MUNICH, Germany - Christmas in America has gradually become a season dominated by unbridled commercialism and media overload. But Jesus is the reason for the season, and St. Nicholas was a real person - a bishop, later a saint, who was known for secret gift-giving.
For a different experience of this magical time, head to Bavaria in southeastern Germany, nestled against the Alps. Here, Christmas is a monthlong celebration of Advent, the period of the four Sundays preceding Dec. 24.
Households prepare for the first day of Advent by baking mounds of delicious cookies. Over the next four weeks, families, friends, children, and grandchildren get together to swap recipes and test one another's baking skills. These cookies rarely last long, and any good Bavarian home is filled with the warm smell of caramelized sugar and spices.
This delightful aroma is mixed, in a heavenly way, with the wintry smell of pine needles, as each house is adorned with a traditional Advent wreath woven with freshly cut branches. The wreaths are decorated with four candles, lit successively each Sunday until Christmas Eve.
Advent is a special time for children, who get small presents throughout the month. To keep track of the days before Christmas (and the presents), children receive an Advent calendar, a three-dimensional contraption that has small compartments with little doors that are opened every day of December until Christmas. Each compartment contains a small gift, usually chocolate.
Advent is also when children write their "wish" letters. Instead of sending them to Santa Claus, they address them to the Christ Child. These are more than just a few words scribbled on a piece of paper. Children spend days crafting these works of art, which often consist of colorful drawings or collages that communicate their wishes - for material gifts, but also for any desire a child might want fulfilled in the coming year. These letters go not to the North Pole, but instead to either the outside windowsill where the Christ Child will pick them up overnight, or to one of a handful of official Christmas post offices in Germany, such as Himmelstadt (City of Heaven), Himmelpfort (Gate to Heaven), or Himmelreich (Kingdom of Heaven).
A particular day that children both dread and look forward to is St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. On this day, actors dressed up as St. Nicholas visit Bavarian homes and praise the youngsters for their good deeds, like being protective of younger siblings. They also scold children for the bad things they've done, like not helping with the dishes. Legend has it that especially bad children sometimes are taken away in the big sack St. Nicholas' helper Krampus carries with him. The fear of being snatched away is enough to keep children from being too naughty during the year (or at least during the days before the visit).
But all the fun is not just for young people during Advent. Adults also take part, and receive Advent calendars that contain little gifts (though instead of chocolate, they might receive schnapps or beer).
Among the most eagerly awaited and festive events for both adults and children are the Christmas markets. In towns across the region, locals erect small villages of beautifully decorated traditional wooden huts in their public areas, where they sell steaming hot Glühwein (mulled wine), freshly baked lebkuchen (gingerbread), hot grilled bratwurst (sausages), and hundreds of other treats. It's a great get-together where colleagues and friends chat, hang out, and enjoy the coming of the new year. There's nothing like huddling with friends around an enormous brightly lit Christmas tree, a warm glass of Glühwein in one hand and a steaming sausage on fresh German bread with mustard in the other.
After a month of cookies, feasting, Advent calendars, St. Nicholas visits, and Christmas markets, the big day arrives. The night before Christmas Eve, parents place a carefully chosen fir tree in the living room, which is then closed off to children. Parents explain that the reason for this is that the Christ Child needs to be completely undisturbed while decorating the tree and putting presents underneath it.
On Christmas Eve, after a large family dinner, a tiny bell rings to invite the guests into the living room. The children enter to find a fully decorated tree with lights, colorful balls, and straw stars surrounded by carefully wrapped presents. Some families will read the story of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter, the birth of Jesus, and the journey of the three kings. Families also like to gather around the piano with musical instruments and play carols together. After this, presents are opened and the family goes to church to celebrate with other members of the town. The evening will end with a final get-together around the tree, a little Glühwein and lebkuchen, and the glow of another great traditional Christmas celebration.