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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 inroads of contemporary architecture register only feebly on a visitor to Munich; what strikes one instead are the subtle cumulative effects of a town that has consistently resisted the new. It is true that the city is home to industrial designers Constantin Grcic and Clemens Weisshaar, and also true that it is occasionally touted as the next Berlin. There are hipster bars serving cocktails made from tarragon and artisanal vermouth and there are flagships for Gucci and Valentino and Prada. “Take a walk along the Maximilianstrasse,” Christian Hemmerle, young scion of a jeweler family that has catered to the Munich gentry since the days of Ludwig II, told me. “We are one of only two or three non-chain shops left on the street.”

Yet despite the incursions of the global luxury goods machine, I found in the side streets of Munich more traditional merchants than in any other city I know of comparable size. Hatters. Glove makers. Lederhosen specialists. There are boutiques that offer little besides clothes made from boiled wool. Tucked in the lee of the massive Hofbräuhaus is a hole-in-the-wall shop specializing in horn buttons and pewter charms. Just steps from the central square stands a store selling a thousand varieties of felt.

I found all these things in Munich, but the greater pleasure was the city’s underappreciated cultural institutions, which, during the busy run-up to Christmas week, I had more or less to myself.

Guards were my sole company on the morning of a visit to the celebrated Glyptothek, a Neoclassical temple built in the 19th century to house a collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The best known of these is the Barberini Faun, of course, a kind of proto-gay icon depicting a naked youth asleep on a panther skin. Whether or not it was made for a Dionysian cult or installed by Hadrian in his villa or coveted by a homosexual pope, there is no disputing the allure of the faun (a satyr, really), with his muscular, splayed legs, faintly dopey look of inebriation, and an eroticism so lush it seems too bad that he is just stone.

One gallery at the Glyptothek is filled with Roman portrait heads: a second-century matron with an Amy Winehouse beehive; a time-raddled Old Man; a plump-faced Nero looking less the barbaric ogre than an early version of the Beach Boy Brian Wilson. After days spent in a city overtaken by Nativity madness, it was not unpleasant to spend some time in the marmoreal company of these early pagans and briefly to contemplate the existence of the world before Christ.

Still, I had gone to Munich with, despite myself, some wish to revive the joy and excitement of the Christian holiday, and this I did at the Christmas markets that spring up like instant villages; in the Odeonsplatz, where vendors haul in fresh-cut fir trees every morning; and at restaurants that offer seasonal menus replete with midwinter fare like nut-fed boar.

On Christmas morning, I found a kind of unexpected bedazzlement in the tiny Asamkirche (officially the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk), a Baroque jewel redolent of pine boughs and frankincense. Little about the façade of the Asamkirche can prepare a visitor for what lies beyond its portals—a puzzle-box interior super-populated with gilded saints and skulls and hectic putti, with Madonnas and agonized Saviors and with memento mori like the twin skeletons with bony outstretched fingers holding the scales of judgment by a thread.

From there I headed to the English Garden, which I had visited the day before, walking its paths of chestnut and oak with a Munich friend, an expatriate Singaporean whom I had met two years earlier on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Though not the largest seasonal market in Munich, the one we happened upon by the giant pagoda folly called the Chinese Tower was the merriest and most magical. Parents supervised their children on a carousel, vendors sold homemade pfefferkuchen, and a carpenter explained to customers that the cutting boards he sold were planed from trees legally culled from these very woods. The light that evening was blue, but only the light.

I did not know yet that, after we parted, I would dine on excellent roast goose at the Spatenhaus an der Oper; return to my featherbed at the hotel for a sleep an infant would envy; and awake to find Munich muffled in snow, the air reverberating with church bells sounding the Angelus.

Yet I felt an uncommon lightness. I was not alone, not lonely, and was for once without the premonitory dread of holiday letdown, that lingering childhood sadness that follows expectations pitched too high. My friend and I stopped to buy mulled wine from a booth at the base of the Chinese Tower. Then the two of us—a lapsed Christian and a lapsed Buddhist, raised on opposite ends of the planet—clinked together our plastic glasses, toasting the wonderful improbability of almost everything.

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