Winter is here. Ho-hum.
Time to get ready for Christmas. Hooray.
New Year is coming. Oh joy.
Does that describe how you’re feeling about the coming months? If the usual year-end madness is getting you down and you want something a little different this year, how about trying a different setting – bring your family to Munich, Germany and celebrate Christmas in the land that gave the western world many of its most cherished Christmas customs. Stay a little longer, and you can ring in the New Year at a massive concert at the city’s famed Theresienwiese. Or, if the winter’s end doldrums are just too much, escape to some of the most riotous carnival fun in all of Germany!
Christmas Spirit in Germany
If endless repeats of Jingle Bells, frantic present-hunting and boring visits to distant relatives is getting you down, why not make Christmas this year a little different and visit the land were many Anglo-American traditions first originated. In Germany, Christmas is still celebrated with great enthusiasm, far less commercialism and with a wholly European sense of history that’s missing in the far-flung countries which have adopted its customs.
There’s plenty to do, see and buy during the Christmas period. In practically every town, a Christkindlmarket (picture above) springs up, where you can buy hand crafted nativity pieces and devour huge hunks of gingerbread or mulled. In Munich, the largest such markets are at the Marienplatz and the Chinese Pagoda in the Englischer Garten, but there many other smaller, equaling interesting markets scattered about. If you’d like to go with the season, every winter Munich sets up free ice-skating rinks at various points around the city, with the most popular being one at the Marienhof. If it’s a really cold winter, the canals leading to the Nymphenburg freeze up and you can join the the locals on the ice. On Christmas day itself, practically everything shuts down as everyone takes the day off to spend with their families. For visitors, there are thankfully still restaurants open, such as the fabulously Bavarian Ratskeller in Marienplatz, with its heavy Christmas Brunch special from 10 am to 2 pm, or Zoozies on Isarvorstadt. Many of the larger hotels also keep open restaurants, and this is a good time to explore the various Christmas menus the hotels dream up.
If you’ve had your fill of snow for the winter and want a more contemporary way to enjoy yourself, try the alternative Tollwood Festival. Running every year from November to 31 December, is one of Germany’s biggest winter cultural festivals and is particularly known for its many original performances. Held on Munich’s Theresienwiese, the event takes place under colossal white tents. Every year, there are major performances by international and local German artistes. If you’d rather something more restful, they another tent: a tradition at the Tollwood is to have top-rated chefs providing first-class dining to accompany innovative dinner theatre performances. There are other tents where you can drop off the kids for their own entertainments. The entire festival leads up to New Year, when there is a colossal concert to mark the occasion.
Winter Attractions Outside Munich
For more wintry activities (with or without family, with or without friends), a short distance outside Munich (one very short highway
hour away on the autobahn) the Bavarian Alps (right) offer endless diversions. There are, of course, the usual winter attractions — fantastic downhill at the Zugspitzplatt or Berchtesgadener Land snowfields and cross country skiing across the landscape, cosy mountain villages offering old-fashioned Bavarian hospitality and for the incurably romantic, horse-drawn sleigh rides through the snow-covered forests.
There are a large number of popular resorts scattered about the region, from the more touristy Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the still rustic Mittenwald or Oberammergau. As with any ski resorts, each offers a wide range of après-ski activities, with the added attraction of being surrounded by nationalities as diverse as Greeks, Swedes and Scots, all on their winter holiday? If you happen to be in Garmisch-Partenkirchen for the skiing, try and stick around for the New Year too, when the world tunes in to watch its annual New Year Ski Jumping competition, as well as spectacular revelries which take place off camera.
Also nearby to Munich is a treat for fairy tale lovers: the enchanting (if not quite enchanted) castle of Neuschwanstein, daintily decorated with a light dusting of snow. Built by artists instead of architects, this fantasy castle was the obsession of Mad King Ludwig, and today is deservedly one of Germany’s biggest attractions. Though almost everyone is familiar with its image, pictures really don’t do any justice to the sheer beauty of the castle, and it is well worth a visit to Germany just to be able to enjoy it without the crowds of summer. Mad Ludwig may or may not have been, but an inspired visionary he undoubtedly was to have created this masterpiece.
Revelry at the Karneval
For those who want a little pick-me-up at the tail end of winter, there is the Karneval, when mad-cap revelry rules the towns. An ancient celebration, the Karneval festival (also known as Fasching, Fassenacht and Fasnet) is a Catholic tradition, roughly translated as ‘a foolish season’, when the normally respectable Germans are allowed to go wild before the austerities of Lent.
Karneval is most strongly celebrated in southern Germany, especially in the areas along the Rhine River, where Catholic traditions still hold strong. Depending on which area, the season states either on 11 November or 7 January, when the towns elect their ‘Prince’ or ‘Princess’ to preside over the celebrations. For the next few months, things are fairly quiet, though in many places there are very unusual mini-events, such as the Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival Night) on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, when tradition dictates women are allowed to cut off the tie of any man within reach! To make up for it, women are also allowed to kiss any man they like.
The main event however really take place on Rose Monday and Shrove Tuesday, when the towns erupt in almost-anarchic revelry. The craziest costumes appear on the streets, with people dancing, singing, marching through the streets alongside the wild Rose Monday Parades, throwing confetti and otherwise going mad. The children may still go to school and parents may still go to work, but noone gets any work done!
In many towns, the revelries can often combine ancient traditions with wholely modern mad-cap antics. Thus, in Nurenmberg, you’ll find a spirited parade of mask-wearing apprentices from the city’s guilds, with a history dating back to 1349, just one street over from where a radio station is blaring out the latest Europop tunes. In Munich, the celebrations are a little quieter (for one, there’s no huge Rose Monday Parade) and more organized — but not by much! The climax of the Munich Fasching is on 8 February, when the area from Marienplatz to Viktualienmarkt (picture above) bursts in an explosion of revellers in ridiculous costumes. The highlight of the day is the Dance of the Market Women, when the ‘ladies of the Viktualienmarkt’ (who on other days would be known as Hans or Anna wearing silly costumes) perform equally comical dances. Later in the night, practically every bar and club — and many of the grander hotels — will organize a Fasching Ball, where guests come dressed in everything from evening gowns to clown suits to continue celebrating into the night.