thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the tag “Germany”

Take it easy, Santa: All about… Germany {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Christine Stumböck from Ichenhausen, a small town in the south of Germany. She misses good German bread, readily-available recycling, and the ability to buy groceries by bike. Christine currently resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


When I was younger and still living in Germany, I always had the impression that Christmas was a much bigger deal in the US. I guess it was mostly because of the blinking, colorful, and giant Christmas decorations that some families had in and around their house, often starting to pop up as early as November. Or maybe it was because of the fact that Santa Claus as we know him today is an invention of Coca-Cola. But anyway, my family always preferred subtle, natural-looking decorations like straw ornaments, and my mother would never put metal on our tree or plastic Santas in our lawn. It’s also a common German tradition to put up the Christmas tree and fully decorate the house on December 24. After all the work is finished, we sit together in the evening to open presents before going to church at midnight. So for me, Christmas always started late. And Christmas as a celebration always was over quickly because we received our presents shortly after we’d decorated the tree!

When I came to the United States two years ago, I realized that an American Christmas is much shorter than I realized. For a big part of the working population, Christmas is often not more than a single day off to spend with your friends and family. For those of us in the service industry — we who must keep the grocery stores and retail shops open at late as possible to accommodate last-minute shoppers — Christmas is the busiest time of the year.

Of course, there are also stores and restaurants open around Christmas in Germany, and many Germans consider the Christmas season to be a busy time. However, German federal law protects Christmas. First, there’s a law that requires stores to maintain “normal” working hours year-round for all those in retail; this law is called the Ladenschlussgesetz, or shop-closing law. This means that all stores are closed on Sundays and are never as late as 10 or 11 PM during the week; this is true even in big cities like Munich where I lived for several years. This law also has a specific regulation for Christmas Eve which requires that stores close in the afternoon so that everybody can go home and enjoy the holiday with their family.

Secondly, even though Christmas itself is shorter in Germany, Christmas as a season is much longer. The second day of Christmas, December 26, is a national holiday. And as most workers have more vacation days than we do in the U.S. (I had 28 days per year), many people are able to take off until New Year’s Day or even January 6, another national German holiday.

It took me a couple of years living outside of Germany to value federal regulations and realize what I really miss about Christmas. It’s not the colorful decorations, the shopping trips months ahead, or the plentiful gifts — it’s time. Time to sit together with family and friends. Time to calm down and fully relax. Time to think about the year that’s ending and to recapture all the memories, both good and bad.

So, Santa, maybe you could think about that until the next Christmas season rolls around…as I’m sure it will, way too soon.

Traditional spitzbuben cookies, December 2010

Traditional spitzbuben cookies, December 2010


Trier, Germany, 2010

Dried oranges from my German roommate, Talange, France, 2007

Christmas oranges dried by my German roommate, Talange, France, 2007

Fasnaughts and King Cake: Pre-Lenton Traditions in Central PA

Taking the Cake: Talange, France, January 2008

For us in south-central Pennsylvania, the day before Lent is known as Fasnaught Day, a tradition which we celebrate along with parts of Germany, Switzerland, and the Alsace region of France.  In times past, these traditional doughnuts were made to clear the kitchen of sugar and lard prior to the fasting season of Lent.

However, the Harrisburg area is getting a new pre-Lenton tradition, as reported in The Patriot-News on Wednesday, February 15: the king cake.  According to the article “King cake gets the Mardi Gras started,” this cake stems from a tradition imported straight from Louisiana.  It is oval; is often served in purple, green, and yellow frosting; and is embedded with a bean or plastic figurine to represent the baby Jesus sought after by the three kings, or magi, after his birth.  Traditionally, the person who was cut the slice with the figurine was crowned the king or queen for the day.

The Louisiana tradition is imported from an older one rooted in France, Belgium, and Spain.  I knew this cake in France as a galette des rois, sold pre-bagged with paper crowns from the Intermarche across the street and through a thin overgrown alleyway from the Lycee Gustave Eiffel in Talange where I lived.  When eating this cake, I felt that the term “cake” in the American sense was a misnomer; it’s more of a sweet brioche whose appeal lay in the possibility of becoming royalty for one moment.

I shared this cake with my friend Tobias on a cold hilarious night which involves us somehow acquiring two king cakes (note the two crowns) and wearing them both. Because of this, I’m skeptical of the central Pennsylvania version which is smeared with enough frosting to rival a coloring book — I remember this as a cake from simple times.  If the day before Lent is the season for indulgence, I’d rather use the king cake as an occasion for remembrance.

Friday Photo: Toothpaste Mustard

Let’s assume that you don’t speak German, or at the very least, speak it fluently.  Then you would be as surprised as I was last week whenever I saw two brightly-colored tubes on my kitchen table and was told that they were not filled with toothpaste.  The mind spins:

“Süßer senf”: a phrase intended to help clear the nose of blockage during a cold?  “Mittelscharfer senf”: a relation to John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?

No matter — a Google translator tells me one of these is a Bavarian sweet mustard; the other “medium-hot mustard.”

Just squeeze from the bottom up and don’t mistake your toothbrush for a hot dog.  What genius!

Post Navigation