Christmas And New Year In Germany
( Originally Published 1889 )
Jan. 2, 1845.-I have lately been computing how much my travels have cost me up to the present time, and how long I can remain abroad to continue the pilgrimage, with my present expectations. The result has been most encouraging to my plan. Before leaving borne I wrote to several gentlemen who had visited Europe, requesting the probable expense of travel and residence abroad. They sent different accounts; E. Joy Morris said I must calculate to spend at least $1,500 a year; another suggested $1,000, and the most moderate of all said that it was impossible to live in Europe a year on less than $500. Now, six months have elapsed since I left home-six months of greater pleasure and profit than any year of my former life-and my expenses in full, amount to $130! This, however, nearly exhausts the limited sum with which I started, but through the kindness of the editorial friends who have been publishing my sketches of travel, I trust to receive a remittance `shortly. Printing is a business attended with so little profit here, as there are already so many workmen, that it is almost useless for a stranger to apply. Besides, after a tough grapple, I am just beginning to master the language, and it seems so necessary to devote every minute to study, that I would rather undergo some privation, than neglect turning these fleeting hours into gold, for the miser Memory to stow away -in the treasure-vaults of the mind.
We have lately witnessed the most beautiful and interesting of all German festivals, Christmas. This is here peculiarly celebrated. About the commencement of December the Christmarkt or fair, was opened in the Rśmerberg, and has continued to the present time. The booths decorated with green boughs, were filled with toys of various kinds, among which during the first days the figure of St. Nicholas was conspicuous. There were bunches of wax candles to illuminate the Christmas tree, gingerbread with printed mottoes in poetry, beautiful little earthenware,. basket-work, and a wilderness of playthings. The 5th of December, being Nicholas evening, the booths were lighted up, and the square was filled with boys, running from one stand to another, all shouting and talking together in the most joyous confusion. Nurses were going around, carrying the smaller children in their arms, and parents bought presents decorated with sprigs of pine and carried them away. Some of the shops had beautiful toys, as for instance, a whole grocery store in miniature, with barrels, boxes and drawers, all filled with sweetmeats, a kitchen with a stove and all suitable utensils, which could really be used, and sets of dishes of the most diminutive patterns. All was a scene of activity and joyous feeling.
Many of the tables had bundles of rods with gilded bands, which were to be used that evening by the persons who represented St. Nicholas. In the family with whom we reside, one of our German friends dressed himself very comically, with a mask, fur robe and long tapering cap. He came iii with a bunch of rods and a sack, with a broom for a sceptre. After we all had received our share of the beating, he threw the contents of his bag on the table, and while we were scrambling for the nuts and apples, gave us many smart raps over the fingers. In many families the children are made to say, "I thank you, Herr Nicolaus," and the rods are hung up in the room till Christmas to keep them in good behavior. This was only a forerunner of the Christ-kindchen's coming. The Nicolaus is the punishing spirit, the Christ-kindchen the rewarding one.
When this time was over, we all began preparing secretly our presents for Christmas. Every day there were consultations about the things which should be obtained. It was so arranged that all should interchange presents, but nobody must know beforehand what he would receive. What pleasure there was in all these secret purchases and preparations ! Scarcely anything was thought or spoken of but Christmas, and every day the consultations became more numerous and secret. The trees were bought sometime beforehand, but as we were to witness the estival for the first time, we were not allowed to see them prepared, in order that the effect might be as great as possible. The market in the Roemerberg Square grew constantly larger and more brilliant. Every night it was lit up with lamps and thronged with people. Quite a forest sprang up in the street before our door. The old stone house opposite, with the traces of so many centuries on its dark face, seemed to stand in the midst of a garden. It was a pleasure to go out every evening and see the children rushing to and fro, shouting and seeking out toys from the booths, and talking all the time of the Christmas that was so near. The poor people went by with their little presents hid under their cloaks, lest their children might see them; every heart was glad and every countenance wore a smile of secret pleasure.
Finally the day before Christmas arrived. The streets were so full I could hardly make my way through, and the sale of trees went on more rapidly than ever. These were commonly branches of pine or fir, set upright in a little miniature garden of moss. When the lamps were lighted at night, our street had the appearance of an illuminated garden. We were prohibited from entering the rooms up stairs in which the grand ceremony was to take place, being obliged to take our seats in those arranged for the guests, and wait with impatience the hour when Christ-kindchen should call. Several relations of the family came, and what was` more agreeable, they brought with them five or six children. I was anxious to see how they would view the ceremony. Finally, in the middle of an interesting conversation, we heard the bell ringing up stairs. We all started up and made for the door. I ran up the steps with the children at my heels, and at the top met a blaze of light coming from the open do or, that dazzled me. In each room stood a great table, on which the presents were arranged, amid flowers and wreaths. From the centre, rose the beautiful Christmas tree covered with wax tapers to the very top, which made it nearly as light as day, while every bough was hung with sweetmeats and gilded nuts. The children ran shouting around the table, hunting their presents, while the older persons had theirs pointed out to them. I had quite a little library of German authors as my share ; and many of the others received quite valuable gifts.
But how beautiful was the heart-felt joy that shone on every countenance ! As each one discovered he embraced the givers, and all was a scene of the purest feelings. It is a glorious feast, this Christmas time 1 What a chorus from happy hearts went up on that evening to Heaven ! Full of poetry and feeling and glad associations, it is here anticipated with joy, and leaves a pleasant memory behind it. We may laugh at such simple festivals at home, and prefer to shake ourselves loose from every shackle that bears the rust of the Past, but we would certainly be happier if some of these beautiful old customs were better honored. They renew the bond of feeling between families and friends, and strengthen their kindly sympathy; even life-long friends require occasions of this kind to freshen the wreath that binds them together.
New Year's Eve is also favored with a peculiar celebration in Germany. Everybody remains up and makes himself merry till midnight. The Christmas trees are again lighted, and while the tapers are burning down, the family play for articles which they have purchased and hung on the boughs. It is so arranged that each one shall win as much as he gives, which change of articles makes much amusement. One of the ladies rejoiced in the possession of a red silk handkerchief and a cake of soap, while a cup and saucer and a pair of scissors fell to my lot! As midnight drew near, it was louder in the streets, and companies of people, some of them singing in chorus, passed by on their way to the Zeil. Finally three-quarters struck, the windows were opened and every one waited anxiously for the clock to strike. At the first sound, such a cry arose as one may imagine, when thirty or forty thousand persons all set their lungs going at once. Every body in the house, in the street; over the whole city, shouted, 'Prosst Neu Jahr! In families, all the members embrace each other, with wishes of happiness for the new year. Then the windows are thrown open, and they cry to their neighbors or those passing by.
After we had exchanged congratulations Dennett, B-and I set out for the Zeil. The streets were full of people, shouting to one another and, to those standing at the open windows. %We failed not to cry, "Prosst Neu Jahr!" wherever we saw a damsel at the window, and the words came back to us more musically than we sent them. Along the Zeil. the spectacle was most singular. The great wide street was filled, with companies of men marching up and down, while from the mass rang up one deafening, unending shout, that seemed to pierce the black sky above. The whole scene looked stranger and wilder from the flickering light of the swinging lamps, and I could not help thinking it must resemble a night in Paris during the French Revolution. We joined the crowd and used our lungs as well as any of them. For some time after we returned home, companies passed by, singing "with us 'tis ever so!" but at three o'clock all was again silent.