Twelfth Night

Tonight marks Twelfth Night– the eve of Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas.  It’s considered very bad form, and bad luck, to keep Christmas decorations up any longer than this.

This, I think, is a plot hatched by type A neatniks to push type B malingerers into a tidy-up already.  Not a bad ploy;  I get it.  However,  this time last year, I decided to keep my tree up another week or two, until my corner of Germany got some snow.  When the snow finally made its appearance, I snuggled under a blanket with a book and some hot chocolate while the tree lights twinkled.  No bad luck in that.

This year, I’m baffled by what to do.  Family and friends to my north are expecting freezing weather and snow storms in two days. IMG_20160714_063514  I feel like I should leave my tree up as a sign of solidarity– I can read by its twinkling lights, turn on a fan, and pretend that I’m looking out my window at a foot of snow.  But I’ll be looking at this:

Good stuff, but not a winter wonderland.

Or I could be industrious and take it all down and give up on winter ever coming to Florida.  (I’d be tidy and efficient, but kind of a quitter too.  It’s a quandry.)

In the States, we don’t pay much attention to the “12 days” of Christmas.  (Christmas day until Epiphany, January 6th.)  It’s more of an Old World concept.  But it lends more structure, and a  greater sense of traditional festival, to the holiday than our modern sprawl (which is more like the 12 weeks of Christmas, starting before–or at, if we are very lucky– Halloween).

Twelfth Night offers a chance to wallow in Christmas traditions for one more night– to eat heartily (and include a King’s Cake on the table) and drink wassail.  It’s also the night when you finally allow the yule log to die out– that log that you started burning on Christmas Day and kept going until now.  The yule log is said to bring luck for the coming year, and, if you’ve kept a fire burning around the clock for the last 12 days and  buche001 your house is still standing, then I’d say you’re pretty lucky!  We didn’t do that at my house.  We did, however, bake a yule log (a buche de Noel) and gobble up every crumb.  Hopefully that imparts luck and not just extra pounds.

From our experiences in Germany, it’s obvious that Twelfth Night doesn’t just mark an ending of a season– it is also the beginning of the carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras.   We’ve seen this in Bavaria and the Black Forest, where Christmas season seems to be dipped at both ends with a dollop of menace.  On the front end of Christmas, Krampus came for bad children around December 6th (Nikolaustag), and now at the holiday’s closing bell,  masked demons parade in the streets as the carnival season gets underway.

Down the hill we went into snowy Triberg.
Down the hill we went into snowy Triberg.

Two years ago, in  January, we took a trip to the Black Forest.  We spent the night in Triberg, and the snow was falling fast and starting to accumulate.  We tucked the kids and dogs into the hotel in the early evening and told them we’d go find a restaurant in town and  bring dinner back to them.

When we got down the hill and into town, we turned toward a restaurant we’d seen earlier in the day, and ran headlong into a merry band of demons parading the streets.  But, you know, these things happen in the Black Forest.  We laughed, but didn’t think much of it until the next day when we were talking to Oliver Zinapold in his Triberg woodworking and clock shop.  We talked cuckoo clocks at great length, and even bought a lovely clock from him, and before we left we spotted a devil’s mask up on the wall.  I asked about it.

“Oh, it’s a good thing you came today,” he said.  “Tomorrow, I close up shop and go to Switzerland for a few days to be in the Carnival.”  He showed us his hand carved mask, and pulled out a sketch book of other masks (and clock faces) he’d made.  And suddenly the merry band of devils we’d seen in Triberg made perfect sense.

So, don’t mourn the passing of Christmas time at Twelfth Night .  . . just realize that thirteenth night marks the beginning of another lively season.  And more than a little mischief.


I’ll leave you with a short video of Oliver Zinapold’s workshop– Oli’s Schnitzstube.   The video is in German, but if you are drinking your Twelfth Night wassail, I expect you’ll understand every word of it.  And even if you don’t, it’s worth seeing the lovely clocks and (an added treat) one of his devil masks can be seen hanging on the wall at about 22 seconds into the video.


Irrepressible Epiphany

Update to “Modern Epiphany.” DSC_0620 - Copy

Wisdom will out.

When my village’s new modern standard for the Epiphany holiday–let’s call it “Dial a King”– baffled and discouraged me . . . and, worse yet, when I lost the phone number and couldn’t dial the Wise Men to request a visit,  wisdom did out anyway.

Last night, the Heilige Drei Konig (3 holy kings) came to visit my home. Unbiden but hoped for, they appeared.   Ahhh, life is sweet.

One hitch, though:  I wasn’t home.  My husband answered the door and filled me in on the visit later.

Minor detail.  I don’t expect wisdom to settle upon me, but I am overjoyed that it still roams the world, blessing the unscheduled stragglers when the chance arises.

Happy New Year to all!



Modern Epiphany: Dial a King

Wise Men and Star Singers
Wise Men and Star Singers

Today is Epiphany, the day when the church observes the visitation of the Magi after the birth of Jesus.  This year, my German village is celebrating with a twist–a new Dial a King program.

Last year this time, I posted about the Heilige Drei Konige–the three wise kings– and the star singers who come around German villages the first week of January to observe the holiday and raise money for children’s  charities. (You can read the post here if you need a primer on the tradition:  Die Heilige Drei Konig.)

I counted myself among the lucky ones last year–the three kings visited my home.  They were a little less earnest and more distracted than I had imagined . . . chatting on cell phones. . . but maybe this is the modern face of wise men.

In fact, this year you have to phone in your request for them to come visit you.  No kidding.  A few weeks ago, there was an announcement in the local paper:  if you want the Heilige Konig to pay your home a visit, you should phone or email the posted number/address and schedule a visit and donation to their charity.

Very efficient, that.  Very modern.  Or maybe not modern–probably kind of true to the story of the Magi.  They were planners.  They studied the stars; they packed their bags; they navigated a great distance without any GPS to steer them off on certain exit ramps.  They didn’t wait for the revelation to come as a lightening bolt: they did the math, said the prayers, kept the faith, and planned the trip.

Still, I miss those wandering Heilige Konig in my village.  I like the epiphany that comes as a lightening bolt,  the Holy Kings who come, unbiden, to bestow blessings on your home.  Call me a drama queen, but scheduling our blessings bothers me– I guess it’s not unrealistic, but it’s far too convenient.  Dial a King for your religious holiday feels too much like putting a drive through window on the church for quick service.

Maybe your life works well on such schedules and conveniences.  If so, I’m happy for you.  But mine?  Lord help us, mine is far messier.   True confession:  I meant to Dial that King, but lost the newspaper article while tidying up for a holiday party or guests or dinner.  Maybe it went out with recycling a week or two ago, or maybe I’ll find it in a pocket sometime around mid-March,  or maybe it’s in the butter compartment of the refrigerator.   I haven’t the foggiest idea where it is . . .I’m bad at these things.

But I’d always hoped the Magi, in their wisdom, might find my home anyway.




Die Heilige Drei Konige/The Holy Three Kings (January 6th, Epiphany)

Ein Konig und ein Hirte-- a wise king and a shepherd at Ripon Cathedral some years ago (2008?)
Ein Konig und ein Hirte– a wise king and a shepherd at Ripon Cathedral some years ago (2008?)

The Three Wise Men, The Three Saintly Kings.   They came to visit me today.  Sort of.

Actually, they stood in the street and looked forlorn, so I went out to speak to them.

I had been told they might be coming.  To knock on my door, and to bless my house in observation of Epiphany on January 6th.  We Americans take little notice of Epiphany (and the 12 days of Christmas that span from Christmas day until Epiphany), but in Europe it is still heartily observed.

Let me give you a tiny primer on the Heilige Drei Konige (the holy three kings) in Germany before I tell you more about my personal experience.  According to the “German Words Explained” website,

On this day, groups of children known as Sternsinger go from door to door and sing a song or recite a poem or prayer. They then write in chalk above the door C+B+M and the number of the year with three crosses, eg. 20*C+M+B+08. These letters stand for the latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, meaning “God protect this house”.

The Sternsinger also collect donations for childrens’ charities.  drei helige konige

I assume that the C + M + B also stands for the Three Kings (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar).  When we first moved here, I noticed these chalk markings above so many doors–letters and numbers.  I’d decided that it must have to do with a municipal code, but finally asked someone about it.  How fabulous to learn that it was a blessing and not a municipal code–much nicer!  I was looking forward to a visit when Epiphany rolled around.

And so the three anticipated guests showed up today.  My husband, daughter, and I were standing in our kitchen, contemplating lunch, when three teenagers appeared outside our window.  They stared at us, we stared at them.  Then we, my family, stared at each other, wondering what we were supposed to do.  We had no idea, so we stared back at them again, wondering what they were supposed to do.

This will sound strange and uncomfortable to you Southerners, but,believe me, it’s acceptable in Germany.  Encouraged, even.  When we first arrived, we waved at neighbors and smiled broadly.  They stared. . .then scowled if our idiotic grinning and waving continued.  It was clear that we were committing a faux pas, but old habits die hard.  Finally, months into our life here, I asked a German friend about this.  “Oh no!” he said, “Do NOT wave.  We just don’t do that.  It is strange.”  He continued, “You may tip your head if you must, but just understand that they are just looking. It’s normal; they are trying to see if they know you.”

I immediately stopped waving at people.  My neighbors stopped scowling, for the most part.  Now we just stare at each other.  It still feels weird, but you get used to that feeling when you aren’t on your home turf.  Weird is the new normal.

But back to the Kings loitering outside my window.  They were three teenagers, recognizable as the kings only when two of them dropped their cell phones into their pockets and the third shifted her body to reveal a staff topped with a star in her hand.  Another had some sort of wooden box.

“Oh!” I said, “I know who they are!!  The Heilige Konige! The Wise Men!”  I was so excited to have them visit our house!

But they just stood and stared.

Then they moved a few feet, so that they were blocked from view by  a hedge.  Were they regrouping before bursting into song?

Apparently not.

So I asked my husband to walk out and see if we were supposed to invite them in or something.  He retorted, “YOU are the one who speaks German.”  Two things worth noting here:  1 -clearly, he was a little wary of these sketchy wise guys, and 2-nothing that comes out of my mouth is recognizable as German, try as I might.

“Okay,” I said, “give me some money for the Kings.”

So, armed with some Euros and sketchy language skills, I rounded the hedge and approached the kings.

Can we pause the story here and just consider that last sentence?  It has promise, doesn’t it?  Sounds like the beginning of an epic tale or a heartwarming Christmas story.  Yes, it has promise.

And then I said, “Die Heilige Drei Konige?”    “Ja,” they said.   Yes!  Great!  But the surly youth didn’t burst into song or emit a holy aura, or do anything else but stare.

“Sind Sie…fuss…the neighborhood?”  I said.   One king put his cell phone back up to his ear, and the other two looked at each other and then said, “Ja?” but with the emphasis on the question mark.  “Fur Epiphany…und…charity?” I asked, adding “meine Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut!” with an apologetic look.  (“My German is not very good.”)

We fumbled around for a moment.  They never burst into song, and wise man #3 kept to himself and his cell phone, but we did manage to establish that wise man #2’s wooden box was for 3rd world charity donations.  I handed them my money and wished them a lovely day in passable German.

That was all.

It wasn’t what I’d pictured happening when the Heilige Konige came to visit.

Maybe it was the cold rain and snow mix falling on our shoulders that kept them from a more leisurely visit? Understandable.

Maybe it was the fact that they were three teenage kings instead of truly holy kings, carrying cell phones instead of chalk, and that’s okay too.  The Kingdom of Teenage plays by mysterious rules.

Or maybe it was my German-English (Germglish) that drove them quickly from my door.  Germglish tends to do that.

So, the visit wasn’t what I expected . . .but I can get over that.  I saw the Heilige Drei Konige; they visited my house.  That ain’t bad  for a rainy afternoon.