Germany does Christmas well. Annette has tried her best over the years to transplant to New Hampshire a few of the Christmas traditions she most cherishes, such as Advent singing, Glühwein, and real candles on our Christmas tree. But it’s not the same as being here.
During the last weekend of November, Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmärkte) sprang up all over Berlin. In the simplest cases, these markets consist of a few huts where one can purchase mulled wine and warm snacks, with tall round tables around which to gather in the evening chill. However, most of Berlin’s Weihnachtsmärkte are much more elaborate. I noticed in early December that the local newspapers were running reviews of the dozen or so largest Weihnächtsmarkte in the city, rating them as best for kids, most romantic, best shopping opportunities, etc.
We went to our first Weihnachtsmarkt of the season a few weeks ago. It was set up at the Gendarmenmarkt plaza, where one also finds the Berlin Konzerthaus, the French Cathedral, and the German Cathedral. Annette was put off by our having to pay a €1 entrance fee (“I’ve never had to pay to get into a Weihnachtsmarkt!”), but the cost of admission turned out to be well worthwhile. The numerous huts were attractively constructed and decorated, the food and drinks were good, and there were lovely handcrafts for sale. On a central stage, six musicians dressed as angels performed Christmas instrumentals on dulcimers and harps. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera.
Several nights ago I set out with Rani and Mamta to document for this blog the Berlin Weihnachtsmarkt experience. We considered going to the market at Potsdamer Platz, where we had seen sledding on an impressive man-made slope, and the huts were set up to mimic an aprés ski experience, but instead we decided to head for the market at Alexanderplatz. What we found there was not what I had expected.
Alexanderplatz is a large, centrally-located square in downtown Berlin that is dominated by the Berlin TV Tower nicknamed “Alex.” From the Alexanderplatz S-Bahn station, we headed toward the ferris wheel to our south.
On the way we passed a Glüwein stand with a moose head mounted above it. My guard started to rise when I noticed that the moose head was swinging from side to side and its jaw was working. I moved closer, and realized that it was singing carols and telling jokes.
When we arrived at the Weihnachtsmarkt, it looked a lot like a carnival. In addition to the ferris wheel, we found numerous other large structures glowing with colored lights: a couple of roller coasters, and numerous rides featuring impressive swings, swirls and shakes. There were also games of chance and perhaps skill, and — in a nod to my idealized vision of a Weihnachtsmart — various huts serving mulled wine and warm snacks.
On the S-Bahn ride to Alexanderplatz, Rani and Mamta had informed me that they were expecting to eat cotton candy. I had other ideas — perhaps chestnuts roasted on an open fire. One of the first huts we came to was the “Zucker Schloss,” or Sugar Castle. After a brief negotiation, Rani and Mamta agreed to share a single portion of cotton candy. We passed other huts that looked more inviting to me, not to mention more nutritious — crepes filled with Nutella, and yes, roasted chestnuts — but the girls were satisfied for the time being.
When I saw how expensive the rides were — about €5 each — I realized that I hadn’t brought enough money for the evening. I found a cash machine, but my card didn’t work. I was not especially sorry to have to tell the girls that they could each choose just one ride.
Rani led us over to the giant spinning arm with the heavily-padded seats on each end. The “Booster Maxxx Mega G-4” was advertised as going 55 meters high, and reaching speeds of 100 km/hour. I think it was the gnarliest ride in the market. To me it looked exciting, but not fun. Mamta was initially enthusiastic about accompanying her older sister, but the more she watched the spinning arm, the less interested she became. Her decision not to participate gave me an out as well.
Rani was all smiles when she finished the ride. I am not sure if she was smiling because the ride was so much fun, or because she was happy it was over. Probably both.
Mamta had trouble deciding on her ride. We meandered through the crowds, past the “Passion Express,” the Tilt-a-Whirl, and bumper-cars-in-the-fog. She finally chose “Break Dance,” which featured cars that spun up, down, and around on a track that was also spinning in tilted circles. I tried to get a photo of the girls in motion, but they were moving too quickly. The ride reminded me of the “mixing bowls” ride that had made me nauseous as a child at Asbury Park. Neither of my daughters seemed particularly worse for wear when the Break Dance ride was over.
We continued our wandering past odd dioramas from fairy tales, booths for making bets that I didn’t understand, and various games that looked like they were rigged against the players. Mamta tried her hand at throwing balls to knock down a pyramid of cans. We watched eager ring-tossers fail dozens of times to ensare their goals. The girls were briefly transfixed by a competitive game in which contestants rolling small balls into target holes caused horses to move along a race track. We came to a ride called “Halloween” that seemed out-of-place even in this bizarre (as I had come to think of it) Weihnachtsmarkt. And we passed numerous stands offering mulled wine that would have been more tempting if I had brought more money.
As we came back toward the spot where we had entered the market, Rani noticed a hut selling stewed mushrooms topped with “Krauter Quark,” an herb-flavored yogurt sauce. Apparently the cotton candy hadn’t made a lasting impression on her stomach. We pooled our resources and bought a bowl of mushrooms.
As it was getting late, and both girls had school the next day, we headed back to the S-Bahn station. The Weihnachtsmarkt was not what I had expected, but the girls had fun, as did I — once I was able to leap the gap between my expectations and the reality. Berlin is full of surprises.