DRESDEN, Germany -- “So, you want to celebrate the holidays in style,” said my seat partner, Max, a businessman flying to Berlin. He gave me a knowing look. “And you’re going for the first time? Don’t miss Nuremburg. That’s where you’ll taste the very best lebkuchen. It’s a spiced gingerbread. We try to go every year.”
His advice wasn’t the first to come my way. I’d been urged to go to Leipzig where choir concerts in the St. Thomas church mark the season. Or to Cologne, famous for spekulatius, a cinnamon-spiced biscuit; or to Erzgebirge for a nussknacker, a carved wood nutcracker. If I wanted to buy one of the candle-powered twirly-whirly “pyramids” typical of Saxony, I’d been assured that table-top versions were sold everywhere.
Would three markets in eight days be too hectic? Not if I abandoned the idea of renting a car and decided to ride the rails. With a German rail pass good for the week, I saved myself the trouble of driving and parking. And I booked hotel rooms in Dresden, Berlin and Weimar, all fairly near each other and with conveniently located in-town train stations.
By early December, a good two weeks before Saint Nick and the reindeer were due on my rooftop in California, I was already among the revelers in Dresden, primed for decorated trees, shimmery glass stars and roasted chestnuts.
When it comes to celebrating Christmas the old-fashioned way, nobody does it like Germany. For 11 months of the year, summer holidays and the health of the European Union occupy most conversations. But as December approaches, tradition takes precedence, a fond reminder of simpler days.
When twilight settles over these ancient towns — and it comes early in the northern latitudes — 10,000 tiny lights twinkle on and holiday revelers, swaddled in thick coats, gather to stroll, gawk, finish their gift shopping and meet friends for an evening’s merriment.
Not knowing quite what to expect, I started in Dresden, a good place for an initiation into Saxon-style cheer. Here were crafts, wood carvings, ornaments, baked goods and cheeses of every size and kind, with smiling vendors bundled in winter coats offering bite-size tastes. Sausage vendors standing at sizzling grills offered grilled bratwurst in a bun, the traditional match for mulled wine (gluhwein).
Wandering over to the Frauenkirche church, now famously rebuilt, I poked my head in the door and was lucky enough to get a ticket for that evening’s Christmas concert. Here, too, was my chance to visit one of Germany’s oldest Christmas markets, the Striezelmarkt, now celebrating its 579-year anniversary.
In Weimar, where the market was busy by mid-morning despite falling snow and drifts piling up on the town’s minature Market Square, the smell of bratwurst and sounds of Christmas carols filled the air. Instead of deterring residents, the weather brought them out, with parents pushing babies in strollers and pulling older kids on sleds.
Soon Santa himself appeared in the town hall’s upper-most window, and hoisting a sack on his back, climbed down on a rather wobbly-looking ladder to greet the kids. Later that day I toured the home of Goethe, the legendary polymath who was not only a poet and dramatist but a politician, amateur scientist and shrewd economic advisor to his royal patron. This was news to me, since I’d known him only as an author.