I'm preparing my nieces for the trip to Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt, the world's largest celebration of Christmas and the coming of St. Nicolaus. We're in Wurzberg, 71 miles east of Frankfurt, where my sister- and brother-in-law have recently been stationed by the U.S. Army. It's snowing outside and we're cozy indoors, but this is not exactly a scene Norman Rockwell would have painted: The nieces are fighting over who gets to play piano first for auntie and uncle; when a winner emerges, the loser sulks for a moment, then finds amusement in teaching her 18-month-old brother to say "shit." Dad is out, working a second job to pay for Christmas and the expenses of living at the mercy of the deutsche mark with three kids, and as the baby chants, "Chit! Chad! Chet!" my husband and his sister are discussing who's divorced among their childhood schoolmates.
Because I don't have kids, I worry too much, so I take the nieces aside for a talk before they're plunged into what I suspect will be an outing heavily freighted with religion. As a Zen-influenced Episcopalian from San Francisco, my greatest hope is that our nieces can inhabit a sort of spiritual nuclear-free zone. With their parents, I'd like to help my nieces grow a warm and loving pocket in themselves that would help them know and understand the oneness of all people, the importance of fairness and faith, the idea of grace. But God is a bit of a touchy subject in this family: Both my husband and sister-in-law are non-practicing Jewish atheists who've battled with their parents over marrying non-Jews. And we have only a few days together. So my goal for the girls is for them not be too confused by the mosh of Baroque cathedrals, Bavarian folk customs and mass-produced Christmas ornaments that make up the colossal Christkindlesmarkt of Nuremberg -- to bring back something positive from our trip.
"What do you know about churches?" I ask as the 10-year-old, Zee, colors, and the 5-year-old, Maya, braids my hair. Zee, like most firstborn, is eager to perform. "You pray, you get to take sips of wine and then they make you eat nasty plastic crackers," she says.
Her sister, Maya, is duly impressed. "Does everyone have to go to the churches tomorrow?" she asks. "Why do people eat plastic crackers?"
I'd hoped to avoid the full catechistic rap. Zee tries for bonus points. "We have to eat those crackers -- so we don't waste food."
Maya, already the family diplomat, tries to cap the subject. "We don't go to church, and we don't even put up decorations for Halloween," she says.
Knowing that the large crhche in the Hauptmarkt at Nuremberg's Town Hall Square is a major attraction, I ask if they know what the birth-in-a-manger thing is about. Zee has absorbed the whole Cecil B. DeMille version through TV, about a star and three guys coming with gifts, and Mary and Joseph being homeless, and Jesus being born in a barn. "Why didn't God give them a hotel?" asks Maya.
In the morning, the traffic report says Autobahn 3 to Nuremberg is code red, or extremely slippery, from the four inches of snow that fell overnight. Having mastered the booklet of German driving rules provided to the military ("Wow, 'Flipping off an Army officer is a $2,000 fine!'" my husband reads aloud. "There are also fines for honking in town and touch-parking"), we set off into the snowstorm, driving behind big rigs that break up the snow and trying to avoid the skids that have sent a handful of cars into ditches. Hill after hill of the local vineyards is blanketed white, with gnarled arms of riesling and pinot plants poking through. The vineyards give way to forests as we settle into the autobahn routine of driving on the right for as long as your patience holds out, then venturing into the fast lane and praying a speeding Porsche doesn't rear-end you. We turn off at Nuremberg in just two hours despite the snow and traffic.
After we're parked and bundled up to the eyeballs, we waddle to the bridge over the River Pegnitz and down to the red and white-striped booths of the market, along Konigstrasse and Burgstrasse. Row after row of booths offer miniature wishing wells, painted gingerbread houses, straw stars, beeswax figurines, metal snowflakes, crystal icicles and about a thousand varieties of painted wooden nutcrackers. In between them are the candy, cookie, wurst and wine booths. Gluhwein, the sweet, hot mulled wine that shoppers sip to stay warm, perfumes the air with citrus and cloves. The nieces laugh at miniature Bavarian figures built out of walnuts, prunes and figs, especially a pair in which a nut-headed wife is about to beat in the face of her fig-headed husband, who is swooning and holding his beer stein aloft.
The miles of aisles of colored glass ornaments, wind chimes, bells, angels and stars tinkle in the lightly snowy air. The warm scent of fresh-baked stollen, the fruit-studded bread covered with powdered sugar, pulls the nieces to one booth. In the course of the day we eat apple strudel, butter cookies, springerle, various smoked, wine-boiled and grilled wursts, hot potato pancakes and strange, chocolate-covered, bomb-shaped confections filled with marshmallow fluff. At lunch, Maya picks at her boiled cabbage. Austrian tourists who share our table encourage her to eat it. "It's good for the constitution," says one Austrian, pounding his fists into his chest and smiling. Maya seeks out her mother. "Do I have to eat the sour-crap?" she asks. It's time for more fresh air.
Searching for the perfect ornament, the girls point out a ceramic figurine, and I assume we're headed for a discussion of who's who at the crhche. But it's a false alarm -- they're interested in something to the left, a caricatured Bavarian toting a garlic rope.
"It's a hard sell," my husband teases about the crhche. "Imagine trying to market them as action figures: 'The wise men! Collect all three!'" he bellows, TV style. In addition to Garlic Man, the girls identify other members of the Bavarian pantheon, including the Gun Toter, the Old Guy With a Beard and a Pipe, and the Hornblower. I'm hoping they don't notice the miniature crhche in some strange, dried tuber that's for sale, or the Pink-Marshmallow-Jesus-in-a-Chocolate-Shoe, obviously laid on for Danish tourists.
Zee notices another shoe ornament, and explains that the shoes are left out for St. Nicolaus. "I think he's a relative of Santa's," she says. Finally, the nieces find an ornament stand selling, among other things, a milk-white, plastic baby nested into a moss-filled walnut. "Jesus on the half-shell?" whispers my husband, threatening our ditente.
"Why did they put Jesus in a nut?" asks Maya. I consider the possible Kaspar David Friederich naturalism/Joseph Campbell answer (Germans like to think of God in Nature) and the Economics 101 answer (they had a large supply of walnuts and thought if they put Christ in them they'd really sell), but settle on simplicity. "They thought that was pretty," I say.
Finally, after choirs and more cookies, when the kids complain that their feet are frozen and the spires of St. Lorenz Kirche and the Altes Rathaus are lit against a dark sky, we buy giant, heart-shaped gingerbread cookie necklaces whose frosting spells "Ich Liebe Dich" and stand aside as the schoolchildren of Nuremberg begin to file past with colored paper lanterns. It's a rite held each Dec. 10, which references advent, or the season of darkness. The fluttery candlelight that fills the brightly colored suns, moons and brilliantly hued box lanterns, drifting in the cold air from a string tied to a small stick, is breathtaking. But the nieces are tired, and since there are no lanterns for sale (they're strictly homemade), they're ready to go home.
On the walk to the car, I tell them that before the Holy Roman Empire brought its religion to this part of Franconia, children made paper lanterns to bring light to the very long nights, and to remind people of the cycle of seasons and the spirit of spring that waits in the ground. They think about this for a moment. "So spring is always there," says Maya. The three of us curl up together in the back seat for the long ride home.