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.
It’s not. It’s really, really not. It’s 76 sweaty degrees in Florida today. It’s gross. My only consolation is that the pelicans fishing in the bay this morning made a lovely sight.
Last year this time, I wrote a post called “All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost,” which I never got . . . at least not from my old German house. This year, all I want is some cold weather . . . which I’m not getting from Florida. So I’m packing up for a few days to fly off to cooler climes. I’ll post travel photos at some point, once I’m back.
Until then, I don’t want this space to fall fallow, so I am going to re-run my two part ghost story from last Christmas in the next few days. Don’t think of it as a cheap way to cheat as a blogger; think of it as airing a Christmas classic during the season. (Just humor me on this.)
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.