Dec 26, 2016

Christmas Traditions

Thursday, December 22 was the first day our winter holiday. We got out early and hit the city hard for the last few things from the Christmas markets, a bit of shopping more for travel, runs to the post office to mail packages, coffee to beat back the fatigue.

The city was busy, but hardly in a frenzy. We noticed grimly the new concrete roadblocks that had been erected overnight, the increase in the number of police and police vehicles, and how many of them now carried rifles. This was, of course, a reaction to the tragedy in Berlin, where an asylum-seeking terrorist hijacked a truck and rammed it into a christmas market, killing a dozen people and injuring many more.

It’s a difficult time. With the rising tide of populist, isolationist nationalism, I am seeing more and more hostility against immigrants in Germany. In September, the far-right party Alternative fur Deutschland will run against Merkel and it is expected they will do well enough to claim some powers in the national government. From what I understand, their positions are much more reactionary than Trump’s. Stuttgart remains fairly open-minded, but then it has not [yet] been hit by terrorism, and it is a region which was largely built and prospered on the industry of immigrants working for German industrialists. Merkel gets a lot of criticism for what her critics say was the “throwing open the doors” of Germany, and wolves came in with the sheep.

It is difficult to imagine the mindset of these migrants. On the one hand, they are so desperate to flee they will play Russian roulette with the crossing, to throw one’s live and the lives of the family to mercy of the seas and steppes, to smugglers and bandits. What wouldn’t one do afterwards, once one has put that gun to the head and pulled the trigger? When Finland decided to start advertising that refugees would not be welcomed, it was almost a black joke: Finland takes out an “unwelcome” ad while in Greece refugees sewed their own mouths shut in protest just against conditions in the holding camps.

And many refugees voluntarily go back to the war-and-poverty-destroyed homes from which they came. They are willing to risk death and to lose everything they have and then they end up in some progressive, secular, educated European nation where nothing makes sense and they feel as alienated and lost as if they were still at sea. So they return, even to Syria, because they can at least live their identity there.

There was a case here of an asylum seeker who threw his children out through the window of their state-provided housing (they survived) because he was angry and upset that his wife was taking the attitudes and customs of the German women. There are cultural adjustment classes all over Germany for refugees, but old habits die hard, especially when they are tied to the way religions are interpreted. But who knows, maybe he was just an unusually terrible person and we have those everywhere.

Anyway, more security at the Christmas markets.
Thursday evening, Saori and I made more springerle, which, if I had a cooking blog, would be our Baking Fad of the Moment. Springerle are a kind of stamped cookie, lightly flavored with whole anis seed, and in my experience, incredibly hard and durable. In fact, recipes call for an aging in a cool, outside humidity environment for a week or two to “mature” after baking, at which point it has a shelf life of years. People make them into tree ornaments. Saori took an interest to the stamps last year but this was her first year to try them and she was over the moon with the results. They can taste good, and Saori’s do, but the main point of these cookies are the impressions from the stamps, which are incredibly detailed. These show traditional christmas scenes like the three kings or the manger scene, birds and animals, winter scenes like snowmen, wreaths and roses, and old domestic scenes like women baking or knitting. The detail is very fine- the “woman knitting stamp is perhaps two inches by two inches and one sees definitely the woman’s tiny nose, the hair’s width yarn line, and even the building outside of the window. Breaking one of these cookies apart feels slightly like destroying old bas-reliefs. It makes me want to make an edible Parthenon with the Elgen Marbles rendered in flour and powdered sugar.

The recipe is very basic- egg and flour and powdered sugar, but it takes extremes of time: you have to beat the dough for 30 minutes, and then it has to rest for 30 minutes, and then after you stamp the cookies, it has to sit out and rest for 24 hours. It’s about the slowest of slow foods.
Friday morning we invited our friend Dennis over for breakfast. Dennis is Saori’s coworker and team leader, and she described him to me once as her big brother at the office- at times appearing to be infuriatingly and obstinately oblivious, and other times absolutely brilliant and an effective mediator and cushion between Saori and her psychopath project leader. He took a job in Munich, (good for him, his first time working away from his home area), but Saori is really bummed to be losing him from the office. I cooked us up a rasher of bacon and fried eggs and he brought some fresh fruits and croissants, and Saori made some toffee nut coffee (from America, of course, nobody else on earth flavors their coffee like that).

His family had invited us over to spend Christmas eve and stay over a night, but it was changed to Christmas day dinner when his father wasn’t feeling well, and Dennis decided to just spend Christmas eve day with us. We chatted well until lunchtime and then parted ways. We spent the afternoon cleaning and I brined the turkey. That night, Saori and I curled up on the couch and watched The Snowman, which is one of our christmastime traditions, and YouTubed old Russian stop motion kid’s shows like Cheburashka and Hedgehog in the Fog. We also discovered a delightful 1980s Muppet christmas special which centered on the running gag of more and more guests showing up at Fozzie Bear’s mom’s house for Christmas, including the entire ensemble of Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. Bert and Ernie were the highlight in this crossing, although the generosity and sweetness of Big Bird dissuades the Swedish chef from making him the main course.

Saturday was Christmas eve day, and I jumped out in the morning to pick up a few last minute things from the grocery stores, which were open until the early afternoon. I started soaking some beans for Christmas day, cleaned the oven, made STP, and Saori wrapped some last presents.
Dennis came over around four and I popped the turkey in the oven. I popped open a bottle of German bubbly and we toasted each other. We chatted and cooked and YouTubed until the turkey was ready and the three of us sat down to feast at a table decked with candles and lights and evergreen tree branches. A small feast, at any rate. Saori made cranberry sauce, I made the roasted turkey drums, Saori made the salad from the ingredients Dennis had brought, and then there was STP for dessert.

Dennis also brought us Christmas presents to unwrap since in Gemany, most people open presents Christmas eve. So we plunked down in front of the tree and received from him a tasting set of local spirits for me, Saori got some L’Occitane hand creams, and for both of us a book Krabat a 1971 young adult fantasy (in German) based on a very old traditional story from Germanic Slavs, which is one of his favorite books.

Saori had prepared a bag of springerle for his family and I selected one of the bottles of wine to give to Dennis in return, but he protested we had already given him so much in terms of dinners.
After presents we returned to the table, broke out the liquor, delta blues, and playing cards. We taught Dennis daihinmen because neither Saori nor I could remember the rules to Durak, and Dennis caught on quick. We played late into the night until we decided to break for a movie. I proposed “Aliens” probably because it had been rolling around in the back of my head for awhile to watch it again, and both Saori and Dennis thought, why not, sounds like fun. So we settled on the sofa to watch Ridley Scott’s timeless Christmas classic about overcoming hardships, unlikely friendships, crashed spaceships, and motherhood. My heart nearly burst out of my chest.

It was half five AM when we waved Dennis out and went to bed ourselves.

Christmas morning I woke up just before the dawning of eleven and assessed myself for how badly hungover I was. It was a Christmas miracle: a couple cookies, a couple aspirin, a cup of coffee, and I was back on my feet and ready to open presents with my beloved.

Saori gave me a wireless LED lamp from local lighting manufacturer Nimbus, as well as a promise to buy me a new chair once we are back in the US for good. I got her leg warmers. Well, not just leg warmers. Theres a few more things waiting in the US, but you need to open something on Christmas.

After present opening, I fixed us a light breakfast (we were still stuffed from Christmas) and started packing and cleaning and texting family and friends, generally getting ready for our trip to the US. We took a break a little after three to go on a short hike. Many of the Germans I talked to about their Christmas plans, most of them mentioned hiking with family in a way which was somewhere between eye-rolling and excitement. I liked the idea of a Christmas hike. A bit of fresh air, a breather in the woods, a bit of excercise to “bajar la comida” after so much eating.

So we threw on something warm and put on our hiking boots and went out to visit the population of wild boars. About a half hour hike in from the last subway stop, the state fenced off a football field or two of forest for wild boars to roam around. It’s a popular spot because the wild boars are used to seeing people and will come up to the fence to crunch away on pasta, fruits, and veg. Last year before christmas there was a new litter(?) and over the year it’s been fun to come back and see the tiny watermelon striped piglets mature into roughhousing juveniles running around everywhere and now they’re almost full grown, much more sedate.

After the hike, I finished cooking the beans in the pressure cooker since the slow cooker was a bit too slow and that finished everything really nice. So we ate a cup or two, cleaned, and packed the rest of the evening before turning in late.

Christmas traditions:

  • Hike on Christmas Day - KEEP
  • Family Sharing - CONDITIONAL
  • Watching The Snowman - KEEP
  • Watching Aliens - MAYBE. We’ll see about next year. Might be alternate years
  • Roasted turkey dinner - See Aliens
  • Hangover - TOSS
  • Overplaying “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” - TOSS
  • Facetime / Google Talk to family - KEEP
  • Gathering with friends and family - KEEP
  • Champagne - KEEP
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding - KEEP
  • Evergreen branches on dining table - KEEP
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