Wednesday, December 26, 2012

There is no place like home for the holidays but...

12/12/12 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Christmas is in the air. Like everyone else, my life is a flurry of activities as I compile list after list of what to do and when to do it.

The decorating is done but we still don’t have a tree. The annual Christmas letter is still waiting to be written. Most gifts have been purchased but for some people I don’t have a clue. There are cookies to bake, meals to plan, gatherings of friends and church services to attend. It’s a busy time of year.

But thanks to Melinda, my longtime travel agent friend, I am sitting here with a stack of travel catalogs while Jingle Bells plays in the background. Melinda thinks that we and our husbands should take a trip to England and Germany to explore the fabulous, glittering world of open air Christmas Markets. The brochures show romanticized photos of visitors dressed in snow boots and parkas as they browse the shops drinking mulled wine among twinkling lights. Beautiful!

“No, no, we can’t go,” I protested weakly. Christmas is not a travel time. It is family time. My childhood memories of Christmas are still bright. They range from buying dime store gifts for my siblings to riding a new bicycle and eating grandma’s yeast rolls. Christmas is a big deal and everyone has always been home on December 25.

Still, the ads are tempting. “Nothing gets you into the festive mood like a good old Christmas market teeming with cheery stall holders selling handmade gifts from twinkling wooden chalets, the sweet smell of mulled wine and a couple of tap dancing turkeys!”

I think it was the turkeys that got me. Soon I was entertaining visions of visiting new places and learning new Christmas traditions—on site. But it’s winter. I don’t like the cold and I have grandchildren. I’ve been to some of these places when it’s warm. I can’t go now. So, instead, I’m going to share some of my discoveries with you. Come along with me, you’ll enjoy the journey.

The city of Cologne, Germany, offers a total of six Christmas Markets.
I vividly remember visiting Cologne one hot day in May. Teeming crowds of visitors wearing shorts and tee shirts gave a cursory look at the Cologne Cathedral as they jostled one another on the way to the harbor for a tour of the Chocolate Museum. Winter brings a different crowd.

The four largest markets attract about two million visitors. The Cathedral is the impressive backdrop for the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland and over 160 wooden pavilions feature artisans in all media and of course, food and mulled wine. Pictures show the entire city sparkling like gold with strolling musicians and bands. I was very tempted to click Expedia’s ‘book now’ button.

Both Germany and England are known for their castles but how about a castle and a cavern? Castleton, England is home to the picturesque ruins of a Norman Castle and four spectacular caverns with stalagmites and stalactites. And Peak’s Cavern is a Christmas favorite that offers evening songfests at the entrance to the lead cave. They say the acoustics are great for singing traditional hymns like “We Three Kings” and even “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

And then there’s Rome. Sure we’ve been there in the brilliant sunshine of summer but how about winter? Every year a larger-than-life nativity scene is unveiled in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 24 just in time for the Pope’s midnight mass. And you can pick up your own crèche set at the Piazza Navona Christmas Market. Also available are depictions of the Italian witch La Befana made of burlap and straw. She is said to fly around on a broomstick at Epiphany dropping candy or lumps of coal down chimneys. Sound familiar?

A little closer to home, in Taos, New Mexico, bonfires blaze nightly in the plazas, bringing what one person described as a “block-party vibe” to the town. Brown paper bags lighted with votive candles line streets of famous galleries and art studios made famous by Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. Christmas Eve, there’s a procession at Taos Pueblo, a 1,000 year old adobe settlement and on Christmas Day harvest and hunt dances are performed in the center plaza.

One of the most unique western hemisphere events takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico. On the evening of Dec. 23 it is home to a century old competiton known as the Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). In the city’s central square, farmers display elaborate sculptures of nativity scenes, robed kings and musicians all carved out of giant locally grown radishes. The sculptures are judged and then fireworks light up the sky.

Christmas Eve, Posadas—door-to-door processions that re-enact Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter— fill the streets along with a parade. And then, there is the tradition of “breaking of the plates.” People buy crispy bunuelos, topped with sugar or syrup and then smash the ceramic plate to the ground to signify the end of the old year. Personally, I can’t help but wonder who cleans up after them.

Finally, thousands of miles away in Jerusalem, it’s business as usual on Dec. 24 and 25 because only two percent of the population is Christian. But Christmas is joyously celebrated in the Christian quarter of the Old City where Jesus lived and died. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is only six miles south a short pilgrimage from Jerusalem. There, marching bands and bagpipers led by Arabian horses weave through the narrow streets to Manger Square, the plaza outside the Basilica of the Nativity, which stands on the grotto where Jesus was born. It’s a solemn yet joyous time for all.

It’s funny how writing things down can change one’s perspective. I realize that interesting as these destinations are, our yearly family traditions are equally fascinating. Christmas anchors our lives and connects us spiritually. Our time together builds family history. It grounds the youngsters, fosters values and shapes their lives. And it’s fun! Spending time with family is a priceless, memory-making and heart-warming experience.

Truly, there is no place like home for the holidays. (Of course, if the family wants to go with us to Europe next year that would be great!) 

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Contact her at 942-1317 or via e-mail —

No comments: