Shining a light on Berlin′s modesty | Scene in Berlin | DW | 19.12.2013
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Scene in Berlin

Shining a light on Berlin's modesty

Berlin is a match for many cities in many things - and its admittedly modest yuletide illuminations are no exception. DW's Tamsin Walker is enchanted by the understated approach to the seasonal festival of lights.

Illuminated trees on a Berlin boulevard, Photos: Fotolia/flashpics

Simple tree lights are a common sight in Berlin at this time of year

There is nothing more unreliable than memory. Or mine, at least. Until I turned my attention to writing this column, I would have sworn blind that come mid-December, every second window in this wintery city would be aglow with the promise of Christmas.

And I mean literally aglow - with hundreds of thousands of tiny electric bulbs that flash and glare apace with the trappings that saw Berlin beat London, Paris and New York to be crowned the second most "youthful city" in the world.

That though, is not the way this story goes. I have spent many a recent evening scouring the facades of buildings that stretch into the night, hoping to catch the flicker of something garishly bright. Yes, I have witnessed the occasional blast of color, but on the whole the illuminations I have seen brighten Berlin and put Blackpool in the dark, seem to have been a figment of my imagination.

Apart from the obvious question mark that pins to my power of recollection, the discrepancy is a good thing, because the reality of Berlin's Christmas lightscape far outshines my dream.

Light delight

For the most part, what you will see after sundown are elegant strips of silver and gold which line windows and balconies with a picturesque quiet. And you will see trees. Branches plucked bare by the cold hand of winter transformed by strings of lights that shopkeepers, cafe proprietors, regular tenants and even the city authorities affectionately wrap around them.

It's a different take on the Christmas tree illuminations that legend often traces back to Germany's own Martin Luther. The Protestant reformer was allegedly so bedazzled by the sight of stars sparkling above a forest of evergreens that he decided to replicate the effect by mounting candles on a tree he erected in his own front room.

Whether there is any truth to the tale is neither here nor there, because wherever and however it began, that Christmas light simplicity has endured. And despite the availability of all manner of electric lights and now even real effect candles, it continues to thrive.

The power of understatement

Christmas tree with gifts and real candles, Photo: cmfotoworks -

Many Berliners choose real candles - simply because they always have

Most Berliners I know light their trees with candles. Unfazed by children, cats and dogs that bound about with hazardous excitement, they are intent on doing as has been done before. From what I can tell, the tradition is both about just that, and about a purist aesthetic which rises above the swell of excessive commercialization.

In that same spirit, this is not a city that switches on its lights with Regent Street style pomp. And although the showcase Christmas tree that towers over the seasonal market near the Ku'damm shopping boulevard is just as high as its Rockefeller Center counterpart, it is strung with a modest 3,000 lights as compared to the 30,000 that twinkle for the New York crowd.

For anyone who's a fan of quantity, that makes the Berlin spruce seem like the dull and dowdy European cousin. But I would say the opposite is true. It is not glammed up to the nines in an effort to steal the occasion, but is modestly dressed in appreciation thereof.

I consider the fact that Berliners do not appear in their tens and hundreds of thousands to witness the transition from city lights to pretty lights, to be symbolic of a wider German enlightenment around the subject of Christmas.

It is also testimony to my belief the people of this city well understand and often practice the principle of less is more.

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