveries through my life in Berlin at the holidays.

  1. Christmas pickles probably aren’t really German. Several years ago, my mom bought me and my siblings each a pickle-shaped ornament. Other than looking like a pickle, it’s a normal, beautiful ornament. Oh, and it was complete with a story about the tradition of German Christmas pickles. The parents hide it in the tree and the first kid to find it gets an extra gift. Years ago, I mentioned this to a German friend. He gave me a puzzled look, and a quick Google search led me to believe this is a fabricated tradition. I can confirm that it is perpetuated in Germany. You will find Christmas pickle ornaments in the German Christmas markets – Weinachtsmarkt or Cristkindlmarkt – but most Germans do not know about this German “tradition.”
  2. New Years Eve is not for the faint-of-fireworks. Berliners have permission to ignite fireworks on New Years Eve and New Years Day. Stores – including grocery stores – sell the pyrotechnics a few days beforehand, then the people light them off as much as they please. New Years Eve was on a Sunday. I heard the first firework on Friday evening. They were steadily lit starting midday Sunday. At midnight on my balcony, the sky was illuminated in every direction. I went for a run on Monday afternoon, still saw or heard several going off and the sidewalks were littered with debris. One site suggests that the tradition of fireworks on New Years Eve goes back to the medieval ages, when they wanted to ward off evil spirits. Assuming this is true, with the number of fireworks in Berlin, it will be a long time before Trump’s spirit reaches Germany. 😉 (His behavior is understood to be both childish and inhumane by the general populous that I’ve witnessed.)
  3. Christmas trees are for the curbs. In the days following Christmas, especially after Epiphany / Three Kings’ Day “Dreikönigstag,” everyone tosses their pine trees to the streets. Eventually, the trees disappear. I guess they get picked up by the city. (I’m not sure why, but I also noticed that my own Christmas tree lasted longer without needles dropping, even once it was on the street without water.)

Now that you’ve enjoyed my memories from last month, please enjoy some semi-related photos of my life in the Christmas season: