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December 1997

A Bavarian Christmas

A look at Christmas traditions in Bavaria

The singers huddle in the light of a single candle. Their voices rise in the night, their breath freezes and falls away like new snow. In the farmhouse the lamps flicker invitingly and the door flies open, spilling warmth and the fragrance of roasting chestnuts and spiced wine. They are the "Klöpfl" singers and their almost forgotten song is called the "Klöpfllied". They were once a familiar sight in every Bavarian village and in the narrow cobbled streets of old Munich. They sang their ancient songs much as carolers did in Victorian England. Coins were rarely their reward.Instead they carried sacks into which they stuffed the flour, bacon, sausages, or ham donated by the grateful burghers. "Klöpflngehen is one of the traditions that is slowly returning," explains Ingrid Sand, lecturer and author who has spent half a lifetime retrieving nearly forgotten old Bavarian customs. "It originally was what we call a Heischebrauch or a way that the poor could get a little extra money out of the rich. The food they collected was for their Christmas feast. Klöpfl comes from klopfen - to knock because they would knock at the door and then begin their song. Often a penny flute or native guitar would accompany the simple tunes." Today the Klöpflers continue their rounds in the villages of southeast Bavaria. They are usually members of a club or Verein and in some cases associated with the local church. Instead of bacon they collect money - which is donated to charity. Like many of the old ways, Klöpflngehen originated in rural society that had plenty of leisure once the harvest was finished. Women baked and sewed, men whittled and carved, and the children counted the days to Christmas with wide-eyed wonder. "Gifts were not a part of the traditional Catholic Bavarian Christmas,"explains Mrs. Sand. "On the feast of St. Nicholas good children got something and bad children found their stocking empty, but Christmas was a religious holiday that centered on the birth of Christ. Gift-giving only came later, brought along with many other customs from the Protestant north of Germany". Even the Advent wreath, that perennial sign of the season, is a recent import. Its inventor was Johann Hinrich Wichern, founder of the Innere Mission, in Hamburg. His Advent wreath was first suspended from an orphanage ceiling in 1860. Its popularity spread southward, but did not reach Munich until 1937 when the Adventkranz made its first Bavarian appearance in the Catholic church of St. Sylvester in Schwabing. Its Bavarian predecessor was the Paradeiserl made of four apples, sprigs of pine, candles and twigs of wood adorned with gold and red ribbon. Just like the Advent wreath, a candle was lit on the first Advent Sunday and a candle added each week until Christmas day. The Christmas tree was also surprisingly late in reaching Bavaria. Experts argue over its origin but one thing is sure: O Tannenbaum was another Protestant import. Queen Caroline, the second wife of Kurfürst Max IV Joseph came to Munich 1799. A short time later, in 1810, his son married Therese, Princess von Sachsen-Hildburghausen (for whom the Theresienwiese is named). Both were Protestant and both get credit for placing the first Christmas tree in the royal Residenz. The earliest record is a diorama from 1816 showing a Christmas tree in the palace. Less regal Bavarians had the Paradeiserl and the Barbarazweige. On December 4, the feast of St. Barbara, cherry branches were cut and the stems put into lukewarm water - a custom still practiced, although it no longer replaces the Christmas tree. The branches bloom by Christmas. Many families attach slips of paper containing family names to the Barbarazweige. The one that blooms first brings its owner luck throughout the year. In the past, preparations for Christmas closely followed the Church calendar. Each Saint had his day and each day had a task that brought Christmas a little bit closer. Paul Ernst Rattelmüller has written a delightful book entitled Auf Weihnachten zua. It begins with December 1 and ends on December 31. Along with songs and saints, it lists recipes for each day. Fruit bread on the 1st, Agnesplätzchen on the 4th, anise cookies on the 9th, Christstollen on the 14th, Springerle on the 18th, Zimtsterne on the 22nd, vanilla rings on the 23rd - all culminating in the wonder of Christmas night. Mr. Rattelmüller, who describes himself as the Heimatpfleger Bayerischen Brauchtums - the official guardian of Bavarian customs - is 73-years old and lives in Leutstetten. "Cookies belong to Christmas," says Rattelmüller. "A friend of ours always baked some 15 kinds for Christmas. She'd disappear into the kitchen the first week of Advent and did not come out until Christmas Eve. A young woman told her it was hardly worthwhile because 'no one eats such stuff anymore'. The old woman glared at her and said, 'Back was Gscheit's, dann fressen's es scho!' (If you learned to bake something decent, they'd gulp it down)." Modern Bavarians often prefer buying to baking. The Bäckerei Max Popp is located in a narrow back street of Solln. Half a century has gone by without significant change to Kurzbauerstraße where the bakery is located. Max Popp and his wife rise at 4 o'clock each morning to bake bread. The shop is lined with wooden shelves, and the smell of freshly baked loaves fills the block. "I start the first week of November and make 27 kinds of cookies," explains Anna Elizabeth Popp, the baker's jolly wife with twinkling eyes and a perennial smile. She uses family recipes calling for real butter, almonds and farm-fresh eggs. Some of the cookie forms have been in her family for several generations. Bäckerei Paul Schmidt is another family enterprise (founded in the 1860's). The tiny shop on Steinstraße in downtown Munich is city's number one address for marzipan. The Schmidts begin in September and produce marzipan in shapes such as the Frauenkirche and the Münchner Kindl. Another traditional Bavarian Christmas sweet is Quittenspeck (quince paste). A translucent orange confection sold at the Munich Christmas Market in the form of sausage-like rolls or pressed into decorative Christmas molds. Mr. Rattelmüller rates the Munich Christkindlmarkt highly. The portion that spills onto Weinstraße is a traditional Krippenmarkt - selling figures for Nativity scenes. "But don't forget the roasted chestnuts and a mug of Glühwein," advises Mr. Rattelmüller. "It's part of the experience". "The market in Nuremberg is more famous but I prefer the Munich Christkindlmarkt," says Mr. Rattelmüller. "It's tucked in between St. Peter's, the old Rathaus, the new Rathaus - a perfect setting." He also suggests visiting Bad Tölz's Christmas market. "The old customs are dying," says Mr. Rattelmüller. "I try to hold on to the old ways and record them so they will not be forgotten, but it is a lost world that we can never fully recover. People get nostalgic. The emptiness of modern life overcomes them and they reach back for some warmth but no one really has the time to celebrate the way we did when I was a child." One old Bavarian tradition has recently been revived in Fürstenfeldbruck. School children build tiny houses out of cardboard and balsa wood. They paste colored paper over the windows, place candles inside and attach the houses to wooden rafts. On the evening of December 13, the feast of St. Luzia, the children bring their Luzienhäusl to the parish church. After the blessing the candles are lit and the Church lights extinguished.A magical miniature city glows in the darkness as the light flickers from hundreds of tiny windows in red, blue and yellow. Following the ceremony, the children wend their way to the nearby Amper River and set their little houses afloat. According to Mr. Rattelmüller the Luzienhäusl were originally a kind of river offering meant to protect the village from floods. The custom disappeared in the 1850's but was revived some twenty years ago by a school crafts teacher. "Of all the old customs, the one that is enjoying the greatest renewed popularity is the nativity scene," says Ingrid Sand. The familiar manger scene with its shepherds, farm animals and holy family is customarily set up on Christmas Eve on a table near the Christmas tree. Mrs. Sand collects antique figures and combines them with family heirlooms and figures that she has made herself. Mr. Rattelmüller departs from tradition and starts his Nativity scene in the first week of Advent with Mary, Joseph, and the donkey searching for room at an inn. He ends it on Easter - a full passion play staged on top of his sideboard that lasts nearly half a year. The Bayerische Nationalmuseum is famous for its collection of nativity scenes. 8,000 figures collected by Max Schmederer at the end of the 19th century form the basis of the collection. One of the most famous nativity scenes is one composed of 80 figures - some dating from the 17th century - at the cloister Reutberg (between Bad Tölz and Holzkirchen). An unusual nativity can be seen in the Church of St. John the Baptist on Fellererplatz in Solln. The artist, Sebastian Osterrieder, formed the figures in terra cotta and made an identical set for the Vatican. "The camel is especially fine, " says Sister Susanne, who is in charge of the sacristy, blushing slightly. In nativity scenes everyone has a favorite figure. Originally nativity scenes were only found in Churches but the practice spread to private homes at the end of the 19th century. Before that only the figure of the Christ child or Fatschenkindl was displayed at Christmas time. These precious figures composed of a porcelain or wax head and an intricately decorated body were passed from generation to generation. One of the most famous is the Augustinerkindl in Munich. The holy infant with its lifelike face and ornate swaddling clothes probably came to Munich in 1624 and belonged to the Augustine monastery whose church is now the Deutsche Jagd und Fischerei-museum in Neuhauserstraße. Today the Augustinerkindl is on display at the Bürgerssaal Church a few doors away. "The more I delved into the past, the more obvious it became that Catholicism is the key to understanding Bavarian customs," Mrs. Sand explains. "Even those rituals rooted in pre-Christian practices survived only because they were accepted and absorbed into the church." The profoundly religious significance of Christmas has all but disappeared from modern Munich, but most families still go through the motions. On December 24th, Heiligabend, the tree is trimmed and the nativity scene set out. Christmas carols are sung and the family attends midnight church services. Christmas Eve dinner in the modern Bavarian household ranges from sausages and beer to salmon and champagne. "The 24th was originally a fast day, so in the old times little was eaten before midnight. After midnight mass the family sat down to a feast of soup and sausage, washed down by mugs of beer," says Mrs. Sand. Many families still eat Weißwurst or other types of sausage and potato salad on Christmas Eve and drink beer out of festive mugs trimmed with red ribbon and sprigs of pine. The table should be covered with a red cloth and decorated with pine boughs. On Christmas day fish, not Fleisch was the traditional holiday feast of old Bavaria. The Christmas carp was kept in a wooden tub until December 25th. The Christmas goose and the Weinachter - or Christmas pig - came into popularity much later. According to an old folk song, "Wenn man singt: Uns ist ein Kind geboren, hat die Gans ihren Geschmack verloren", which means by Christmas, the goose has lost much of its prized flavor. Bavarians prefer to eat goose on St. Martin's day and occasionally on the first day of Christmas. The turkey (Bavarians named it Indian in honor of its origin) is increasingly popular. Around the turn of the century every rural family fattened a pig for Christmas. This Weihnachter or Mettensau played a role similar to the Thanksgiving turkey in 19th-century America. It was lovingly cared for and fed, then slaughtered the week before Christmas to provide fresh blood pudding, liver sausages, and other delicacies eaten on Christmas Eve. The massive roast was served on December 25. The Weihnachter was sometimes stolen - a prank similar to the theft of the May pole - causing much merriment and providing a subject for conversation and an occasion for downing endless mugs of beer. Some farmers even slept in their barn as Christmas approached to watch over their precious Mettensau. The Christmas season in Bavaria officially ends with the feast of Heilig Drei König - the Three Wise Men - on January 6. On this day the candles on the tree are lit for the last time, the last of the Christmas cookies are served with white wine punch, and the Sternsinger make their rounds. The singers, dressed as the Three Wise Men of Christmas legend carry incense into neighbors' houses and mark their passing with a chalk inscription over the door: 19K+M+B97. The 19 at the beginning and the 97 at the end, stand for the year. The initials recall the three Wise Men of Bethlehem: Kasper, Melchior and Balthasar. Originally the inscription used the initials C+M+B which stood for the Latin, Christus mansionem benedicat - Christ bless this house. Sternsinger are now generally associated with the local church. They no longer come at random but at the request of parishioners and neighbors. A call to the nearest church and a donation is usually all it takes. Afterwards a glass or two of steaming punch is raised and the Christmas season in Bavaria rolls gently to its end.

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