Underneath the commercial glitter, Berliners believe in Christmas tradition | Scene in Berlin | DW | 24.12.2010
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Scene in Berlin

Underneath the commercial glitter, Berliners believe in Christmas tradition

These past two decades, the festive season in Berlin has been changing almost as rapidly as the capital itself. But when it comes to Christmas, some old habits are reluctant to die.

Illustration of Brandenburg Gate with logo Scene in Berlin

Many years ago, back in the days when Berlin was new to me and latte macchiato had yet to be imported to Prenzlauer Berg's Kastanienallee, I remember Christmas being a quiet and even gentle affair.

Seasons greetings were not splashed across the fronts of thousands of garish cards, nor were they blasted from brass bands at shoppers too busy hunting down their must-haves of the year to stop and lend an ear. Christmas trees were rarely seen in advance of the first advent and their decorations consisted almost entirely of straw stars on skinny red string.

That same year, I received a parcel from England containing presents wrapped in stylish paper. I recall a German friend who was with me at the time, studying the design and wondering why shop owners here couldn't find a way to stock the same kind of thing.

Fast forward fifteen years and he need ask no more. It arrived at around the same time as the cards emblazoned with Christmas wishes, often enough in English, and the multi-colored baubles which shine more brightly than any straw star could ever hope to.

Shopping up a storm

Lots of people seen from above in a shopping precinct

Christmas shopping en-masse

And it is in precisely such paper that shoppers like the thousands I bumped into yesterday evening when I ventured out to Friedrichstrasse (all in the name of research) will be using to wrap the gifts they had to tramp through icy temperatures and piles of snow to buy.

When the shops closed last night, hundreds of people flocked to the one mega book store that stays open until midnight. I splashed through the sludgy brown puddles at its threshold to see what all the fuss was about. I was surprised to see Berliners, who are ordinarily cautious spenders, behaving with such reckless purchasing abandon.

The scene, which I'm sure was being repeated all over the city, would have been excellent fodder for anyone who holds that Christmas in Berlin has become a sacrilegious shopping fest. And there are plenty who would say just that.

The other side of Christmas

But I'd argue that such a complaint is too black and white. It's clearly true that glitz and gifts are gaining momentum at Christmas time - which can't be a bad thing from an economic point of view - but shopping and tradition have never been mutually exclusive.

Berliner Dom lit up in the darkness from outside

The Berliner Dom might be big, but come Christmas Eve, it can also be very full

On Christmas Eve last year, someone in my family decided we ought to go to midnight Mass at the Berliner Dom. I don't go every year or very often at all for that matter, but it sounded like a nice idea, so off we trundled. We arrived in plenty of time, only to find that there was no room. The place was even more packed than that sprawling bookstore a little way down the road.

We tried St. Hedwig's Cathedral, but couldn't get in there either. The irony of being turned away on Christmas Eve was not lost on us, but we did what others have clearly done before us and kept on looking. And in our case we didn't need a bed for the night, just somewhere to stand for the duration of the service. We tramped on to two other churches before we found a corner in the Marienkirche into which we could settle.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine that of all those people who turned out that night, none had walked the same streets in the preceding days in search of gifts for the people they hold dear. I won't be in Berlin this Christmas or I might just be tempted (in the name of research) to go back and see if there are any faces I recognise from my recent expedition to Friedrichstrasse.

Author: Tamsin Walker


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