11 January 2010
A Slight Return
Fifteen years ago I lived and worked in Berchtesgaden, Germany. I worked as a lift operator for a resort that ran four T-bar lifts and doubled as a golf course in the summer. I lived in the attic of a condemned hotel with a bunch of other Americans who were also there to ski, make a little spending cash, and move on. I made about five U.S. dollars an hour. The German mark was pretty strong back then so five dollars didn't go very far. But the room was free, I was able to eat in the General Walker Hotel (known as the Platterhof before the Americans took it from the Germans after World War Two) on the cheap, bought discount tickets and free rides to the bigger Austrian resorts in the Salzburgerland, and other than the ever-present chance of mid-winter rain I worried about little. I listened to the Blue Danube, stared up at the Watzmann and Kehlsteinhaus, and skied every day. Life was pretty good.
My then girlfriend (now frau) and I also remember the time around Christmas and New Year's as one of the more meaningful and magical times in our then short (now long) history together. And now, fifteen years later and back in the general neighborhood, we thought we would find out if the meaning and magic were real or perceived through the starry-eyes of recent college graduates spending a year far from home. As far as I can tell, life is still pretty good in Berchtesgardenerland.
Some things have changed. The condemned hotel where we lived is gone. The General Walker Hotel, too, has mostly been torn down. All the Americans are gone. There is a big construction project in the middle of the village. Most everything, though, is still the same.
Fifteen years ago what attracted us to the town and the holiday season in particular were the ancient rituals and traditions that are such an important part in the identity of the Bavarians and Berchtesgardeners. In general all of rural Europe is proud of its regional traditions that set micro-cultures apart from each other. Though other parts of rural Austria and Switzerland share similar traditions to those in Germany, nowhere else will you experience a Berchtesgadenland Christmas but in Berchtesgaden. And not until you are in the middle of it all can you describe what that means - it's the elusive and difficult-to-pinpoint process of cultural transmission.
The season starts officially sometime the first or second week of December (I'm sure there is a specific date). The season begins with the Krampus. Krampus are the anti-Santas: devil-goat-man-beasts things that run through the streets early December with chains, whips, and switches. The purpose is to frighten children into good, submissive behavior as a precursor to Santa's arrival. Bad children are punished; some are even kidnapped and sent to Hell, unsuitable for Santa's generosity.
You're also as likely to see the Krampus crashing into bars to steal a shot of schnapps and whipping a few patrons as they move along as you are scaring children. We were too late for the running of the Krampus but as Berchtesgaden is proud of its traditions and famous for its woodworking you're never too far from a replica of some sort.
The villagers soon have their way and the Krampus are banished. To do this the valley of Berchtesgaden basically declares war on them. Every day at three in the afternoon for fifteen minutes the valley is ablaze with cannon volleys and black powder rifle (Handböllers) retorts. The idea is to drive the Krampus and their bad spirits out of the valley and up into the atmosphere, making the town safe from evil and welcome for good. The daily routine plays a second role which is to reawaken the natural spirits back to life again. And it's just prior to this when the village Christkindlmarkt, the open air Christmas market, opens for the day.
Gun and cannon shots are fired, church bells ring, dogs cower, children scream and run through the crowds, and adults quietly slug their Glühwein and Jägertee. At three o'clock in the afternoon there is no better place to be.
This daily scene that starts early December culminates on Christmas Eve with a larger-than-average gathering at the Christkindlmarkt and an extended onslaught of firepower and church bells. Just after, about four o'clock, it all shuts down - businesses, restaurants, the Christkindlmarkt itself, everything - and everyone retreats home for Christmas Eve supper.
Nighttime mass brings everybody back out but other than the echoes of the church choirs the streets are somber and quiet. On Christmas Eve night another of the village traditions peak: the lighting of the cemetery. Berchtesgaden benefits especially from this practice as the main cemetery is only a few meters from the village square, easily accessible by foot from almost anywhere within the town, which lends itself to the compartmentalized feeling of closely knit rituals and customs. Plus, it's beautiful.
A hushed quiet prevails for the rest of the evening. The streets are mostly empty, shops are closed, the churches are full. At midnight the town erupts again with a barrage of cannon fire, church bells, and fireworks. Weihnachtsmann and his reindeer triumph; Christmas and the Christkind return once again, the evil spirits long gone.
If the week before Christmas is for staying close to home then the week before New Year is for holiday traveling. The town filled with tourist buses; the shops, restaurants, and streets were packed. We were told that, now that the Americans were gone, the bulk of the tourists come from within the country - other Germans visiting picture perfect Bavaria. We skied, visited nearby friends, and took in other sites all in anticipation for the next set of festivities.
Our New Year's Eve party was a humble affair. It's hard to stay up until midnight when you know that a five-year-old will be bright-eyed only a few short hours after that. Still, we entertained ourselves adequately.
At midnight, once again, the town dissolves into chaos. The New Year's Eve chaos is a little different than the three o'clock in the afternoon controlled chaos. There is no organized firework display, rather a long sustained series of random shots, explosions, pops, cracks, whistles, lights, and fizzes. And because Berchtesgaden sits at the bottom of a steep and narrow valley with mountains on all sides even the smallest of firecrackers echo from the opposite hillsides. There is no chance of sleeping (unless you're a five-year-old) and there is no reason to, either.
Dawn of the new decade brought rain and fog and heavy clouds that I took as a sign of good luck. And as luck would have it, the decision was made to jump in the car and drive the twenty kilometers to Salzburg for the day.
Salzburg is another town in another region that knows how to celebrate the Christmas season. While Berchtesgaden slept the Christkindlmarkts in Salzburg were already open for business. The crowds were there, too, as were the ubiquitous South American and Balkan street musicians, Mozart pantomimes, and live (and free) opera.
Our memories of Salzburg are as equally well-preserved as those from Berchtesgaden. We passed through the city several times either hitchhiking into or out from Germany and spent other days simply milling around - the same goal for New Year's Day 2010. As European cities go, other than Lisbon, Portugal and Kraków, Poland, Salzburg is one of those places that I foresee myself always returning to at some point or another. It was nice to be back and we put our short day trip to good use.
The traditions throughout Bavaria during the holiday season are ancient and expressive. Starting with the Krampus in early December and ending New Year's Eve or Day the month-long celebration resembles (and probably has descendants in) mumming and Mummers Plays: dramatic, allegorical representations that (pre-Christ, pre-Christmas) revolved around the winter solstice. Good and Evil Spirits, costumes, music, mulled wine, and some sort of end of ritual explosion or loud noise all have pagan if not pre-Christian roots.
Aside from the folkloric connections, it's hard to experience the Christmas season in Berchtesgaden without feeling included. The day-to-day customs and rituals pull you in and even without performing directly (at midnight mass, as a black powder shooter, or at the switch end of a Krampus whipping, for example) you participate simply by being there; you are an active player even as a casual observer. Thus, the meaning, the point of it all, is the month-long process of time itself. The celebration ebbs and flows and climaxes at least twice before the town is purged of the previous year and accepts the conditions of the next year. By planting yourself for a couple weeks within the city limits you become part of the greater performance that includes setting, audience, social contexts, and historical paradigms. You are part of the cast and on New Year's Day the communal performance concludes and a new drama is ready to begin.
I have no idea if I will be back next year. I have no idea if it will take another fifteen years to return. I know for certain that upon return I will feel as welcome as I did the first and second time. I know, also, that I will play a part, however limited, in the cycle of ritual that has defined Berchtesgaden for a long, long time. And, in turn, it will help define my own sense of place.