Christmas Tide in Munich


[Originally published in TRAVEL MAGAZINE for July, 1908]

N0 occupation is dearer to the heart of your true Teuton than the preparation for any kind of festival. The German calendar fairly bristles with holidays—for, in addition to those of annual recurrence, there are countless extras to be reckoned with, such as the celebration of a royal wedding or semi-royal Silberkochzeit; the anniversary of a poet's birthday or the foundation of a dynasty.

Yet all such occasions are merely subsidiary to that feast of feasts—Weihnachtsfest (Christmas), or as, one says usually, Weihnachten—the word being employed in the plural because of the equal celebration of the two following days. But if North Germany be merry at this time, South Germany is merrier. Here only does one find the observances peculiar to Teutonic peoples combined with the pretty superstitions and rites of Catholic lands. Thus, Munich at Christmas-tide presents sights of unique interest and charm for the foreigner; indeed, so manifold are the delights of the "festival city" at this time that one scarcely knows where to begin in the telling of them.

The churches all exhibit Krippen or crêches as the French call the quaint waxen groups representing the nativity of our Lord. The traveler has perhaps already viewed (in the National Museum) a wonderful collection of crêches brought from Italy and Spain where famous artists still consider it an act of piety to construct one or more of these curious works of art. In comparison with such, those seen in the famous churches of the Bavarian capital are surprisingly crude.

The holy stable is (after the quaint Catholic traditon) always represented as an ivy-clad ruin and fairly swarms with silken-clad personages—shepherds, travelers, sheep, oxen and angels. As for the background, the Palestine landscape is apt to bear an amusing resemblance to the mountains of the Bavarian Highlands, just as in the old Dutch or German paintings of the nativity one finds a Dutch or German Virgin with a superlatively Dutch or German village street observable through an inevitable window at her back. The figures in the Krippen vary greatly in size (and all else in proportion), being anywhere from three inches to three feet in height. They are placed on small stages behind glass with cleverly arranged prospectives and are lighted from above in a fashion that greatly intensifies the effect.

As for the Munich shops, they are (as everywhere else in Christendom) transformed at the holiday season. Yet, though pervaded by a pleasant Christmas bustle, they are never uncomfortably crowded; the German, as a matter of principle, never leaving anything till the last moment. At all times the artistic bent of the Munich citizen is apparent. At Christmas time one stands spellbound before the windows of the baker shops and the Conditorei. Truly, such wonderful edibles were never before constructed. It seems a very profanation of art to dream of eating them. Marvelous chocolates moulded into the shapes of every known bird, beast or fowl are to be had for less than the proverbial "song." The Lebkuchen especially are veritable creations. One of the latter represents the Christ child with his tree; another a fat old St. Nicholas; a third an officer in full uniform making love to a pretty maid, while a fourth portrays an entire Christmas scene (as in a holiday number of Punch), with joke and all outlined in the finest pink and white icing, on a huge brown cake.

Outside the churches and shops Christmas is equally in the air. Five mornings before the great day one wakens to find the broad avenue below one's window a mass of waving tree-tops. Serried ranks of pine-trees, fastened on squares of wood and standing up straight and proud, line the sidewalks as far as the eye can reach. Like the proverbial fairy forest, it has sprung up in a single night.

The sale of the Christbäume, as the Germans call them, is presided over by ruddy-faced peasant women who in spite of the biting cold look as if they enjoyed their employment. Perhaps no better example could be cited of what heavy manual labor German women are capable of performing. Women assist in the felling of these trees in their far-off mountain homes; women cart them to town, where, after nailing them to blocks, piling them together at night and rearranging them in an upright position each daybreak (no pleasant task on a bitter December morning), women will finally deliver each and every one at the house of its purchaser. Labor and time are reckoned cheaply by the poor in Bavaria, for—after a considerable expense of both on the part of these indefatigable creatures—one may purchase a seven-foot specimen of their wares for about twelve cents.

But the supreme pleasure of Christmas-tide for Munich children is found at the theatre. The holiday performances consist of some familiar nursery-tale charmingly dramatized in the simple rhymed verse to which the German tongue so peculiarly lends itself. The piece is then staged as magnificently as if "Faust" or "Midsummer Night's Dream" were to be given and is presented by the best actors and actresses of the company. Day after day the theatre is crowded with happy children and older folk who grow young again in re-acquaintance with the Princess Goldenhair and her fairy prince. The costumer and the scene painter have surpassed themselves, and so charming are the illusions they produce that one insensibly feels the years which separate us from fairyland drop from one's shoulders. With bated breath one watches the fair lady upon the stage, who—without the slightest damage to a traveling costume of spangled blue satin—passes through all sorts of adventures as she searches the worlds of air, water and land for her lost love.

In the final act disaster seems about to overwhelm the traveler; the wicked fairy has her at last (one thinks). Suddenly—and just in the nick of time—a rocky wall opens and there appears the princess's guardian angel, dazzling in her circle of calcium light. At her side stands a smiling rosy Christkind whom one recognizes instantly from his pictures. (Vehement applause from the audience!)

The now happy princess (her trailing gown as dainty and her marceled locks as lovely as in the first act) is now reunited to Prince Charming, who during her absence has (in spite of his troubles) somehow found time and opportunity to change his black velvet suit for a still more becoming one of sky-blue plush, at the sight of which every little girl in the audience is in speechless raptures.

When the curtain falls heavy indeed must be the cares of him or her who does not hasten home to relight the Christbäum for the children and to join them (temporarily at least) in their plaint that another whole year must elapse before another German Christmas can bring them its cornucopia of joys.