My wife Sandra and I were wandering the forests on the hunt for
chestnuts a few weeks back when we noticed there were no chestnut trees
to be found. A quick Internet search told us that the American chestnut
trees were wiped out by a blight some 70 years ago. Well, we thought,
‘blight’ is a pretty cool word, but we can’t have Christmas dinner
without chestnuts. It was then that the idea hit us: if our American
friends have been missing out on chestnuts, maybe they have been missing
out on other European traditions as well. And maybe we should invite them to
our house for some Old World Christmas charm.
So, that’s what we are doing. On Friday, December 21st, we hope you are
yours will join us and ours for coffee, cake, and a few very special
Christmas visitors from the old country.
We’ll start promptly at 4:00 with Stollen, which is Germany’s version of
fruitcake. We’ve had American fruitcake, and we invite you to set your
prejudices aside and give the Stollen a try; it really is something
special. It looks like a loaf of bread with a fat center and tapered
edges, and this shape is no baking accident. It is intended to represent
the shape of baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, about to be baked
at 300 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Just one heavenly bite and you’ll
feel the hand of God gently caressing your stomach. Almost literally.
After coffee and cake, we will be visited by none other than Saint
Nicolas himself. One thing you are sure to notice is that the German
Santa has a few helpers — and I’m not talking about elves. No, in
Germany, Santa is accompanied by altogether different sorts of
characters, one of whom is Knecht Ruprecht. He will be easily
recognizable by his brown robe, black beard, cane, and that magical
twinkle he gets in his eyes when Santa instructs him to savagely beat a
naughty child with a cane.
We have come to understand that the American Santa leaves naughty
children a lump of coal instead of toys as punishment, and we admire the
fact that the American Santa doles out punishment himself. He’s a
go-getter, that American Santa. In Europe, St. Nicolas has outsourced
the punishment job. I suppose it’s not unlike the American Santa has
outsourced the toy-building to the elves. And, just as the Santa’s elves
are happy to build toys for the deserving American child, Santa’s Knecht
Ruprecht is happy to beat the undeserving child to within an inch of his
life, stuff him into a burlap bag, and throw him into an icy river,
where he will, presumably, drown. So, the traditions are quite similar
when you think about it.
But don’t worry too much about Knecht Ruprecht. He really is a kind soul
who has your children’s best interests at heart. If they survive the icy
water, they will wander back to the party flecked with bruises but full
of remorse and holiday cheer.
That being said, you should worry about the Krampus.
In the Alpine regions Germany, Santa’s entourage includes not only the
cane-happy, child-beating Knecht Ruprecht, but also something sinister
— a half-goat, half-demon monster called the Krampus. Like Knecht, the
Krampus has a taste for torturing children, but unlike Knecht, when the
Krampus carts the children away, they don’t normally come back. We’ve
heard rumors that they are eaten, and we’ve heard other rumors that they
are dragged straight to Hell itself, but the truth is we don’t know what
happens. All that we do know is that those children who do come back are
changed into the perfect Christmas party guests. Their eyes dull and lifeless. The only way to return the lost twinkle in their eyes is to set the
Christmas tree ablaze with the fire of celebration. You should see their
faces when it all goes up in flames. Christmas is a magical time in Germany.
We would love to share this magical holiday with you, our new American
friends. There’s no need to bring anything, but the children should wear
comfortable, warm clothes and shoes suitable for running through the
snow for their very lives.
Merry Christmas and Frohe Weihnachten!