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Weihnachtzeit (The Christmas season)

Germany full of charms in December

Drink one mug of gluhwein, I was thinking between hot spiced sips, and you drink 'em all.

But perhaps I was becoming jaded. After half a dozen German Christmas markets, I was having trouble keeping all the ornament booths, gingerbread sellers and sizzling sausage stands straight. The gluhwein didn't help.

I switched to cocoa. Unless I looked at my notes, I still couldn't keep them straight. But I still found them delightful.

Christkindlmarkts (Christ Child markets) are a centuries-old tradition in Germany and Austria, and because most of America's Christmas customs have a Germanic origin, they seemed worth investigating.

I did that early one December, and I had a great time. It would have been even greater if I'd been 6 years old (although I'd have had to warm up with nonalcoholic kinderpunsch instead of the potent and ubiguitous gluhwein).

Then I came home and did the whole Christmas thing all over again, American-style.

I expected it to feel like overkill, but my total immersion in Germany's less-materialistic Christmas mood had left me feeling mellow, and that imported glow soothed the irritation of battling our holiday crowds.

Some of the Christkindlmarkts I visited, like the small ones in Bamberg and Saalfeld, are as intimate as a neighborhood block party. Others, like Nuremberg's, are as crowded as a state fair midway and just about as big.

In between are the magic ones the markets held in the romantic embrace of medieval streets and small cathedral squares.

My favorites were in Old Heidelberg, which hosts two Christkindlmarkts, and in the beautiful walled city of Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber.

Held during Advent, from the end of November to Christmas, Christkindlmarkts are where you go to buy one-of-a-kind ornaments and eat traditional holiday foods.

Picture the tinsel that surrounds taking a little kid to see Santa. Then add a horde of tiny booths where glass ornaments hang like clouds of colored stars and handmade wooden toys attract children's eyes. Mingle in the fragrances of bratwurst, cinnamon and cloves, and stage it all outside on frosty evenings, and you'll begin to feel what draws Germans to these affairs year after year, century after century.

Just don't picture snow: Unless you're in the mountains, there probably won't be any. Instead, you'll have rain, still-green fields and leafless black trees. In this regard, a German Christmas is like an English one: cold and traditional, but not white.

Don't forget the darkness, either. Frankfurt is at the latitude of Winnipeg, so it gets dark even earlier and stays dark longer than in the upper reaches of the United States.

The short winter days at this northern latitude made the markets cozier. When their lights started coming on in the midafternoon twilight, the booths looked warm and friendly, and people were drawn in.

One other element, besides snow and sunlight, was missing from my Christmas-market marathon. Where, I kept wondering, were the Christmas trees?

Only near the end of my stay, about Dec. 15, did I start to see them being unloaded at marketplaces from the backs of pickup trucks. The reason was clear as soon as I touched one.

In Germany, trees aren't cut weeks or months in advance of the holiday, as ours frequently are. These were fresh-cut, their needles soft and pliable, and when I passed them, the air was richly pinescented.

German Christmas trees are also small - seldom more than head-high, often just table-top size. And they're not perfect: Raggedy, rangy, uneven, they are real trees - trees that weren't manicured or buzz-sawed into shape while they grew. They seemed to have come straight from the forest floor.

They look different after they're trimmed, too - despite the familiar silvered glass ornaments used on both sides of the Atlantic.

Most German families still light their trees with candles, so at this time of year, every place from Christmas markets to corner groceries is selling tree candles and little metal gizmos to clamp them onto evergreen branches.

Given that the trees are decorated with fire, their freshness, size and imperfections make them safer: Candles are placed only on branches that don't have other branches near or above them, so flame and smoke can rise up harmlessly.

That's the theory, anyway. On my first German Christmas, 30 years ago, I wondered why my hosts had placed a bucket of sand near our 3-foot table-top Tannenbaum.

I found out as soon as we lit the candles. One tipped suddenly and ignited a small branch; instantly, a shaft of orange flame and black smoke shot toward the ceiling, quick as a breath.

My hosts, used to this, threw fistfuls of sand at the tree until the fire went out. Then they simply turned the scorched side to the wall and went on with the celebration.

Unaccustomed to this, I didn't relax until New Year's. Still, a tree lit with candles is hauntingly lovely and utterly unlike one lit with electricity. It is dimmer, for one thing, because trees can't safely carry a lot of candles.

As the match carefully touches each candle and the wick kindles, the tree emerges from its own darkness; its shadows change with each new candle flame; the ornaments brighten and change shape, and finally the whole tree stands in quiet, glimmering radiance.

Normal life is suspended while the candles burn: You don't turn away to watch TV or go back to wrapping gifts or baking pies. You don't dare. You just stand there, moving as little as possible, lest the air currents disturb the candle flames. You don't even open a door, for fear of drafts.

A tree with candles requires your full attention: It is a fragile thing, poised in a delicate balance.

I have experienced it only a few times, and each time I found myself standing stock-still, holding my breath. I felt the way I often do at a campfire - sensing something of a prehistoric night, when only flames in a cave mouth kept the wild beasts away.

I didn't think about Christmas at those moments, either, but about earlier beliefs in Europe, about ancient midwinter festivals, about the hope that the evergreen tree had symbolized long before it was adopted by Christians.

The warm glow of the candles made me understand it better - here, indeed, was something precious, something blazing with life in the death-grip of winter, something like a promise.

Author Unknown. For Educational Purposes Only.