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May 26, 2017

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The holidays in Europe

The Christmas markets along the Rhine River that revel in the traditions of days gone by

The first year you face a major holiday as an adult orphan it’s like the ground beneath you tilts. Suddenly, you are the generation of oldsters, the keeper of the holiday-traditions flame. The box of treasured family ornaments, the tabletop crèche and the festive linens now live on the shelf in your storage closet.

This is that Christmas for me. I am now that oldster. The cartons of family decorations were divvied up between siblings. We have stepped up to our new roles as nurturers of the customs knowing that — one day — they will be passed along to those who follow us.

My parents were refugees from post-war Europe. They escaped with only what they could carry and — almost certainly — that didn’t include wooden carved nutcrackers and boxes of Christmas ornaments. What eventually made it into our holiday collection was found in Canada. The boxes were filled with a fusion of North American-style Santas and reindeer-emblazoned baubles as well as more traditional European-style decorations, including a carved and painted wooden Svaty Miklas (Saint Nicholas) and elegant, painted glass ornaments from specialty shops.

I was hoping the Christmas markets scattered up and down the Rhine River would caress the senses of my childhood. My journey was to inhale the heady scent of gingerbread, to find small potato pancakes sizzling in vats of bubbling fat and to marinate in a setting where neon signs are verboten and the old-fashioned is celebrated. I was looking to find my footing.

Christmas with the Swiss

For Johann Wanner, Christmas — ornaments, specifically — is a love affair. He never handles the glass decorations in his Christmas House shop (johannwanner.ch) without first pulling on the white cotton gloves favoured by curators. Wanner is an ornament eccentric, something fuelled by a wish “to preserve the Christmas of my childhood.”

The low shelving in his shop in the northern Swiss city of Basel (myswitzerland.com/en-ca/basel.html) is filled with thousands of handmade, delicate globes, glass ornaments, twisted glass icicles and tree toppers. Most are carefully arranged by colour. He’s been collecting since 1969. “My wife is related to Thomas Edison,” Wanner explains. “And that allowed me to start this business when an aunt died and there was a small fortune left.”

Johann Wanner observes Christmas all year-round, but Basel rolls out two main Christmas markets during the month of December. I begin with the largest of the two, at Barfüsserplatz (basel.com/en/christmas-in-basel/christmas-market), in a square ringed by a soaring cathedral and medieval buildings.

There are lights twisted around the bare branches of chestnut trees, rows of small wooden chalets, shelves stacked with artisan pottery, knitted hats and sheepskin slippers. Pop-up restaurants dole out cheese fondue, raclette, sausages, thick waffles and thin crepes. Butter cookies and chocolates round out an astronomical calorie count. The air is fragrant with the heady smell of mulled wine.

France’s storybook villages

Downstream, a former walled city is home ground to five different German Christmas markets. The half-timbered houses of Colmar (tourisme-colmar.com), in the Alsace region of northeastern France, sit along the edges of its winding canals, the water channels that give it the nickname Little Venice. The slightly off-kilter architecture and the pleasing bends in the narrow waterways are almost certainly the design model for the romanticized tabletop Christmas models they sell in department stores back home — the ones with miniature lights to make it look as though someone is home, tossing another log onto the wood fire blazing away in the tiny hearth.

The Germans are a practical folk who leave little to chance. The front doors of many Colmar homes and shops are dressed up with an ancient Celtic symbol, encircled by a crown of pine twigs, to ward off evil before Christmas. “Until the 19th century, people were superstitious,” says local guide Stéphane Reitter. “There were symbols on a house for fertility or success, or a cross to protect the home from evil or disease. The Advent pine twigs and the twisted bretzel are like extra insurance against evil.”

Evil successfully banished, there’s an undeniable storybook appeal to Colmar’s markets (noel-colmar.com). The city’s medieval alleyways and homes are decked out in greenery and mood-setting, twinkling lights. The old city has Alsatian roots — for hundreds of years, the Franco-German border was highly contested, flip-flopping back and forth across the Rhine River. It’s a Christmas markets bonanza, with distinct markets that sell tree ornaments, toys, crafts and antiques, local foie gras, brandy, gingerbread and traditional Christmas cakes.

Obernai (tourisme-obernai.fr) is a very small French town 50 kilometres north of Colmar. “This is a dynamic little town,” says Vivianne Beller who grew up in Massachusetts, hopped the pond (for love), and now guides visitors around her adopted home in the Alsace.

But this is not a town that lives off tourism. The surrounding hills are blanketed with vineyards and orchards. For the holiday season, the Christmas market in the village’s central square is all about food and the forest. The small booths are well stocked with mulled wine, snails, oysters, chestnuts, foie gras, local cheese and fruit liqueurs.

In the Alsace, there is a very long tradition of honouring someone through aromas, with spices often imported through the main markets in nearby Strasbourg. “It tells us of Christmas past,” says Vivianne. “Christmas is a collection of aromas for the Alsatians. Gingerbread and hot spiced wine, which is like gingerbread for adults.” The modest houses of Obernai are decorated with handmade garlands of fresh green intertwined with small, white lights. Outdoor cafés are open — despite fat snowflakes softly falling — and each chair has a thick blanket to keep diners warm. Church bells mark the hours, but nothing seems rushed.

“Christmas is about solstice. The central element of Christianity is that light beats dark,” says Vivianne. “That’s why the tradition is to make our own light, candles and fires. We celebrate here on December 24. That is when the big meal happens, the gifts and midnight mass. There is a special Yule log tradition. The wooden log is burned in a ceramic stove to heat the home while family is at church. By tradition, the ashes are scattered in the fields, to represent fertility.”

German comfort food

The Christmas market at Freiburg (weihnachtsmarkt.freiburg.de) is as much a social meeting place as a spot of seasonal commerce. The city sits on the edge of the Black Forest in southwest Germany, in a region that’s renowned for its namesake foods: Black Forest Cake, Black Forest cured ham. And the holiday market doesn’t skimp on calories.

It is here that I find the potato pancakes of my childhood, topped with homemade applesauce or dollops of thick sour cream. There are paper cones filled with chestnuts that speak to me of peeling the roasted skins and tasting the warm, soft nut inside. This is my Christmas comfort food.

The city’s market is in Cathedral Square in the shadow of the main cathedral. Legendary for its tall spire and famous stained-glass windows, it’s been called “the loveliest tower in Christendom.”

Like many of the other markets across Europe, this one is a collection of small wooden booths with a heavy emphasis on the foods and crafts of days gone by. There are handmade ornaments of glass, cloth and wood, illuminated decorative stars made of heavy shiny paper, knitted mittens and small jars of preserves.

By the end, there have been a string of markets. With each one, I’ve found something I can hold on to; something to connect me in an essential way to the Christmas traditions of my childhood. I’ve found my footing with roasted chestnuts, with crispy potato pancakes, with the smell of gingerbread and cookies made with insane amounts of butter and ground nuts. These are not things that get packed away in boxes and stacked in storage closets. But they are just as much a part of my Christmas traditions. They are what I came to find. Now, in my new role as keeper of the flame, I will nurture these traditions and pass them along.

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