The tiny chapel in the woods behind our house in Germany: I find myself missing it today in the metropolitan hum of suburban DC with the tiniest of snow flurries falling. What I wouldn’t give for a German Christmas Market, a dusting of snow, and a tiny chapel behind my stone house.
Wishing you each a season that is merry and bright!
“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.” The Scotsman, December 24, 2004
Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings. Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.
These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions. He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east. None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable. The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”
Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale. But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?
It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary. And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843. While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say). It was evening and the light was dimming. He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.” What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?
Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it. Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.
Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant. Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man. Dickens needed better glasses.
You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid. Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment. However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace. Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church. It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space. Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.
The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade. It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.
The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily. In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952. This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done. The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war. The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing. And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.
Still today, the interior of the church uplifts. To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk. I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!
A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.
We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it. We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.
We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.
But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.
“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ― Dickens, A Christmas Carol
When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted. It was the right sort of house for that: imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.
I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.
But then nothing happened.
Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.
Still, nothing happened.
After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened. What a rip off! I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!? Not a fair trade off if you ask me.
But ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas. I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life. It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life. What was Christmas like for them? Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver? Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage? Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?
And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area? Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.
And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II. What about those Christmas dinners? Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark? Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe? Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me. I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.
And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided, like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.
Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either. I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.
It’s better not to know, I tell myself.
Still, I want a ghost for Christmas. I can’t shake that feeling. It’s part of the old house package.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” -William Faulkner
I had a ghost once, a few years ago.
I know, I know–just hear me out. This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances. The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening. For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point). And one more thing–the children aren’t around. If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.
I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).
So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days. That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined. It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.
Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.
Our holiday visit to Salzburg was fantastic, but it began with a few grumbles. No snow? We wanted flurries and the full picturesque Christmas package, but no snow was in the forecast. In fact, it was nearly balmy by Alpine standards in December. (It turns out, however, that “Alpine balmy” is plenty cold as the sun drops low, so we quickly stopped complaining and huddled over our steamy mugs of mulled wine!)
I’ll give you the quick tour of our Salzburg shenanigans here, complete with photos.
We live near the French-German border, and Salzburg is nestled just into the Austrian side of the German-Austrian border. This makes for a long drive, but we were up for it. We left early, so we’d have a full half day as we rolled into Austria.
As we rolled in, we made our first stop at Hellbrunn Palace–right on the edge of Salzburg. In 2014, we’d visited Helbrunn in late November, just as Christmas Market stalls were being built for the upcoming holidays. It about killed us to see all of the preparations but miss the festivities themselves, so our first order of business was to remedy that injustice. And Hellbrunn did not disappoint!
Hellbrunn offered a charming market and a petting zoo/nativity area for children, all set in the fantastic gardens of the Palace. I’ll post a couple of photos here, but say little more about this, as I’ve already written a post about Hellbrunn’s market (here).
After eating and drinking our way through Hellbrunn, we headed to Villa Trapp to check in and have a quick rest–we needed a little energy before heading out for an evening in Salzburg.
The main attraction for us, especially that first evening in Salzburg, was the Christkindlmart (the Christ-child Market, or sometimes called the Weihnachtsmarkt–Christmas Market). There were a number of spots in the city where you could cruise through markets–Mirabell Gardens (which we did the next day), around the Dom (cathedral), and Mozartplatz (where there was ice skating).
The markets were charming in the moonlight, with Christmas lights twinkling overhead and warmth, light, and wonderful smells tumbling out of each stall. We enjoyed Gluhwein (warm mulled wine), sausages, Weihnachts Schmarr’n in many varieties (with nuts, apple, gingerbread, etc, this is like big bread or pancake chunks cut up and fried with sugar), sugar and apple pretzels, and white Russians in steamy mugs.
At some point, we wandered into the Sternbrau Brewery and Beergarden for a cozy dinner. Everyone went to bed happy.
The next morning, we picked up breakfast on the run and headed for town, with our sights set on the Hohensalzburg Fortress, sat high atop the hill over the city. But to get to the top, you have to start from the bottom. At the foot of the hill, we wandered through a town just starting to come to life for the day. My nephew stuck his head around a corner, only to find that he’d stumbled on the entrance to St. Peter’s Cemetery– a familiar sight to anyone who has watched The Sound of Music. (Although I think that scene must have been largely reproduced on a soundstage, it is clear that this is the location represented in the film.) The cemetery is beautiful–set in the churchyard, with its back up against the stone hills of Salzburg. And those stone hills hold their own surprises. There is a doorway in the hills, to the back of the cemetery, which leads into the catacombs.
The catacombs are hand-hewn, carved into the rock of those hills. For a small fee, you can tour the catacombs–a short but lovely tour, it’s worth the fee. There are small chapel spaces cut into the rock, as well as windows and overlook perches, where you have a nice view of the church and cemetery. After we had finished up with the catacombs, we started the climb toward the Hohensalzburg Fortress.
Let me say, for the record, that the fortress is fantastic and the views are not to be missed. Within the fortress, you can wander the walls and interior courtyard, visit the fortress museum, and enjoy the Marionette
Museum there. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon.
Still, for me, the greater treat of the afternoon was Nonnberg Abbey, which is tucked around the bend of the hill just below the fortress. We knew the Abbey was there, but had been told that it’s not open to enter, so the best we could hope for was to peek into the gates. (Those famous gates from The Sound of Music— Nonnberg is the Abbey where Maria was a novice.)
Imagine our delight when we found the gates to Nonnberg open, and we were able to wander in. The chapel (which is the actual location where the von Trapps were married) is stunning and still small enough to feel intimate. The courtyard and garden cemetery tucked just inside the walls of the Abbey were serene. It was a great place to linger for a moment above the bustle of the town.
After visiting Nonnberg and the Hohensalzburg, we headed back down into town and eventually found ourselves at the Sacher Cafe– world famous for its Sacher Torte. We ordered a myriad of desserts and nibbled off of each plate. The cakes were brilliant and the coffee was outstanding. We had no luck getting a table in the restaurant for lunch (reservations needed, at least during Christmas week), but I’m so glad that we made our way back for dessert. In a city of fantastic food, this cafe ranks among the best of the best.
Honestly, I don’t remember what happened after our afternoon nibbles. I expect we toddled back to Villa Trapp for a moment’s rest before hitting an evening of Christmas markets again.
Another night to wander the markets under the stars. We spent a lot of time doing that, in various locations, during the Christmas season. But it never got old. Salzburg’s market offered so many tasty delights, and so much “eye candy”-old-world-decoration that it was impossible not to be enrapt by it all. My favorite shop window on our last night in Salzburg was a confectionery shop that boasted a sugary replica of the Oberndorf Chapel, just outside of Salzburg. This is the chapel where the Christmas hymn “Silent Night” was written.
After an evening of wandering, ogling Christmas baubles, eating, and drinking, it was once again off to Villa Trapp for a long winter’s nap.
We woke slowly Christmas Eve morning, some of us taking breakfast in the von Trapp’s dining room, and then set out (our bags packed for home) to visit Mondsee before the long ride back to the Rhineland-Pfalz in Germany. Mondsee’s cathedral is probably best known as the wedding chapel in The Sound of Music, and it’s a stunner. It was a treat to see it decked out for Christmas. And, as always, it was a treat to stop by Cafe Braun before leaving town and eat breakfast and some of the best apple strudel to be found on the planet. (I ordered the strudel with both ice cream and cream–I don’t know if they make these out of an egg custard recipe or with some liqueur I can’t quite pin down, but they are incredible.)
Cathedral at Mondsee
We left for home with tired feet, full bellies, and a storehouse of wonderful Christmas memories. Next year I may be celebrating Christmas far from Salzburg, but I feel certain that Salzburg will be there in spirit– I’ll perfect my strudel and custard recipes, I’ll drink my mulled wine in a Salzburg gluhwein mug, and I’ll carry a certain old world spirit. Like Hemingway’s Paris, Salzburg in this season will be my moveable feast.
You’ve probably put away your holiday decorations, and it’s far too early to start planning for next year’s season. But before spring rolls around, I wanted to write about Salzburg and the Christmas festivities we enjoyed there during the holidays.
In late November of 2014, we visited Salzburg and Villa Trapp just before the holiday markets opened–I made a vow to return for the 2015 holidays so I could experience the season in full swing in this corner of Austria. I’d been to Salzburg once before (about 17 years ago), in warmer weather, but had only stopped for the day, and I’d been chomping at the bit to get back ever since. Salzburg absolutely captured my heart.
Well, as long as I’m beginning this post with flashbacks to past trips, let’s lay all the groundwork for this recent trip. Or, as they say in Salzburg, “let’s start at the very beginning. . . a very good place to start.”
Salzburg is tucked just inside Austria, on the German-Austrian border, only about an hour and a half from Munich. It’s a fabulous city for wandering and nibbling, for venturing out to Salt Mines (more interesting than it sounds) or WWII sites, and for listening to Mozart or channeling Julie Andrews.
If you’re not very familiar with Salzburg, here’s the 30-second run-down: home to Mozart and Maria von Trapp; fabulous apple strudel, pretzel vendors, and confectionary; incredible mountains, lakes, and countryside; ice caves and salt mines; Hitler’s Eagles Nest and Nazi camps; fortresses, monasteries, castles, gardens, and marionette theaters.
Of course, the American thing to do in this city is to take The Sound of Music tour–which we did back in 2014. It was fun, if a little cheesy (a busload of American tourists with a soundtrack of Julie Andrews speeding through the Austrian countryside–you can imagine). Among the tour stops were Leopoldskrone Palace (used to film the back veranda of the von Trapp house in the movie), Hellbrunn Palace (near the home used as the facade of the von Trapp house, and the final resting spot of the “16 going on 17 gazebo”), Mirabell Gardens in downtown Salzburg, Lake Fuschl (a beautiful town out in the Alpine Lake Region), and Mondsee (another lake town and the filming location for the wedding scene).
On our 2014 trip, we also toured the Salt Mines and visited Berchtesgaden (on the German side of the border). Both are worth a visit. In the salt mines, you not only learn about the industry that made this area so rich, but you get to ride the steep and long wooden slides that the miners used to descend into the mines, and you ride in a boat on an underground lake, which is a really eerie and fun experience. As for Berchtesgaden, besides being a picturesque town, it has a very storied history with the 3rd Reich. My first visit there,
about 17 years ago, included an interesting historical tour of the area. Our 2014 visit was just a quick pass through. Neither time was I able to visit the Eagle’s Nest–Hitler’s mountain top retreat high above the city (and well known as the place where one of the plots to murder him was foiled). The Eagle’s Nest is only open during warm weather, as the road up the mountain is treacherous. I’ve always had mixed feelings about visiting that space, so I didn’t mourn the lost opportunity for long.
On to the epicenter of both our 2014 and 2015 trips to Salzburg: Villa Trapp. The von Trapp’s actual home was opened a few years ago as a small boutique hotel. The owners, Christopher and Marianne, had a struggle on their hands seven or eight years ago, when they proposed opening Villa Trapp as a hotel. The locals were furious, anticipating a hotel creating a disruption to the quiet neighborhood where the Villa Trapp sits and adding to the already manic Sound of Music industry in the city. But somehow the squabble was resolved, and the Villa Trapp was opened without disruption to the neighborhood. The Villa will never be a large scale hotel–it is, as it was, a very grand family home. In fact, it is a very quiet place, sat on a large, walled property in the neighborhood of Aigen (on the edge of Salzburg) and housing only a few guests even when fully booked. (I believe the Villa was, historically, a 14 bedroom house. How many guests it can now accomodate in its bedrooms and spacious suites, I don’t know, but the staff told us in December 2015 that the hotel was fully booked and we heard almost no one else, despite having some company when we took breakfast in the dining room.)
The photos in the top banner of this post are from Villa Trapp.
We stayed there the 22-24th of December, and were sad to leave when we learned that they were holding a Christmas Mass in English on Christmas Day there. The Villa was purchased by the Trapp family around 1923 (it’s a mid 19th century villa). They lived there until 1938, when they fled the country and left the house in the hands of a missionary group. (The von Trapps didn’t actually have to walk over the mountains, they took a train–but they did get out just one day before the borders were closed by the Nazis, so the escape still counts as dramatic in my book!) Hitler quickly occupied Austria, and the SS took over the home for Heinrich Himmler’s office and residence space. After the war, the villa went back to the hands of the religious order. The order remained in the villa until around 1992–which is why it was unavailable as a filming location when The Sound of Music was being shot.
The villa is a very gracious place to rest on your travels, and it is so very steeped in its history–the owners are glad to speak with you about the home, and they even offer a tour of the house at noon each day, and have a DVD available that takes you through the family and house history and features one of the von Trapp children (Maria–known as Louisa in the movie–who passed away at 99 years old in 2014).
This Christmas, we were joined on our trip by my sister and her family. We each had a spacious suite of rooms, and felt pampered as we rested up from our drive and our days out in Salzburg. Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt (Chirstmas Market) was in full swing, and we enjoyed cruising that, as well as walking through the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Salzurger Dom (the cathedral), St. Peter’s Cemetery and Catacombs, Nonnberg Abbey, and Hellbrunn Palace–but I’ll post more on that in a few days in part two.
Until then, so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu! (couldn’t resist)
*And for a little fun, watch Julie Andrews and Diane Sawyer meet the hoteliers at Villa Trapphere.