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Crailsheim Christmas customs: Friends, exchange students share seasonal secrets of sister city

Here is one example of a German Christmas tree. This Tannenbaum stood in the house of Carola Schnabl’s mother, Rose Stiller. Note the absence of electric lights; some Germans add neither candles nor lights to their trees. (Submiited photo)1 / 3
The three sons of Ralf and Carola Schnabl of Crailsheim, Germany, are shown at left with Karen Molitor of Worthington (center) and Molitor’s cousin, Sue Lindemann, celebrating Christmas 2011 in Germany. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
Carola Schnabl prepared this Adventsfenster with a pinecone theme. The number 23 in the upper right-hand corner indicates this window opened on Dec. 23. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

WORTHINGTON — If you can imagine a place where Dec. 24-26 is focused on family time, food and the birth of Jesus, then you may have a decent idea of what Christmas in Crailsheim, Germany — Worthington’s European sister city for more than 60 years — looks like.

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“It’s much less commercial than it is here,” said Karen Molitor of Crailsheim’s Christmas customs.

Molitor, a longtime supporter of Worthington/Crailsheim International Inc. and a Worthington resident who has visited the Crailsheim area seven times to date, spent part of December 2011 with Rose Stiller and her family in Ingersheim, a stone’s throw from Crailsheim, in order to experience it firsthand.

“My parents and their parents were all of German descent, as far back as we can go, so I’d always wanted to see a German Christmas,” explained Molitor. “They don’t have the outdoor lights we have here, the stores don’t have as much decorative stuff, there are no Christmas trees on display when you go shopping and at the church, they just had Baby Jesus in the manger — no tree or anything,” she listed.

The differences between Christmas in Crailsheim and Worthington go beyond decorating choices, however.

Past exchange students — both those who spent a December in Worthington and those from here who shared a season in Germany — have keenly identified commonalities and variations in our respective Christmas celebrations.

Die Weihnachtsmärkte (The Christmas markets)

While Christmas-commemorating citizens in the U.S. hustle throughout much of November and December to collect piles of gifts at malls, shops or online, Germans still do some shopping at open-air marketplaces set up in numerous city and village squares.

These spots are called Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas markets, and offer handmade goods such as ornaments, soaps and scarves, as well as food and beverages.

“I went to a different Christmas market each weekend in December,” recalled Kayli Kuhl, who represented Worthington in Crailsheim during 2011-12 and was living with the Binder family over the Christmas holidays that year. Kuhl purchased an iconic German piece, a Weihnacht Pyramid, at the Christmas market in Nuremberg, which she said is one of the largest in Germany.

“My favorite thing was that every town’s Weihnachtsmarkt had its own variation of Glühwein [‘glow-wine’],” said Kuhl of the mulled red wine drink that is sweetened with fruit juices, sugar and spices. “It was the only chance to get your fingers warmed up, and it is served in a little coffee mug with each city’s name on it, so I collected the Glühwein mugs.”

Brittany Berger, who will soon graduate from the University of Sioux Falls and studied in Crailsheim from 2007-08, also has fond memories of the Weihnachtsmarkt in Dinkelsbühl, an architecturally charming town roughly 15 miles from Crailsheim.

“One of my friends lived in Dinkelsbühl, so I went to the Weihnachtsmarkt there,” said Berger. “The Glühwein is really, really good and is the main thing people use to keep warm when browsing at the stands where things for the holidays are sold.”

Another favorite stop for Christmas-hungry shoppers is Rothenberg. A famous and historic walled city that is about an hour’s drive from Crailsheim, Rothenberg is home to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Stores, which are renowned for their extensive year-round selection of German Christmas items and ornaments.

Die Tannenbäume (The Christmas trees)

“I was living with the Humboldt family at Christmastime, and about three days before Christmas Eve I went with my host dad to a little village just outside of Crailsheim called Goldsbach to cut down a Christmas tree at a tree farm,” shared Berger. “Then we just hung some simple ornaments and a garland on the tree, but no candles or lights.

“My host mom had candles burning throughout the house, but not on the tree.”

Carola Schnabl, who has spearheaded the Worthington/Crailsheim committee on the German end and was herself an exchange student to Worthington during 1985-86, explains that while Germans do place a large Christmas tree in most city’s market squares at the beginning of Advent, most people do not erect the trees in their own homes until either Dec. 24 or a day or two earlier.

“Most of the trees come from the woods and forests in the area, where there are people who grow hundreds of them to sell for Christmas,” explained Schnabl. “There are spruce, blue spruce, blue pine and Nordmann-pine, and the price depends on the type and size.”

Molitor found the German Christmas trees quite different than those she knows in Minnesota.

“The trees are rather spindly compared to the ones we have here, not nearly as full,” observed Molitor. “Rose [her host and Schnabl’s mother] put on a type of garland, some balls and a little star on top on Christmas Eve morning, but no lights or candles.”

Dario Bartelmess of Crailsheim spent the 2012-13 school year living with the Dave and Karen Skog family in Worthington. He said his family puts up their tree on Christmas Eve and decorates it together.

“We use real candles on it, because my mom prefers the candles to electric light,” shared Bartelmess.

David Etzel, the Crailsheim exchange student to Worthington in 2011-12, said his family also decks their tree with real candles, as well as hay stars, Christmas bulbs and other ornaments.

Die Ferientage (Vacation days)

Worthingtonians who scramble to take days off during late December may be envious to learn that Dec. 24-26 are all real holidays for most Germans, with Dec. 24 being the day on which Christmas is primarily celebrated. Dec. 25 and 26 are reserved for spending time with family members and close friends, and people take turns visiting each other at their homes.

This year, Schnabl said, school children have a similar break to those in District 518, from Dec. 23 through Jan.6, with both Jan. 1 and 6 being holidays for adults as well.

Die Gottesdienste (Church services)

While Kuhl and Berger stressed that regular church attendance is not a high priority for most contemporary Germans, it is common for German families to attend at least one service (Christmas Eve, if nothing else) from Dec. 24-26.

“The church service on Christmas Eve can be from 5 to 7 p.m. or later,” noted Schnabl. “On the 25th there is church in the morning, on the 26th in the morning or evening, on the 31st in the evening, and on Jan. 1 in the morning.”

Indeed, Etzel’s family attends church twice on Dec. 24, he said, and on both Dec. 25 and 26 at 9:30 a.m.

“Then we open presents after church on Christmas Eve,” said Etzel, confirming what the other Germans also said was their practice.

A huge community concert takes place at Crailsheim’s historic Johanneskirche a few days before Christmas, with participants ranging from young children to teens to adults.

“Everyone was in it, and there were multiple schools that came together for it,” recalled Kuhl.

Added Molitor, “We had barely gotten off the plane when we went to the Johanneskirche for the big Christmas concert, and there was a real tree reaching to the sanctuary’s ceiling — maybe 50, 60 feet tall — there.

“It was a fabulous concert.”

But Kuhl said the hymns and carols sung for Christmas would not be familiar to Americans.

“The words were all about Christmas, but a lot of the music sounded like it was in minor keys,” said Kuhl. “It wasn’t quite as upbeat as the Christmas music here.”

Adventsfenster (Advent windows)

A German tradition beloved by Schnabl, Stiller and others is that of the Adventsfenster.

Schnabl describes it as follows: “In some villages, the people come together every day from Dec. 1-24 and open a ‘window.’ In Ingersheim, where I live, those who are interested meet at 5:30 p.m. at a family’s house to see the window lit with lights and decorated with a theme (one time my window theme was ‘Horaffen,’ a Crailsheim specialty pastry, and another time ‘cones,’ and last year my mother decorated her window with bears).

“Then the window stays lit until at least 10 p.m., and usually the people who come have something to drink and eat, and then they talk together. On Dec. 24, the entrance of the church is decorated, and each window must have the number of the day it first appears in it. The decorated windows stay until Jan.6.”

Molitor enjoyed the Adventsfenster gatherings in December 2011.

“People usually have their garage door open and offer schnapps, or apple cider for the kids, cookies and hors d’oeuvres,” Molitor shared. “Then people stand around a fire pit and visit.”

Adventkalenders (Advent calendars) are also popular, with children getting to open a smaller version of the Adventsfenster each day prior to Christmas, their reward being a little piece of chocolate in a Christmas-related shape (Santa, sheep, etc.).

“I did that here sometimes as a kid, but it’s more common in Germany,” said Berger of her German Advent calendar experience. “It was really fun to do it there, and now I like doing it here because it brings back good memories of being with my host family.”

Das Essen (the food)

Despite these German friends insisting they don’t really make special food at Christmastime, the menu items they describe nevertheless sound savory and tantalizing.

Bartelmess says that cooking together as a family on Christmas Eve is important in his home, while Staudacher says a typical Christmas Eve meal in her household might include potato salad, green salad and roast.

Etzel spoke of sausages, salads, meat, duck and goose as Christmas staples, while Sarah Meiser, who spent 2011-12 in Worthington as the Crailsheim exchange student, mentioned spätzle, “good meat” and raclette (melted cheese) on Dec. 25 as part of the Meiser bill of fare.

“I don’t remember too much being different from what a typical meal would be,” mused Kuhl of Christmas foods. “There were some Christmas cookies and kekse, but nothing else really sticks out.”

Schnabl also said fondue or goose were popular Christmas meal choices, but she added that something as simple as bratwurst and potato salad was also done.

Die Geschenke (Gifts)

According to Molitor, Santa Claus makes much less of a splash around Crailsheim than he does in Worthington. She said that in 2011 the Schnabl boys (who now wish for electronics and cash, like most U.S. teens) had each received one gift from their parents, then one gift from Stiller, with one more apiece from their paternal grandparents.

Playmobil toys and Legos were common gift selections when the Schnabl boys were younger.

“Rose [Stiller] gave the oldest boy a bottle of cologne with a Deutsch mark wrapped around it,” remembered Molitor of her 2011 visit.

But the Germans embrace the tradition of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), when children are told to leave a shoe outside a door that St. Nicholas fills for them overnight with chocolate, candies, perhaps an orange or clementine and maybe a small gift.

“We set out our shoes and my host mom put candy in them for us,” recalled Berger.

Schnabl said some children put out boots, “Because there is much more room for chocolate.”

And while Christmas overall may be less commercial in Germany than the U.S., Schnabl attests that merchants there begin pushing their wares on consumers sooner and sooner, as well.

“After our big fair, the Franconian Volksfest, the stores put out Christmas things to eat, like Lebkuchen and Santa Claus chocolate,” said Schnabl. “That’s late September, beginning of October. I think that’s crazy — so early.”