The Germans are taking over Christmas. It’s official: the media’s full of it. For a start, everyone’s buying Stollen, the richly-fruited, sugary, marzipan-filled cake that originated in Dresden. Forget all that Italian panettone: that’s so passé, mein Liebchen (what a marvellous mix of languages there!).
I have anecdotal evidence of this. I don’t like Stollen, finding it heavy, chewy and excessively sweet. My mum loves the stuff, though, so when we went to visit in November we took her a large one. To our surprise we found she already had a pile of two or three more in her larder. It’s always wise to be prepared, of course: but at 91 there is only so much she can wade through. So, if any more arrive for Christmas, she can always pile them up and use them as a footstool.
It’s not just Stollen. Nowadays the place to do your Christmas browsing is in a German market. Most major UK cities host them. Last Saturday we met up with our Yorkshire-based daughter in Leeds: a start at the German market was obligatory.
There are cheering aspects of German markets. I’m not particularly excited by all those Glühwein stalls: in my line of work I get enough mulled wine at carol services and Christmas concerts. I wasn’t even particularly impressed by the numerous sausage stalls: I can only take so much Wurst.
But I did wolf down a stormingly good Schnitzel, two big slices of breaded veal, with mushrooms and chips (forbidden fruit on my usually rigorous diet), all for £6. Washed down with some excellent German beer, that was a serious restorative. I even felt I could cope with Christmas shopping.
Another must-do in German markets is to browse round those candle-driven carved wooden carousels, angels rotating dizzily above the manger, and little wooden men in whose entrails you stick an incense cone so they smoke through their mouths. Charming, fun for the kids, essential parts of a traditional modern Christmas.
I’ve never lived in a city that has a German market. When I dwelt in the Midlands I reckoned Wolverhampton had come late to the European market thing: it only ever managed a Hungarian one. That was okay as long as you liked goulash: but somehow it lacked the magic. Newcastle doesn’t seem to go German, either: I like all that street food, but little of it suits the challenging Trafford diet.
Why do we reckon the Germans do Christmas better? Cologne Cathedral claims to house the bodies of the Three Kings, stolen from Constantinople in the early Middle Ages (relics were always big business): but that alone is not sufficient reason.
German children open their presents on Christmas Eve: that must save adults starting Christmas tired and headachy because the children have been up since 4am. That would leave us feeling stronger on Christmas Day: we might even cope better with those depressing Christmas specials of Eastenders or Corrie (you know what I mean: at the height of the family Christmas, the bloke announces, “I’m leavin’ yer, babe. I never loved yer, and the kids ain’t yours.” Dum, dum, der, der, der…) Where would we be without that dose of soap-injected misery amid the Christmas frivolity? I wonder if Germans suffer soaps, too.
Maybe the German climate helps. Continental Europe more readily provides the kind of crisp, cold weather traditional at Christmas. Perhaps that’s why they all wrap up warm, take to the streets and their own markets with friends and neighbours, sip scalding Glühwein and get into the Christmas spirit.
We shouldn’t worry. The traditional UK Christmas always was enriched by foreign imports. Yule logs, after all, came from the Norsemen: Good King Wenceslas, about whom we love to sing, was Czech; Santa arrives from Lapland; and Tchaikovsky’s magical Nutcracker ballet, surely an essential ingredient of Christmas, is Russian.
Thanks, I’ll take the lot. Meanwhile, Frohe Weihnachten.
Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.