- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, Germany — My grandparents lived in a lovely, large 19th-century house at 112 Victoria Allee near Frankfurt’s famed Palmengarten, a combination park and botanical garden. We always celebrated Christmas at their house on Dec. 24 — as with many German Jews, it was Christmas we observed in December. My brother and I firmly believed our presents were brought by the Weihnachtsengel, the Christmas Angel.

Traditionally, the Christbaum (Christmas tree) and the presents were in the dining room, but the children were not allowed to see either until after the first star appeared in the sky. Then the doors were opened, and we beheld the decorated tree, shining with real candles and beautiful glass ornaments, and the presents the Christmas Angel had brought us.

For each person, there was a table of gifts. I don’t remember what the grown-ups got, just that my table was always covered with wonderful things — never wrapped but always tied with beautiful ribbons.

The last Christmas I was in Germany, before Hitler drove us out, I saw the Christmas Angel. I crept up to the dining room door when no one was watching; it was just getting dark, and soon the doors would be open, but I dearly wanted to see the angel. I opened the door just a crack, and there it was: The angel, all in white, was just flying out of the open window. What a thrill. I have never forgotten it. A 4-year-old can easily mistake a fluttering curtain for an angel, but no one will convince me, even now, that it wasn’t the Weihnachtsengel I saw.

A bomb fell on my grandparents’ house in 1944; Victoria Allee no longer exists, and no one could tell me where it used to be. Though the house is gone, my memory of that bygone Christmas remains vibrant.

Christmas Eve still is a major holiday in Germany.

The custom of an undecorated Christmas tree originated in pagan Germany in the first half of the eighth century. By the 16th century, fir trees, both indoors and outside, were decorated to celebrate the holiday. The earliest decorations were roses cut out of colored paper, apples and wafers. Martin Luther is said to have started the custom of adding lighted candles to the tree.

The Christmas tree was brought to England by Prince Albert when he married Queen Victoria. The first mention of a tree in the New World is in the diary entry of Matthew Zahn of Lancaster, Pa., from Dec. 20, 1821. Glass ornaments originated in Germany about 1889 and several years later were brought to the United States by A.F.W. Woolworth.

Another Christmas tradition of German origin is the Christmas market — the Christkindlmarkt, or Christ Child market — held throughout Germany during Advent, from the end of November until Christmas Eve. In all likelihood, these markets were an outgrowth of the many markets held throughout the year in medieval Germany. The Christkindlmarkt became the place to go to buy everything needed for the Christmas celebration — decorations, candles, cakes, toys, molds and cutters for baking.

Dresden, Nuremberg and Frankfurt have what probably are Germany’s oldest Christmas markets, with Frankfurt’s dating to 1393.

Originally, the markets were held next to the main church. One of Cologne’s six markets is next to the famous cathedral; Frankfurt’s adjoins St. Paul’s Church.

Each city produces a pastry specialty for the Christmas market. Dresden has its delicious stollen, or Christstollen (a rich bread with dried fruits and dusted with powdered sugar, folded to resemble the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes), Nuremberg’s market is famous for its gingerbread (lebkuchen), and Frankfurt’s is known for its bethmannchen (almond paste cookies) and quetschenmannchen (figurines made of prunes). In the Middle Ages, it was the custom for a young man to send a quetschenmannchen to the girl he was courting. If she kept it, it meant she was interested; if she returned it, he was out of luck.

Originally, only local crafts were sold at the markets. Today, however, there is a sameness to much that is for sale in all the markets, though some still offer locally made handicrafts. Of course, each market also sells food: gluhwein (mulled wine) made with wine for adults and with grape juice for the children; lots of different kinds of sausages in hard rolls with lots of mustard; giant pretzels; sugared almonds; candy made of herbs; chocolates; cookie hearts; roasted chestnuts; and scrumptious, freshly made potato cakes, crisp and hot, served with sour cream or applesauce.

I was never old enough to go to the Christmas markets (or to drink the traditional gluhwein) and actually never heard my mother speak of them, so for me, the trip organized by the German Tourist Bureau to visit the Frankfurt, Cologne and Dusseldorf markets was an exciting innovation.

The Frankfurt of my childhood is no more, as 95 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II. Although it’s now a city of tall, elegant buildings, perhaps the banking capital of Europe with its 336 banking institutions, the heart of the old town, the Roemerberg, where the town hall is located, has been rebuilt in the medieval style. It is there where the Christmas market is located and where we began our trip. It brought back, with a nostalgic jolt, the time and place of long ago when a little girl believed she saw an angel fly out a window.

The market at night is thronged with people eating, drinking, buying, looking. Thousands of lights twinkle at the many little stalls, reflected in glass ornaments and enhanced by a myriad of candles. Children clamor to ride the merry-go-round, which traditionally is in each market; adults greet friends with cheer and good humor.

Markets in the larger towns have strolling musicians, puppet shows and various other forms of entertainment. We were lucky enough to arrive at the Frankfurt market just as the trumpets on the top balcony of St. Paul’s Church started their twice-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) 5 p.m. concert.

Aside from its colorful Christmas market, which has been copied in Britain in Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, Frankfurt has frequent celebratory events throughout the year, including its world-famous book fair and a Mardi Gras celebration complete with parades, costumes and the peculiar custom of women going about cutting the ends off men’s ties.

From Frankfurt, we made an excursion into Rheingau, the wine-growing region along the Rhine famous for its Rieslings. Our destination was the Christmas markets in the small Rhine River towns of Eltville and Rudesheim.

Eltville has a sweet little market that began with just a few stalls 22 years ago. Eltville is called the “rose city” and is proud of the 350 varieties in its 22,000 rose bushes on public land. The town hosts a rose festival each year in May or June. Printing pioneer Johan Gutenberg spent the last years of his life in the Eltville home of his mother, and the town prides itself on its print shop, the sixth-oldest in the world.

In the hills above town is the beautiful Cistercian monastery of Eberbach (Eber means wild boar, and bach means stream), the world’s oldest wine-producing monastery. Founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1136, the monastery became wealthy thanks to its viniculture and other agricultural endeavors. The term kabinett for quality German wines originated in its cellar.

The monastery has been used as a prison, a mental institution and a home for refugees. Most recently, the monks’ dormitory was used in the making of the movie “The Sign of the Rose.”

The Rudesheim market runs down the main street of town, with wooden stands along the riverfront and the main square. It’s a charming medieval town that boasts a Torture Museum, demonstrating the history of witch hunts, punishment and torture in Germany in the Middle Ages.

The town is a popular tourist destination throughout the year. Nearby is the village of Assmannshausen am Rhein, where some excellent red wine is produced. Although 80 percent of the region’s wine production is white, reds are growing in popularity and quality. Tours can be arranged to visit the vineyards.

In the hills above Rudesheim is the Abbey of Hildegard von Bingen, composer, mystic and genius, who founded a convent across the river in 1165. She sometimes is called St. Hildegard; she has been beatified but not canonized. The abbey for Benedictine nuns was erected in 1904 and is still active, with the nuns running a thriving wine business.

From Frankfurt, we took a magnificent train ride along the Rhine to Cologne. Villages, ruined and restored castles every few miles, vineyards, forests and hills materialized outside the train widow. It’s a beautiful three-hour trip along the Wine Road.

The first settlement in Cologne (in German, it’s Koln, with an umlaut on the o) dates back to 300 B.C. The Romans arrived in the first century A.D. Agrippina, wife of Claudius, was born and reared in Cologne. At her request, it became the Roman city Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippiniensium, with all the rights of a Roman city, and the northeastern cornerstone of the Roman Empire.

The bombing of Cologne during World War II revealed some of the Roman city, which had been covered in the Middle Ages. Parts of the original wall, both above and below ground; several watchtowers; and the monument to the Ubii, a Germanic tribe living in the area, built in 24 B.C. and the oldest square stone masonry building north of the Alps, are visible.

In 1164, the relics of the Magi, the Three Kings, were brought from Milan to Cologne. The beautiful cathedral, begun in 1248 but not completed until 1880 (when it was considered the tallest building in Europe), houses the kings’ relics in a gold reliquary.

Cologne also is the home of eau de cologne, first manufactured by Johann Maria Farina, the father of the modern perfume industry, in 1709. Farina continues to be Cologne’s No. 1 cologne, despite competition by 4711 — the name comes from the house number imposed by the conquering Napoleonic army at the beginning of the 19th century. The 4711 brand (advertised as “echt Kolnisch Wasser” — genuine Cologne water) started about a century after Farina and became popular after World War I, and later a favorite of the Third Reich.

Cologne has six Christmas markets. The oldest (the Neue Markt) has lovely wooden ornaments and carved animals and toys. The Rudolfplatz Markt, to the delight of children, has animated Christmas and nursery-rhyme themes on top of the wooden huts. The market next to the cathedral offers some beautiful and original jewelry, including lovely gold-plated copies of pre-Columbian gold jewelry.

There’s a floating market, where St. Nick reads a fairy tale to the children once a day, and a charming medieval market, where only natural products and handmade crafts are sold. This market has delightful puppet shows and strolling musicians attired in medieval costumes.

The medieval market is beside Cologne’s futuristic-looking chocolate factory, which offers tourists not only an exhibition of how chocolate is made, but also a complete history of chocolate, from its use by the Aztecs and Mayas (with a fine exhibition of pre-Columbian artifacts) to its modern production. It’s not much like Willy Wonka’s adventure, and samples are stingy, but it’s an interesting place.Chocolate became popular in Germany when a doctor ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it — indeed, cocoa beans contain phenylethylamine, a substance found in the brains of people in love. Small wonder that German women consume more than 17 pounds of chocolate on average per year.

Cologne is an arts city, with about 25 dozen museums; it has an important trade fair, a music triannale (next scheduled for April and May) and a carnival Rose Monday procession.

Our final Christmas market was in Dusseldorf, a great shopping city whose wealthy residents made their fortunes in steel and coal. In 2004, the city will celebrate its 700th birthday, and there will be champagne and caviar galore. During carnival, the city has its Rhenish Carnival Parade; it celebrates its famous shopping street, the Ko (short for Konigsallee); and it has a Japanese Day with fireworks in May, among many other festivals.

The symbol of the city is a boy turning cartwheels, recalling the story of overjoyed children at the return of their fathers after the battle of Worringen in 1288, from which the city won its charter.

Thomas Wolfe was right, of course, and one cannot go back in time. My Proustian madeleines come in the form of German Christmas butter cookies and zimtsterne (cinnamon stars). One taste, and I see the angel again, excited and happy that I am alive.

Airline service to Germany

Lufthansa and United Airlines fly nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to Frankfurt, Ger

many.

Lufthansa also operates a very comfortable, all-business-class nonstop daily flight from Newark, N.J., to Dusseldorf, Germany. These business flights are reminiscent of the early days of airline travel: just 48 passengers, a wide center aisle, comfortable seats and excellent service. This PrivatAir flight is staffed by PrivatAir but operated by Lufthansa.

Several Web sites offer more information on the towns and cities mentioned for their Christmas markets. These include:

www.frankfurt-tourismus.de

www.willkommeninkoeln.de/menues/starte.htm

www.museenkoeln.de (for museum information)

www.duesseldorf-tourismus.de

www.germany-tourism.de


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