I am standing by myself, as alone as one can get on the edge of the Domplatz, a historic square in Erfurt, the capital city of the German state of Thuringia. People stream toward the Christmas market, its small wooden huts glowing with light.
Music plays. Friends laugh. Kids bundled up in snowsuits peek out from behind their parents’ legs and waddle towards each other, their chubby hands outstretched as they squeal, then retreat to their positions to hide their faces again. The adults hold steaming mugs of glühwein between mittened hands, the aroma of the spices in the wine mixing with the scent of roasted, sugared almonds that hangs in the air.
The colorfully lit Ferris Wheel stops and starts, admitting new passengers for a leisurely ride above the crowd. A brass band warms up, quietly adjusting their scarves and running through scales, their heads bowed together as if in prayer. The German Gothic Cathedral of St. Mary, dramatically lit from below, and the more subdued Church of St. Severus look on from atop stone steps like a pair of proud parents.
I am in Germany for a press trip, one that has fallen at a time in my life when I’m in desperate need of personal and creative renewal. I believe writing is a craft and a calling and I approach it as such, pursuing it with the same dogged determination and attention to detail as the artisans I am in Thuringia to interview in their workshops and storefronts and busy Christmas market stalls. I think telling stories is as essential to our humanity as food and drink being purchased all around me, as good for our souls as the beautiful objects fashioned by the artists I’ve met. I carry some of their creations with me now, pretty little trinkets that are someone else’s calling, wrapped carefully in paper, ready to make the long journey across the sea to become someone else’s gifts, someone else’s stories.
But sometimes even the best job in the world, the thing I feel most called to do, the reason I’m convinced I’m on this earth (even though this seems self-indulgent and silly and totally un-Midwestern to admit this in writing), feels like an absolute slog. Sometimes I turn out plenty of work, but absolutely nothing worth keeping. Sometimes my passion for this work takes me far from the people that love me. Some days are for creating and some days are for taking in information and some days are for waiting for inspiration. I’ve had very few of the former in the last few months, and my soul is a restless thing.
Earlier in the day I braved the autobahn to visit learn about the region’s porcelain producing history at Castle Leuchtenburg. The exhibits (including an interactive, Harry Potter-esque experiment where you could try to measure out the weights of porcelain ingredients on giant scales and novelties like the world’s smallest teacup) were fun. But the exhibit that made me grin was the “Hall of Failures,” which showed off all the tiny little mistakes that made pieces imperfect, not marketable or useful. I mentally imagined my own “Hall of Failures,” both personal and professional, a thousand dreams and longings imagined, fashioned, then chipped and shattered.
There are things I want to say, but I cannot find the words. There are relationships I’m afraid will change if I say what’s on my heart. There are stories I want to write, but they never stop swirling around in my head. There are places I want to go, but I cannot find the way. There are changes I know I must make, but I don’t know which threads to pull.
It seems right to display them along with the successes. I think this museum has the right idea. Mistakes and miscues are just part of the process. I reimagine my frustrations in the gallery and I feel a little brighter.
I always get like this in the winter. There’s just something about the colder days that makes me stop to take stock of my life, to think about what’s working and what’s not. I grew up in the American Midwest and I’ve been a plains person for most of my life. It’s a common thing here to bemoan the short days, to gripe about the cold and the long, dark nights that December brings.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve welcomed the change. If I’m given long days, I will fill them. But now when the darkness appears, I’ve learned not to fear it. Instead, I let it in. When you can sit quietly with the things that scare you, and work on accepting your fears and failures, this season of darkness can make you more open. And I treasure it for that reason. It forces me to look inward, to nest, to be quiet and still, whether I’m ready to do it or not.
There is a wisdom to the seasons, a rhythm that our ancestors couldn’t ignore in the way that we can, with our electric lights and gadgets and penchant for self-distraction. So many societies have rituals to celebrate the seasons and the dark months are no exception. Historically and religiously, much of the winter season has centered on preparing and waiting for light and warmth, reflecting on the months passed and the months yet to come and gathering together to celebrate, despite the challenges.
Christmas markets like the one in Erfurt are part of the advent season, the portion of the Christian liturgical calendar that precedes the merriment of Christmas. It is a season of reflection and hope, a weeks long meditation on darkness and light.
Germans do advent much better than Americans, in my opinion. “But you start to celebrate right after Thanksgiving,” protested a German woman I interviewed. Except that we don’t, I replied. We are certainly encouraged to start buying things in a frenzy of consumerism that officially begins right after Thanksgiving.
But buying things is not the same as gathering together to celebrate. This retail madness is a largely a solitary affair. The exception to the rule, the shopping frenzy of Black Friday, is more competitive than communal. And buying things is certainly not the same as patiently reflecting on our lives and preparing our hearts for a season of change and rebirth. In fact, I’d argue it’s the exact opposite.
The Germans have the right idea, I think. They live in same hemisphere as I do. But instead of commuting to and from work in the dark and hibernating at home or pushing away the discomfort that the season can bring with a frenzy of purchasing power, Germans gather together to celebrate the light in the darkness, to bundle up against the chill, to string cheerfully decorated gingerbread hearts around their necks, to meet friends for glühwein after work, to eat sugary chocolate treats and sausages drizzled with mustard and to pick up pretty little trinkets for Christmas gifts.
There’s a genuine element of merriment and camaraderie present at these German Christmas markets that is heartening. It’s a collective decision to celebrate, despite the challenges.
It’s not like people here are immune from challenges. Everyone I interviewed had concerns, both trivial and monumental, personal and professional. We chatted about personal dramas and workplace woes as well as larger worries like our respective governments’ seeming inability to get their acts together, of the refugee crisis. We worried about global warming and the many small ways humans can be cruel to each other.
The issues are specific to our times, but our fretting isn’t new. People have gathered in this city since the Middle Ages, when Erfurt was a vibrant trading city, and they have always had worries and concerns. Erfurt and its people have survived war and occupation, persecution and repression. They have fretted about taxes and ineffective government and wrestled with intolerance and fear before. These fears are older than the cathedral stones, as human as the craftsmen who cut and shaped and fashioned them into the edifice we look at with wonder hundreds of years later.
A Christmas market is a story of hope. The people of this city have chosen light over darkness, community over isolation. And in a world that can seem increasingly fragmented and divided, in a season that can seem lonely and cold, that is an inspiring choice.
People have gathered here, at the square below the churches, for wine and conversation and shopping for centuries. They drank wine and bought presents and laughed with their neighbors in times of war and in times of peace. Descendants of the people walking across the wet cobblestones will gather here long after we are gone. There is beauty and power in this.
I will tuck moments from this night into my heart like I’d tuck pretty stones into my pocket, running my fingers along their ridges when I need reassurance that everything is somehow, despite everything, going to be all right. I will close my eyes and remember a short haired woman belting out the chorus of a song I didn’t recognize with such pure, unselfconscious gusto that I wanted to applaud, but didn’t want to introduce on her private world. I will recall a bevy of long-legged, bright-eyed girls linking arms and giggling, shooting me a trio of bright grins that needed no translation — indeed no words at all — as we all struggled through the cold, slippery mud, up the steep hill of the citadel to look down on the Christmas market lights. I will smile at the memory of hundreds of faces turning to the sky in delight as fireworks crackled above our heads.
The next time the world seems cold and dark, I will remember my last look at the market, just before closing time on a Saturday night. I turned back to snap a photo, but decided to take a mental picture instead. I stood, warm and watchful in my cozy wool socks and knit hat, enjoying the movement, the buzz of the crowd, the lights shining in the darkness. The quiet strains of “Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming,” a 16th century advent hymn originally penned in a German monastery rose up from the din and everything hushed.
I learned to read music from an old Lutheran hymnal and sang in choirs until my early 20s, so whenever I’m walking or cooking or baking, you’ll find me singing. I’m partial to the minor key advent hymns during this time of year. And this one stopped me in my tracks.
“Amid the cold of winter/When half-gone was the night.”
The melody, as mild and delicate as the rosebud in its name, has never been my favorite. I’m quite sure I’ve never sung it in front of an audience. I don’t think I’ve ever even intentionally learned the words. I don’t even like this song, really. Yet here I am singing, alone yet not alone, on the edge of Domplatz square on a mild December night thousands of miles from home.
My eyes are wet. I am so lucky to be here, so incredibly privileged to do this work, so unspeakably blessed to be alive. This gratitude sparks something deep inside me, in a place so raw I don’t even like to admit that it’s there.
I have come to this place for hope and renewal. And I have felt it now, deep in the cold of winter, alone but not alone.
What about you? How does this season make you feel? Which advent or winter traditions do you observe? How do you deal with the challenges of winter? Where do you go to connect with other people during the holiday season? What are your favorite Christmas markets? What are your favorite holiday traditions? What challenges are you facing this season? How can we help?
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