“Christmas is a way of lighting a fire in the middle of the darkness of winter…“
I swiped that (I admit) from that impossibly opulent domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, who, despite the sometimes syrupy discourse that can give you the diabetic’s equivalent of an ice-cream headache, manages to say it just so from time to time.
Weihnachten is precisely that. From Middle High German ze wīhen nahten (‘in the holy nights’), a compound of weihen (to hallow) and Nacht (night), the mid-winter nights were already celebrated in Germanic times. The German tradition abounds with gingerbread (Lebkuchen), advent wreaths (Adventskrantz), and few things compare to the warm, spicy headiness of Glühwein (mulled wine) amidst the twinkling, glowing stands of a wintry Christmas market (Christkindlesmarkt) as you pile your basket with Christmas goodies.
France’s more sober Christmas tradition features the midnight mass (messe de minuit), for the more traditional, followed by a turkey (dinde) for the Christmas Eve (Réveillon) dinner and a decadent bûche of chocolate and butter cream and crystallized chestnuts (marrons glacés) supplant dessert. There could be unctuous, pearly foie gras d’oie (fattened goose liver) and if you’re feeling particularly reckless, redolent, delicate slivers of black truffle (truffe) to sanctify your humble mash (purée) – but last I checked at the Galeries Lafayette, the precious melanosporum was going at EUR 2,580 a kilo.
Further east, Bulgaria’s observances, founded in the Orthodox tradition, include the celebration of the Day of St. Ignat, or Ignazhden, on December 20, also believed to be the day Mary went into labor. A lavish Christmas dinner concludes the forty-day advent fast with walnuts and kolaks (ring-shaped cakes) among other things and fortunes for the coming year are told. The table is left uncleared for unexpected guests and this includes koledari or carollers who sing for everything and everyone from unmarried girls, children and soldiers to livestock.
Speaking of carollers, my fondest memories are of school assemblies, which always included such regulars as Good King Wenceslas, The Holly and the Ivy and the eternally rousing renditions of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and O Come all Ye Faithful. Definitely makes up for the Christmas puds posing as paperweights (or was it the other way round?). Although mince pies of late continue to endure as delightfully retro party-food staples and a British classic.
The US has given us the perfection of, pardon the oxymoron, the secular Christmas carol. Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Santa Baby (an unapologetic Marilyn-like wish list, which, most hilariously incurred the wrath of half the feminist groups under the sun) and Baby, It’s Cold Outside (coy repartee between two lovers, which incurred the wrath of the other half) to name a few. Of course, all this secularism in a politically correct bid to keep everyone in a spending mood leads to such travesties as holiday shopping for the family tree, Winterval and Luminos (Christmas lights – thank you Harry Potter), which though sociologically quaint at best, is about as linguistically appetizing as, well, dry toast.
Well, who wants dry toast? In these troubled times of Merkozy, the euro crisis, pessimistic elections, financial witch doctoring, and belt-tightening mantras, a little light would not be untoward. So, usually a naysayer by contradiction and Grinch on principle, I say, “Bring on the ice-cream headache! I want my Christmas tree! Eat, drink and be merry!”
Christmas is here.
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