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Christmas in Munich, Germany

Night falls on the Viktualienmarkt, an open-air collection of food stalls near Munich’s central Marienplatz.

Photo: Christian Kerber

The sky over Munich is the dull silver of old coins and hung with fat, theatrical clouds. Church bells sound in the air, their peals muted by snowfall. The crowds of yesterday have vanished from the central square, the Marienplatz. Only a few vendors remain in the shuttered Christkindlesmarkt, packing up their wares.

In households across the city, Müncheners are enacting holiday rituals familiar throughout the Christian world. Shiny paper is being shredded. Ribbons are unfurled. A fowl of some kind is trussed for the oven. And someone is surely sulking on a corner of a sofa, face an image of sour disappointment lighted red and green by merry winking bulbs.

I, on the other hand, feel oddly elated. The beautiful city seems empty. I am an ocean and a continent away from home. The light melancholy that is an unwelcome but reliable gift of the season has loosed its customary hold. The day feels wide open. I will visit a beautiful Baroque church not out of piety but for the aesthetic joy that is an article of my own faith. I will take a bracing long walk along the broad avenues of Munich and through the English Garden, working up an appetite for a rich Christmas supper with a friend.

Most of my family is far away, it is true. But then most of my family, like those of many Americans, is scattered. They would be distant from me even if I were celebrating Christmas at home. Thus the urge to spend the holiday in a part of the world where so many of its familiar customs originated, while impulsive, was not altogether escapist; it came to me while on an earlier reporting trip to the largest Christmas store in the world.

That particular place, 90 miles north of Detroit in a region known as Little Bavaria, sprawls across an area physically the size of several football fields and psychically as big as the North Pole. Arrayed with Teutonic precision along the aisles of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (orthography theirs) is the full range of products cranked out by the industrial holiday machine. On my visit I counted 150 different styles of nutcracker. I saw ornaments that said “Merry Christmas” in 70 languages. I saw 1,700 varieties of Precious Moments cherubs, each with the same woeful teardrop eyes. I saw 500 types of Nativity sets, from 70 nations, and Christmas balls in 6,000 designs (including one that featured a tractor driven by a pig). And scores of lawn Santas and shiny ceramic gingerbread houses and…well, somewhere between the glitter snow globes and the flameproof trees in post-nuclear colors, I found an exit and fled.

Sooner or later most of us realize that the magnetic center of the holiday force field is only partly composed of Hallmark moments. Deep at its core is a more tedious compulsion, the will to rake through the emotional trash of shared experience. Why not let it all go? I thought as the laptop whirred and the Expedia screen popped open. Why not skate across the surface of someone else’s sentimental landscape? Let others do the garlanding, prepare the festivity, adorn the tree, and stew the mulled wine. Let them cook the goose.

So I booked a trip to the most obviously holiday-centric place I could think of, a southern Bavarian city that may be the last European center whose citizens can be said to have a native costume. Munich approaches Christmas with particular earnest, its fabled seasonal markets being one obvious proof. There are plenty of others. Tucked in the cavernous basement of the Bavarian National Museum are scores of crèches amassed by a local collector whose trove of Nativity scenes is larger than any I have encountered, including the one at the Certosa di San Martino, in Naples, where the art of crèche-building attained a kind of weird, ecstatic apogee in the 18th century.

Not only but particularly at Christmas, Müncheners go about in traditional loden coats and lederhosen. They wear caps with boar bristles valuable enough to be listed in testamentary codicils. The effect of walking around in a place where people are gotten up in this fashion is that it can occasionally seem as if the pages of the city’s municipal calendar stopped turning at some unspecified time in the past.

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