Frohe Weihnachten! (and from the GDR, too)

Germans love Christmas. Or at least Advent, since I haven’t got first-hand experience of the actual days of Christmas in Berlin yet. Advent. Most Dutch people wouldn’t even know what it is, but here in Berlin it comes with candles, calendars, special opening hours at many stores and many many more traditions. Even the communist regime in the GDR wasn’t able to take away Christmas from the Germans – and that is saying something. Here are my three steps towards becoming an Advent-pro.

Step One: To Buy or Not to Buy an Advent Calendar

Now there’s one thing about Advent we know in Holland too: the Advent calendar. But to tell you the truth: the chocolate in it is so cheap that at some point I always stopped opening the doors because I didn’t want to have to eat the chocolates anymore. In Berlin, Advent calendars started popping up in virtually every store this September. I spotted calendars filled with luxury chocolates, but also with beer, nail polish and cat treats.

The Weihnachtsvorfreude had begun, but I decided not to buy a calendar yet, because I might as well wait until the Advent period had started and the calendars would be sold for half the price. Yes, I am Dutch. If only I had known that this line of thinking doesn’t work in Germany, presumably since the Germans take Advent a lot more seriously than we Dutchies do. You just don’t buy your calendar a day late, you buy it BEFORE Advent begins. So on the first of December, there was no calendar to be found anymore. Literally no-where. Seriously, from one day to another, they were all gone.

Calendars in the GDR

In the GDR, the calendar problems were of a more linguistic type. Advent means ‘coming’ in Latin – to be more exact: the birth of Jesus Christ. Atheism was the official state religion and in spite of the equally official freedom of religion, the government kept battling all Christian traditions. Christmas could be celebrated, as long as it was in a non-religious manner – so no Advent. Accordingly, Advent calendars were called Vorweihnachtliche Kalender, pre-Christmas calendars. Christian symbols were not allowed on it, so instead there were socialist images or pictures of Christmas markets and children in the snow. There was one exception: in 1973 one small publishing house from an even smaller city received permission to start printing pictures of the baby Jesus and the three wise men on calendars.

Step Two: The Great German Bake-Off

But Advent is synonymous with something else too, as I discovered: baking cookies, more precisely Weihnachtsplätzchen/Weihnachtskekse. This year, the ingredients for those cookies started showing up in the supermarkets around the same time as the Advent calendars did – and so did the magazines full of recipes for special Christmas cookies. According to my most reliable sources, Wikipedia and my German colleagues, baking cookies is something every German family still does in the weeks before Christmas. It made me feel nostalgic and long for those good old days when in December the scent of freshly baked cookies filled the house. Except it never did, because in Holland we don’t bake cookies before Christmas.

The Weihnachtsvorfreude had begun, but I decided not to buy a calendar yet, because I might as well wait until the Advent period had started and the calendars would be sold for half the price. Yes, I am Dutch. If only I had known that this line of thinking doesn’t work in Germany, presumably since the Germans take Advent a lot more seriously than we Dutchies do. You just don’t buy your calendar a day late, you buy it BEFORE Advent begins. So on the first of December, there was no calendar to be found anymore. Literally no-where. Seriously, from one day to another, they were all gone.

Baking in the GDR

But any Christmas-loving family in Germany wants to bake a Stollen – even in the GDR. For this reason, families in the GDR started to collect the required ingredients already at the start of autumn. Flour, butter and sugar were available in the GDR, but a good Stollen also needs raisins, almonds and candied peel from oranges and lemons – all of that was unavailable or scarcely available. As I wrote in my previous blog about baking in the GDR, East Germans were quite inventive. Instead of orange peel they used candied carrots, instead of lemon peel came candied green tomatoes. For years, family members in the West would try to send packages with the desired Stollen ingredients.

Step T(h)ree: O Tannenbaum

And what’s the epicentre of the house during Christmas? Der Weihnachtsbaum. Any German would proudly tell you that the Christmas tree is originally a German tradition – and why argue with that? But there’s an important (albeit slightly out-dated) rule in Germany: the tree is part of Christmas and not of Advent. As a consequence, you’re not supposed to have a Christmas tree in your house until just before Christmas. According to the tradition, the entire family comes together on Christmas Eve to decorate the tree. Until that day, a Christmas Wreath is used as a supplement for the long expected (O) Tannenbaum.

Me and Mark, we couldn’t wait that long. And the many Germans (or were they all ex-pats?) carrying around freshly bought trees on the first weekend of December proved that this rule isn’t part of every German’s Christmas traditions any more. For the last few weeks there have been small open air stores selling Christmas trees at almost every street corner, showing off with their beautiful Nordmannen. If you want to, you can even fell your own tree in the forests outside of Berlin – only at certain locations and if you pay a fair amount of money for it, that is.

Christmas Trees in the GDR

But what if there aren’t any decent Christmas trees to be found in your entire country? Not just a problem for people living in the south of the hemisphere, but also for people in the GDR. You had to be very lucky to find a fully grown tree, since most of them were more like big branches than trees. At the same time, they were very cheap. So people would buy two ‘trees’ at once and glue them together to create one acceptable-looking Christmas tree. Whoever had ornaments used those, obviously, but others had to decorate the entire tree with just tinsel – although this was also a scarcity. This meant carefully taking the glitter out of the tree and ironing it, so that it could be reused. We, however, will be happy if the cat has left us any ornaments at all by the end of December – but then again, we only paid around 10 euros for the lot of them.

The Moral of this Christmas Story

So, how Adventurous have my last few weeks been? In the end we found a forgotten Advent calendar in some department store, I baked cookies with my colleagues and I returned everyone’s wishes for a very good first/second/third/fourth Advent – even before I knew what they meant by that. I visited a large number of Christmas markets, from the one with the rollercoasters and the free fall next to Alexanderplatz to the traditional one in the historic centre of Spandau and from the quite minimalist ‘market’ at the rooftop bar Klunkerkranich to the very festive one at Gendarmenmarkt. But when Mark and I saw the huge queue in front of the ‘Vegan Lifestyle Christmas Market’ one Sunday, we decided to just have a beer somewhere else instead… I guess we need to experience a few more Christmasses in Berlin before we are THAT full of the Advent spirit.

Happy holidays!