Friday, December 8, 2006

Christ! Whadda Mess!

Advent (Latin for "arrival, coming") is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. In German-speaking countries and most of Europe the first Advent weekend is the traditional beginning of the Christmas season when open-air Christmas markets (Christkindlmärkte) appear in many cities, the most famous ones being those in Nuremberg and Vienna. Most stores and shops in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are open weekends and evenings during Advent. - In Austria the 's' is often dropped in Advent-words (as in Adventzeit or Adventkalender).

The first Christmas tree to decorate the inside of the White House was put up by US President Franklin Pierce in 1856. (German immigrants brought the custom to America.) In England Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert (1819-1861) of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, helped popularize the Christmas tree and other German Christmas customs.

Originally, most German Christmas trees were fir trees (Tannenbäume). Over the years, as the percentage of fir trees in German forests dropped, spruce trees (Fichtenbäume) became more prevalent. But today the word Tannenbaum is still synonymous with 'Christmas tree', or, in Las Vegas, a meteorologist with many homes.

Originally from the Erzgebirge region of Germany, the wood or rope pyramid was the "poor man's Christmas tree." Today it is a popular Christmas decoration in many parts of Germany, usually made with candles and bells that ring as the heat from the candles turns a wooden rotor at the top.

In the 16th century Protestants, led by Martin Luther, introduced “Father Christmas” to replace Saint Nicholas and to avoid the Catholic saints. In the Protestant parts of Germany and Switzerland, Saint Nicholas became der Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas Man”). In the U.S. he came to be known as Santa Claus, while in England children look forward to a visit from Father Christmas.

Candles, with their light and warmth, have long been used in winter celebrations as symbols of the sun in the dark of winter. The Christians later adopted candles as their own symbol of the "Light of the World." Candles also play an important role in the eight-day Jewish "Festival of Lights" Hanukkah celebration.

Caution! The German word das Gift means "poison." If you are mailing a present to German Europe, you may wish to mark it with the German word Geschenk, in addition to "gift."

In pagan times, holly was believed to have magical powers that kept evil spirits away. The Christians later made it a symbol of Christ's crown of thorns. According to legend, the holly berries were originally white, but turned red from Christ's blood.

Saint Nicholas is not Santa Claus or the American "Saint Nick." Dec. 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, is the day upon which the original Bishop Nicholas of Myra (today in Turkey) is commemorated, and is also the date of his death in the year 343. He was later granted sainthood. The German Sankt Nikolaus, dressed as a bishop, brings gifts on that day. According to legend, it was also Bishop Nicholas who gave us the Christmas tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace. The kindly bishop is said to have thrown bags of gold for the poor down the chimney. The bags landed in stockings that had been hung by the fire to dry. This Saint Nicholas legend may also partly explain the American custom of Santa coming down the chimney with his bag of gifts.

The word "Kris Kringle" is a corruption of Christkindl. The word came into American English via the Pennsylvania Germans, whose neighbors misunderstood the German word for the bringer of gifts. With the passage of time, Santa Claus (from Dutch "Sinterclaas") and Kris Kringle became synonymous. The Austrian town of Christkindl bei Steyr is a popular Christmas post office, an Austrian "North Pole."

KNOW YOUR RUPRECHT! A demonic figure who used to accompany St. Nicholas to punish bad children with his Rute; based on mythical winter figures going back to pagan times. Rarely seen today. Also known as: Hans Muff, Krampus, or Nickel. In some parts of Germany, Ruprecht is good — just another Weihnachtsmann, and Krampus is the bad guy.

It was the German-American Thomas Nast who gave the US its traditional image of Santa Claus.