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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmastime in Münster

A little over a week ago, freezing temperatures finally came to this city. Yet, it does not snow in Münster, though I’m not particularly sure why; instead, we have awoken each morning to a very heavy frost. Though the day may not end under a heavy fog, each morning almost invariably dawns beneath it, and as the air becomes colder, this mist clings to all in a crystalline coat. The sun might (or might not, as today) burn through it ere the noon bells ring, and sometimes (as I painfully discovered this morning), the blanket lies invisibly (and slickly) upon the sidewalks and pavement (a phenomenon called Glatteis, safety from which the celebrant wished us at the opening of this morning’s Mass). Drivers must scrape off their cars in the morning, while the grass (which has remained yet green, though rather the dark and toughened hue of the end of the season than the bright and vibrant color of its youth) is cloaked, and as one walks about, it shimmers dully between frosty white and dark green. The frost’s most magnificent vesture is, however, worn by the bare branches of the trees, covered in an icy film that grows ever thicker as the nights grow colder. When the skies of day are still overhung with the chilled and dreamy mists, the thin limbs of the trees slice through it with their cold filigree of silver; but when the darts of brilliant sunlight strike forth, oblique and always low on the horizon in these days, the branches glow with pale, white gold; but alas, it lasts only a short time, for soon they are reduced to the muddied browns and greys of wetted wood, the frost melted by the very rays that had illumined it.

Despite the deepening cold, however, the city’s most vibrant Christmas tradition has thronged apace: the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market. This tradition, found in towns great and small throughout Germany (the most famous is to be found in the great square of Nürnberg), came brilliantly to life in Münster at the beginning of Advent, and as the Day of Jubilee has drawn nearer, the booths have thronged ever more with jollity and merriment (and on the weekends, the whole of the markets are packed to overflowing with the Dutch, who come by the busload—it would seem that Amsterdam can’t match Münster for the holiday cheer). Because Münster’s greatest open space in the old city, the Domplatz (Cathedral Square) is reserved for the use of the great traveling market that comes every Wednesday and Friday year-round, the Weihnachtsmarkt has been shoehorned into little squares and courtyards throughout, so that one can walk from the Aegidiiplatz in the south to the Lambertikirche in the north, wending one’s way from one grouping of booths to the next.

Some of the booths offer various Christmas trinkets (from little wooden ornaments to various Santa hats—particularly popular this year seems to be the one that comes with two white braids hanging from it, in the style of Pippi Longstocking), but many are run by craftsmen offering various handcrafts in wood, ceramic, glass, or other materials. As numerous as the crafts, however, is the ubiquitous drink of the Weihnachtsmarkt: Glühwein, or spiced and mulled wine, a steaming drink to return warmth to the belly among the frigid mists of winter; and, of course, the many vittles offered to the crowds: the traditional (at least these days in northern Germany) Currywurst (sliced Bratwurst smothered in warm curry ketchup), and Pommes (French fries), with your choice of curry ketchup or Mayo (pronounced “my-oh” here) slathered on top; and for the sweet tooth, the Christmas confections of Lebkuchen (soft, spiced gingerbread) and gebrannte Mandeln (almonds “roasted” or caramelized in sugar with vanilla and cinnamon). Finally, strung throughout one will find musicians of all types (from adolescents with their flutes and clarinets trying to make some extra spending money, to the old hats who do this for a living) adding that final touch of Christmas cheer.

The street performers were not the only musical cheer that I have experienced this season in Münster. In my time over the last few years in Boston, I started to make it a tradition as a birthday present to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah on or about my birthday (December 2), as the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston performs it several times annually on the first few weekends of December. Sometime in November, my grandmother asked me if I was going to continue the tradition, and I had to reply that alas, I would not, as I was unaware of any performances of the Messiah in Münster. But about a week before Thanksgiving, as I was glancing through a pamphlet at the Cathedral listing the various musical offerings around town for the Christmas season, lo and behold, I discovered that there would, in fact, be a performance of the aforesaid masterwork at the Apostelkirche (the main Protestant church in the city’s center, housed in a beautiful gothic structure that was once a Dominican parish before being confiscated during the secularization at the beginning of the 19th century; when it was finally to be returned to religious hands, the Dominicans no longer had a stake for it and it, therefore, given as the first house of worship for Lutherans in this (still) predominantly Catholic town); furthermore, only two performances were to be offered, on the evenings of Saturday and Sunday, December 1 & 2 (and as I later discovered, it is by no means an annual performance; the last time it was performed was 1995!). Much to my delight, I rounded up my American friends here (Timon, who lives in my dorm complex, and David, both Americans studying at the university, and Jennifer and Jörg Burkart and Bill Hoye) and held a “birthday outing” on the evening of the second. Not only was I able to continue the nascent tradition, but I have now christened it a firm part of my birthday celebrations, for it has been followed not only in America but in Germany, too! The evening was, however, to have its own German twists: the oratorio was sung in German (not my accustomed English), and we headed to the Weihnachtsmarkt afterward for a nice round of Glühwein. The performance was overall good, though the trumpeter had a few missteps early on, but recovered well for his standout role in the latter third of the piece; and, unfortunately, they cut a few sections out for length, including “O death, where is they sting?”, a beautiful duet toward the end. But in the company of friends on the occasion of a birthday celebration, such deficiencies are easily overlooked.

Last week, on the third Sunday of Advent, I enjoyed another musical celebration of the season heralding Our Lord’s Birth, this time in the company of the Deutsch-Amerikanische Gesellshaft (the German-American Society of Münster). The afternoon began with an Advent Tea hosted by Heidi Wegmann at her beautiful home in Wolbeck, a southeastern suburb of the city. From there, as night descended (this far north, that begins at about 4:00 in the afternoon), we journeyed to the workshop of Friedrich Fleiter, Orgelbaumeister, whose family has specialized in the construction, maintenance, and repair of organs since 1872, to attend a concert benefiting a local charity, given annually on the Wurlitzer organ installed in the workshop. The organ, a “Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra, Made by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., Cincinnati”, was originally installed in a Hollywood movie theater in 1924. When the theater was renovated to be able to show movies with sound in the 1940’s, the organ was moved to a stage theater, also in Hollywood, where it remained until that theater closed in 1994, at which time Herr Fleiter’s company saved it from the trash heap and brought it to Münster. Designed to reproduce a full orchestra pit to accompany silent films, the organ has such ranks as a xylophone, snare drums, bells, and a cymbal. Befitting the Wurlitzer’s American origins, the concert began with a series of American pop songs from the 1950s – ‘70s, including “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To” and “Downtown” (I’ll admit, it was a bit odd to hear them on an organ, but fun nonetheless). This was followed by a screening from DVD of a silent Laurel & Hardy short, which the organist accompanied most excellently. The film, called “Big Business”, tells the story of Laurel and Hardy the Hollywood Christmas tree salesmen and their over-the-top exploits selling pine trees door-to-door on the balmy back lot. After an intermission (accompanied by a nice mug of Glühwein), the concert concluded with a great series of American Christmas songs (both traditional and popular).

Of course, all of these wonderful festivities have been but in preparation for the truly miraculous feast that commences tomorrow night: the Birth of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. As we gather at midnight in the Cathedral to celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, to dance upon the dancing day for our True Love, we shall experience the fulfillment of all our expectant watching. The lamps of the Advent wreath have been lit, and await the Bridegroom’s march, as proclaimed to us by the watchmen on the heights. Then, no matter whether the mists continue to shroud the night or the stars twinkle and the moon sets to sparkling the frost-encrusted tangles of the hedges, the True Light, God’s Son, shall shine forth the brighter in our hearts.

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