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Black in Berlin: Christmas In Germany Is Best With Gluhwein!

Winter in Berlin can be less than inspiring, on the shortest days the sun sets as early 3:45 in the afternoon. In the darkness, the cold is transformed into an almost tangible menace that attacks your every nerve. It’s horrible!!! In all of the previous cities I’ve called home I’ve experienced lower temperatures, more snow and harsher winds but there is something about this time of year in this city that I dread. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the atmosphere during the summer which endeared me to Berlin, warm weather, festivals, long sunny days, parades, and beer gardens are the perfect recipe for a love affair with the Millennium City. It’s like winter is nature’s way of balancing out the awesome with the insanely gloomy. If it sounds like I take winter personal, I do! I ran away from my first cold season here and went to Mexico for Christmas break.

During my second Berlin winter, my money was funny and I had to tough it out. My expat friends told me that my first full season would be the worst and I started crossing off the days like a prisoner doing a long term sentence. All things were lame until late November, I expected some holiday cheer but I didn’t know to what extent Germans took Weihnachten (Christmas). It is a big deal. For most parts of Germany, the holiday season starts four weeks before Christmas with Advent. Growing up, attending Catholic school, I learned Advent was the countdown to the Jesus’ birthday. I was confused by the recognition of Advent in Germany because Germans are not particularly religious. In fact, many Germans I know are violently anti-religious and get aggressive every time someone mentions God or a higher power, though this behavior might be limited to godless Berliners.

Taking the Christ out of Christmas, Advent for many, is the countdown to the day where you get presents. The celebration also marks the opening of the world famous traditional German Christmas markets. This annual showdown dates back to the middle ages where pedestrian streets and town squares were filled with stalls offering everything from food to handmade crafts. In Berlin there are about 60 markets of various sizes and complexity and they are open until the evenings and regardless of the weather conditions. Gluhwein, a drink made from warmed red wine and spiced with Christmas seasonings like cinnamon and cloves, is a market staple and helps guests wander in the cold for hours. It is also very common to meet friends in the evenings for a Gluhwein or two after work. In the past I would have thought standing in the freezing cold, socializing and drinking warmed wine was totally insane but now it’s normal.

I am glad that I didn’t flee Berlin my second year and I was able to experience a proper winter. The holidays rescued me from the depths of seasonal despair and I think it has that effect on many other Berliners as well. The tundra season isn’t as amazing as the summer but there is something magical about the winter here — could it be all the warm booze and free chocolates?

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