I wake up at three o’clock on Christmas morning in my hotel in Nuremberg, a plate of half-eaten Christmas cookies beside me on the bed. The TV is still on. It’s a news program. On-screen, hundreds of men are donning Santa suits, wiggling white beards into place as they file into an auditorium and take their seats in front of pointer-wielding instructors. From what I can gather with my limited German, thousands of Berliners are training en masse to be Saint Nick so they can be sent out to delight the city’s children. Eventually I turn off the TV and fall back asleep. When I wake up again a few hours later, ready to celebrate my first Christmas in Germany in 26 years, I can’t help but wonder if those Santas were just a dream.
Christmastime in Germany can have that effect on a person. It is a more mysterious holiday here than in America—more expressionistic. Think Fritz Lang, not Miracle on 34th Street. It exists in a world of shadows: parties in arched-ceiling wine cellars; snow-covered castle ruins bathed in moonlight; and candlelit meals of gravy-drenched roasts, crispy potato pancakes slathered with applesauce, and cream-covered baked apples, all of it awash in the glow of smiling faces and twinkling eyes reflected in wineglasses and beer steins.
Nearly every city in Germany erects a Christmas market in its main square in early December. Part medieval village, part bohemian shantytown, the mazes of stalls proffer food and holiday bric-a-brac and become the nerve center for a month long frenzy of festivalgoing. Night after night, the markets fill with the clamor of excited, cheerful voices; the scent of mulled wine; the aroma of nutmeg-spiked sausages frying under piles of sweet onions; and warm, comfy body heat. Cheeks are rosier. Eyes are wider. At Christmastime, Germany is a country suffused with a sense of togetherness.
I lived in Germany for seven years as a child—in four different apartments. I was the son of a career Air Force officer, from nowhere, wanting to be from somewhere. Anywhere. Hardly any of my relatives visited us, either because of a fear of flying or—I don’t know why, frankly. I used to pepper my parents with questions about their own hometowns, their siblings, their friends, the schools they went to, hoping to manufacture some kind of family history.
Christmas helped fill the void. I escaped into the holiday as some would into book. A Dungeons & Dragons geek, I reveled in the season’s rituals and symbols, which seemed more ancient and mystical than those I remembered from America. Each year, I tacked an Advent calendar to my bedroom door, and the first thing I did every morning, religiously, from the first to the twenty-fourth of December, was open one of its compartments, take out a piece of chocolate molded into the shape of a goose or a candle, and pop it into my mouth like it was a communion wafer.
Each December 5, my younger brother, Casey, and I, would follow the local kids’ tradition and set our snow boots outside the front door to await Saint Nicholas. The next morning they would be full of candy, lumps of coal, and wooden switches—seasonal tidings mixed with a Germanic hint of rebuke—a reminder that we’d been both good and bad. There were a few family traditions my parents had brought over from the States, like making a Christmas Eve pizza with green and red bell peppers, but it was the rituals of the German holiday, with its curious mix of joy and Sturm und Drang, that made the most lasting impression on me.
In the quarter century since I left Germany, I’ve started my own family, with its own Yuletide traditions, but I’ve never been able to find that old magic and mystery again. There was always something missing from the holiday, which made it feel like there was something missing inside me, too. I needed to go back.
I’ve decided to spend the holiday in Germany’s tradition-bound heart: Bavaria. I’ve been invited to a pre-Christmas dinner at the home of Hans-Peter Drexler and his wife, Brigitte, in the snowbound village of Fischbachau, about 40 miles outside of Munich. In the kitchen, Brigitte, dressed in a dirndl, is mixing a dough of bread and onion to make semmelknodel (caraway-scented bread dumplings). She eases the dumplings into a pot of boiling water; they sink to the bottom and then bob to the surface, knocking gently against the sides of the pot and each other.
Hans-Peter is the brewmaster of the venerable Weisses Brauhaus G. Schneider & Sohn brewery. My friend Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery and an old acquaintance of Hans-Peter’s, introduced us by e-mail. Darting back and forth in the kitchen, and also dressed in their Christmasy Bavarian best, are the Drexlers’ children: Michael, Peter, Max, and Thomas. Each is in charge of making a particular dish: Max is making the schwarzwurzelsuppe (a black salsify soup drizzled with sour cream and pumpkin seed oil); Peter is helping with the bratapfel mit walnusseis (baked apples and stuffed walnuts with riesling sauce); and Michael, the oldest son, is tending to the Wildschwein mit rubengemuse (roasted wild boar with bacon and juniper berries, served with root vegetables) using his great-great-grandfather’s hand-carved wooden spoon, while Thomas makes a puree of celery root and cream.
As the dumplings are coming out of the pot, Hans-Peter strides in with a big mug of frothy beer and hands it to me. “You are at the home of the brewmaster!” he bellows. Suddenly, the back door flies open and a pair of dirndl-clad women burst in, bearing cookies and schnapps. “Ah, our neighbors,” says Hans-Peter. “They’ve come to celebrate with us.” Later, we all eat together at a big table next to a Christmas tree with wild-looking, spindly branches that are decorated with real lighted candles.
Near the end of the meal, Brigitte puts a plate of the baked apple dessert in front of me. The apple’s skin has ruptured and the flesh is spilling out in places, its sugary juices mingling with melting whipped cream. I take a bite, and memories of long-ago Christmases come flooding back. I am suddenly overwhelmed with emotion and thanks. I marvel out loud about the Christmas reverie that they are living. “We have years of tradition in our blood,” Hans-Peter replies. “It’s like making beer: Unlike what some craft brewers might think, beauty and perfection don’t happen overnight.” He slaps me on the back.
Late that night I get into my makeshift bed on a banquette next to the glow of the tree. The Drexlers’ cat comes in and curls up in the nativity scene, a furry giant amid the tiny figurines. I whisper a good night.
The following evening, Hans-Peter and I drive to Munich for a holiday dinner at the 140-year-old beer hall owned by the Weisse brewery. The air inside is tangy with the sweet-and-sour smell of gravy and lager. The rafters of the sprawling room—reverberating with the roar of some 400 revelers—are festooned with garlands of pine boughs and thick red ribbons. The chef, a bear of a man named Joseph Nagler, greets us when we arrive and leads us to a table. When we shake hands, I notice that the chef’s hands are the size of flapjacks. When I mention this to Hans-Peter, he says, “He probably had to show his hands when he interviewed! It is so he can make the big dumplings!”
The food is big. Piled on a plate that Chef Nagler has placed before us are formidable roasted pork shanks in a glossy lake of brown sauce alongside fat semolina dumplings. I cut into one of the dumplings, and a cloud of steam escapes. The inside is still creamy. With the first bite, a smile spreads across my face. The dumpling is deeply savory yet warmly spiced, with a flavor that fills me from top to bottom. This is the type of food that brings people together, the kind that creates a bond. You don’t build long-lasting friendships over stuffed zucchini and cucumber sandwiches. When the chef returns to our table, I thank him effusively. “We are all one big family here!” he says, spreading his arms and gazing around the room.
True enough. As the night progresses, I effortlessly fall into conversation with the people sitting around us. Toward the end of the evening, I chat with a group of retirees at their Stammtisch, or locals’ table. They regale me with stories of Christmases past. On my way out the door, a man in a Santa suit brushes past me and flashes the peace sign.
The next morning, I’m on a train to Nuremberg, Bavaria’s second-largest city, rocking out to Ray Coniff’s version of “O, Tannenbaum” on my headphones and eating a giant, salt-crusted pretzel smeared with butter. As a snow-covered landscape of forested hills rolls by, I’m growing giddy with anticipation. Today I will visit Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, one of the oldest Christmas markets in the world, and the site of memorable visits when I was a child.
Soon I’m walking over the slippery cobblestone streets that wind down from my hotel to the market square. I turn a corner and enter a maelstrom. The market is teeming with people, literally shoulder to shoulder, just like I remember. It’s all still here: the twinkling lights, the medieval turrets towering over the square, the candy-striped stall tents filled with sauerkraut steam, the brigades of nutcracker soldiers, the cauldrons of mulled wine. Suddenly I’m a kid again.
A friend in Munich suggested I have lunch at a place close to the square called the Brat-wursthausle. A mass of people is pushing me upstream, and eventually I follow a tributary that leads me right to the restaurant, which resembles an alpine cottage. The dining room is rowdy, and redolent of nutmeg, sawdust, and searing sausages. I was told to ask for Werner Behringer, the owner. I do, and presently a man appears before me, looking for all the world like a Bavarian version of Merv Griffin.
By way of greeting, Herr Behringer gives me a wink, puts his arm around my shoulder, and ushers me to a nearby table already crowded with diners. A few minutes later, he returns bearing plates of small, intensely spiced Nuremberger sausages, creamy potato salad, and a pile of sauerkraut studded with whole spices. And now comes a mug of beer. It is the size of a toddler. “Just a drop,” Herr Behringer says, laughing, and then disappearing into the crowd. I don’t know any of the people I’m sitting with. At any other time of the year they’d be strangers, but not today. We toast each other and talk, eat, and drink into the afternoon’s waning hours.
Finally, it is Christmas Day. A ruddy-faced, mustachioed man named Stefan Rottner has just brought me a glass of something ruby-colored and sparkling. “This is champagne with fruit syrup,” he says. The syrup was made from macerated berries, apples, and currants that his 85-year-old grandmother jarred last summer.
When I asked my German friends back home where I should have Christmas dinner in Bavaria, they told me to come here, to Gasthaus Rottner. The restaurant, just outside Nuremberg, was established in 1812 and has been in Chef Stefan’s family ever since. It is just the type of place I remember from my childhood—half-timbered facade, painted, striped wooden shutters, with a coat of arms over the entrance—a Hansel and Gretel fairy tale come to life.
“It is an uber-Christmas in Germany!” says the chef as we sit down to dinner amid other families who have come to his restaurant for their holiday meal.
We eat crisp-skinned roast goose with red cabbage, a traditional Christmas Day dish. “Today it is goose,” says Chef Stefan. “Tomorrow it is venison.”
Later, as we’re finishing our desserts, Stefan says he’s surprised that I’ve chosen to spend the holiday without my family. “I can’t imagine being away from home for the Christmas season,” he says. “We have such a strong feeling for this. I remember in 1956 when my brother, Hubert, went down to the main train station on Christmas Eve to give presents to the homeless. My father didn’t understand what he was doing. But Hubert just said he wanted the lonely persons to feel happy.” I tell Herr Rottner that I’m not lonely at all. I tell him how happy I am at this very moment—to be home for Christmas.