Somehow in searching for a place to spend Christmas with the family near Bonn my mother discovered “Forsthaus Erlenbusch,” a Christmas tree farm that’s run as the family business. The first floor of their farmhouse doesn’t have any occupants, so they let it out. We had a full kitchen, four bedrooms, a living room that doubled as the dining room, a breakfest nook-ish dining area with about a dozen pairs of antlers mounted on the walls, and the requisite bathroom, complete with the goofy German platform toilet.
It was like being in a real home for the holidays. Our landlords even brought in a Christmas tree for us. One of the many things I leanred about the Germans during the Christmas Season is they have a very different idea of the Christmas tree. When I think of the ideal tree, I think of a full, evergreen traffic cone of a plant. Maybe there’s an open spot, but that can be set facing the wall. There’s plenty of room for ornaments and lights. The Germans prefer more emaciated conifers. The branches stretch widely with massive gaps between each layer of branches. I think this preference for spindly trees comes from the old tradition of setting burning candles among the branches on Christmas Eve, the day you decorate the tree. But that’s my baseless speculation.
Our Christmas tree, before Christmas day (thence no ornaments yet). As you can see, it's not your standard American tree, but it really put a lot of effort into that last stretch toward the ceiling.
The Forsthaus was cute, but a little ways from Bonn, so we hopped back in the car and motored from Remagen, the small town near the Forsthaus, on up to Bonn to catch the final day of the Christmas Market, December 23rd. I had been excited to find out my family would be getting in just in time to catch the market before it shut down for the year. From experience, I knew it stayed open until 10, so when we arrived at 7 I was able to begin the slow tour of downtown Bonn. Carolyn and my mom found a spice stand and quickly bought up fresh supplies to use for our Christmas Feast.
Josh and I in front of Beethoven's childhood home. He was hanging around the joint until he was around 20, taking care of his mother. As you can see, Josh and I did our best impressions of everyone's favorite crazed Early Romantic composer. I think Josh drew his inspiration from the portrait on the left and I from the statue on the right (Photograph by Carolyn)
With all of them in memory, I started to swim through the crowd with the family in tow. When I bellied up to one of the food stands, I saw the grills were sparkling clean and no one was taking orders. “Wir geschlossen (We’re closed)” supplied one of the workers counting Euros, in answer to my confused and hungry expression. They closed with 2.5 hours left in the evening. That’s crazy. So I lead my let-lagged entourage to another stand. The smells of fried and grilled deliciousness still hung in the air, but the food had been snapped up and the stand was shutting down. Crap.
I introduced the Beethoven statue to everyone, then ordered a round of Glühwein (mulled wine) so we could enjoy all the flavors of a German Christmas. Then it was time for some grub. I had described the options while we waited for our wine to cool. Carolyn was excited to try why I called, “The best fried fish sandwich ever. It’s even better than a Lenten Fish Fry at St. Johns,” my dad was angling for a wurst on a German roll and the orders went on from there.My brother and I enjoying our Glühwein and likely giving my father all the respect his age and station demand. (Photographed by Carolyn)
Then we saw stall owners tidying up their wares and getting ready to shutter their stalls. Apparently on its final night, the market was scheduled to close at 8 p.m. Missed the memo on that one. Now there was a mad dash to grab something to eat and buy some ornements for our squat tree back in the Forsthaus. Fortunately there was a desert stand still operating. They were able to whip up a crepe, waffle and a boat of little pancakes with cherries and whipped cream, before also shutting down. What I had envisioned as a leisurely evening taking in the joys of a Weihnacht Market became a flustered attempt to get some kind of sustenance into our bellies before a semi-truck rolled over us as it towed away the Ferris wheel.
Carolyn OD-ing on sugar as we enjoy our mini pancakes before getting kicked out of Christmas. (Photograph by Mom)Here I should mention something about “Closing Time” in Deutschland. When I see the hours for an establishment posted in the U.S. I see those as the range of hours a customer is welcome to enter and blow their cash. In Germany the hours are more accurately viewed as the time you expect the workers to be present. Thus closing begins roughly a half-hour before the time posted on the door so the workers can be away as close to closing time as possible. So, the Christmas Market technically closed at 8, but we were herded out around 7:50, still hankering for some real food.
No worries, I knew of a couple restaurants in the area that I had scouted over the previous three months. They would have plenty of room and good Rheinish grub. Unfortunately, every Bonner had also scouted these restaurants and got the jump on us in line. There were lines spilling out of every restaurant and bar in view. But wait, what’s that tucked into this ally? Is it a quaint, traditional restaurant with space. A quick conversation with the 65+ year-old waitress told me there was, except…something about the tables in the back. I nodded with understanding having understood none of it. We trooped in and quickly realized my parents dropped the mean age by about ten years and “the kids” – Carolyn, Josh and I – brought it down a further 15. Little old German ladies sized us up suspiciously, but it was too late to retreat. In retaliation we did our own people-watching, noting an 75 year-old woman with Cheetos orange hair and a glowering poet or drunk smoking his pipe at the table across the room. The food selection included traditional German dishes including Pfannekuchen – greasy pancakes that can be stuffed with meat, potatoes and plenty of cheese.
Fortunately our waitress never hurried us out for Geschlossen time. She did let me act as table translator, despite revealing her perfect English as we paid the bill. I love when Germans humor me and my butchering of the language.
It was then back to the Forsthaus for bed. The next morning was Christmas Eve and we still had Groceries to pick up for our Christmas feast. I was told the grocery stores all close at 2, as Christmas Eve is the traditional German time to hang with family. So everyone could sleep in and then get ready to brave a group shopping experience.