Year-end slapstick tickles the Germans' fancy like nothing else.
Expats and migrants are often adept at picking up the local lingo and many have no great difficulty adapting to new climes and cultures. Yet when it comes to customs and conventions, the nitty gritty of daily life, they can still come a cropper. I arrived in Germany able to speak the language fluently. But it took ages to realise that a tersely uttered 'danke' really means 'nein danke'. And that a long-drawn out 'neeein' actually translates as 'ja'.
But here's a surprise. And it's something you'll find nowhere else in the world: whole families crowding around the TV on New Year's Eve to watch 'Dinner for One'.
This sexual innuendo delights Germans of all ages. The catchphrase has long entered their everyday vocabulary. It’s often used in newspaper headlines and advertisements too. It’s as well known in Germany as Vorsprung durch Technik in Britain.
So much for Miss Sophie & Co. But what still puzzles me after 20 years in Germany is this whole Father Christmas business. Children here are gifted by either baby Jesus, known as Christkindl, or Nikolaus. I typically mix these characters up, mistaking them for one and the same.
First I ever heard about Nikolaus was when I worked in an office in Bonn and we all turned up on 6 December to find a chocolate Nikolaus propped up against our coffee mugs. German bosses follow this custom every Advent, supposedly in honour of Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, famed for helping the needy around 325 AD. After his death, word of the gift-giving legacy spread, slowly transforming man and image into the modern-day, red-dressed chocaholic. The Christkindl, on the other hand, originates from Luther’s time. Ironically, it was Protestants’ attempt to de-bunk this whole Catholic celebration of Saint Nicholas on 6 December.
Only a week into Advent and we get a terrible fright. Darkness is falling when a sudden thud at the front door makes us almost jump out of our skins. Peering out through the window we spot the shape of a ginormous figure plodding up our garden path.
Local heros - scary Krampus (left) with Nikolaus
Dating back over 1000 years, Krampus’ sole role is to flag up naughty kids to Santa, before dragging them off to the underworld. That's what parents tell their kids, at least. Unofficially, he’s just an uncouth guardian angel, scary enough to put the wind up you. Like some Simon-Cowell-type ‘X-Factor’ judge. German readers - just think big mouths from Modern Talking.
You HAVE been gut, haven't you?
We come face to face again with Krampus and Nikolaus the very next day. It’s the duo’s annual appearance at the village Christkindlmarkt and I’ve just committed the classic yuletide blooper in the company of Bavarians – I’ve foolishly referred to Nikolaus as the Weihnachtsmann. Something only a Prussian would dare do. Well, it is all a bit chaotic and I’m trying to take a picture of Tildy shaking the old man's hand while an army of kids keep prodding me impatiently from behind. I can hear some of them quietly tut-tutting and one little boy politely corrects me:
''Ho ho. Und machst Du oiwei des wos da Leahr sogt?’
‘Mei Buidog schofft's den Hügl ned mehr houch.’
My tractor can no longer make it up the hill.
Aha. Uttered in English, this might be aluding to the speaker's sagging libido. Spoken in Bavarian though, it simply sounds sweet. The three other mulled-wine sippers around the table show sympathy for the farmer’s plight, offering practical tips and advice on how he might soup up his vehicle:
That's the Christmas spirit - Tildy & Co. singing in the snow
This is deutsche Weihnacht at its best – heavenly sweet aromas wafting from mulled wine urns, the local school choir singing ‘O Tannenbaum’, and the haunting blow of hunting horns. There’s something almost spiritual about this fairy-lit Christkindlmarkt.
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