Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Friday, December 21, 2007
A few years back, Sir George and I lumbered on over to the Christkindl post office to see what all the fuss was about--why so many little kids were sending their letters to Santa Claus there. I wrote it up in the Baltimore Sun.
By Patti McCracken
Christkindl, Austria--It is a tiny little hiccup of a place. The wee dot th it is on a map shows not even the faintest squiggly line of road going there, and, thus, it takes a resident to guide foreigners to the exact spot.
No problem, he says. Go up the mountain, then left, left and right. He pat-pats the hood of the car for emphasis and sends the foreigners trundling up the mountain. No problem.
Grown-ups may find themselves losing the way, but the children of the world have never had a problem finding the hamlet of Christkindl. Tagged "the Noth Pole of Austria," it is--of course, it must be--the place where Christkind lives.
Christkind is the ancient figure of the infant Christ who, at the chiming of the church bells on Christmas Eve, adorns the tree with ornaments and, with the help of angels, brings along presents.
The letters begin
This place was named for a miraculous healing that allegedly occurred here nearly half a millennium ago, but nobody can say when the children's letters began arriving in Christkindl --100 years ago, maybe longer. Austrian children just began sending their wish lists here, and the mail for Christkind began to pile up.
More than 50 years ago, Austrian postal authorities decided to do something about all of this unanswered mail and set up a makeshift post office in a church building to answer the 40,000 letters Christkind was getting each December.
That was in 1949. Since then, the word has spread across the world that this is where the giver of Christmas presents lives, and the number of letters each Christmas season has reached more than 2 million.
Inside Christkindl's Weihnachten postamt (Christmas post office), Postmaster Alfred Steinbach has grabbed a fistful of letters from the back and is spreading them on a table in the front room. A few very young onlookers have gathered around.
"We get letters from all over the world," says Steinbach, and he begins to list the far-off lands. "We get letters from all across Europe, Canada, USA. We get them from new Zealand, Japan, South America."
So awed is one little eavesdropper that he can't help but repeat the list to himself as Steinbach names place after place. "New Zealand, Japan, South America," echoes the boy barely above a hush. He is outfitted in a stocking cap with earflaps and looks more Norman Rockwell American than he does Christkindl Austrian. He's one more kid at Christmas.
In recent years, there has been a merging of myths, but Christkind is not, by definition, Santa Claus or St. Nick, Austria's patron saint of children. He could be considered a relative or an ancestor of both.
Austrians are dismayed at the swiftly blurring lines among Santa, St. Nick and Christkind. The images are flowing together, even at the Christkindlmarkts. The markets, in Germany and Austria, operate in wooden huts from Dec. 1 to Jan. 6. They specialize in Christmas fare, offering mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and nutcrackers--along with more signs of Santa Claus.
"There are no images of Christkind anymore. It is all Santa Claus," says Gloria Aust, a university student who lives in a small town near the border with Slovakia.
A few years ago, a former divinity student named Philip Tengg formed a society called Pro-Christkind, trying to fend off the incursion of Santa Claus.
"It's nothing personal against Santa Claus," Tengg says, "It's just that Santa Claus isn't Austrian--here, it's St. Nick and Christkind. When Santa and his reindeer show up, they are reminders of commerce instead of an impetus to worship."
In recent weeks Pro-Christkind set off a debate that reached all the way to the United States when it distributed stickers showing a crossed-out Santa Claus. Angry and offended, letters poured in from the United States and elsewhere, and Tengg issued an apology that was reported by the Associated Press.
"In our zeal," he said, "We neglected two things: that there are people in the world we live in who believe in Santa Claus and for whom Santa Claus represents an important part of Christmas; and that we have actually expressed something completely contrary to what we wanted to express."
Here in Christkindl, the Weihnachten postamt considers all letters to Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nick or even the Poles' Jezuskowo as letters meant for Christkind. Open only during the holiday season, the staff of 18, working 70 hours a week, makes certain that all letters are answered.
But impatient children don't write letters--they dial numbers. "Some children call us on the telephone," says Steinbach. "The number is in the telephone book." He shrugs. "They want to know what he looks like and when he flies, where he puts the parcels."
In this age of robotic toys and virtual games, what kids want seems to be the sort of things they've always wanted. One girl from Italy says to please bring her a dog, and an American girl tops her list with a Princess and the Pea Barbie.
Steinbach said it is mostly the German and Austrian children who are forgoing toy requests and asking Christkind for something he cannot carry in his bag: "Many are asking the Christkind for their not to be a war."
Christmas Eve is the day of celebration in Austria. After being locked out of rooms and shooed away by parents all day, a moment will come when a bell is rung just after dark, signaling the instant at which children are not only allowed, but expected, to burst forth into the previously forbidden room.
And there the Christkind's handiwork will be, in the room, in the decorated Christmas tree, in the presents. How did that happen? It won't matter then whether it was Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nick or Christkind. It just won't.
Posted by Patti McCracken at 5:43 PM
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
A sick dog (she's better), a disappearing editor (she's not), and a rush to knock over the small children standing with their mittens and stocking caps on the Christbaum lot has kept me away for oh too long.
There is an organization I belong to (to which I belong, I know) that started a thread along the lines of How You Stand Out from a Crowd... the things about you that are unique.
The post run the gamut. Of course my contribution was that I tool around in a vintage London Black Cab in the rural landscape of Austria, with a dog riding shotgun--hauling sheep. Others had walked across the pacific northwest, bicycled across North America, been hijacked, wrote a bestseller... people's lives are really amazing.
Poor old Sir George thought he was special... alas, he was booted out by a hijack victim and some athletic maniacs. Merry Christmas to George.
Friday, December 14, 2007
This whole Trabi thing has me thinking about Bucharest. The first time I went there was about--wow--13 years ago (eek!). It has improved 1000 percent since then. But I remember tooling around town with the driver, Gabriel, and something just seemed off. Looking through the windshield and there was something missing. Definitely missing.
What's missing? I asked him. Probably the windshield wipers, he said. It turns out that everyone took the wiper blades off because if you didn't, they'd get stolen.
I also remember drivers pulling up on sidewalks to change their oil/put out fires, and other drivers, including Gabriel, who drove on the sidewalk to get around that pesky traffic and bypass the traffic light at the same time. The good ole days.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
You had to mix the oil in with the gas-into the same tank, and the manual gave instructions as to how many parts oil to gas was sufficient. And when the fuel was low, you had to manually flip to the reserve tank, which held enough gas to go about 20 km. But once it was dry, it was dry, and there was no little light that came on to remind you.
In fact, some Trabants didn't even come with blinkers. I'm assuming windshield wipers were also optional.
While researching a story, I came across a site that offers tours of East Germany in its famed/infamous Trabis... and in promoting its fleet of Trabis, it listed under exceptional features of the car: Four Doors.
Posted by Patti McCracken at 3:25 PM
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
So this is what I was confronted with after turning on my yoga tape. But I thought: She's little and I'm big and she'll surely get out of the way.
But I was wrong.
This is the arrangement she apparently felt was suitable. Nary a budge of the butt from her. And me, well. Yoga's probably overrated anyway.
Thinking of my Algerian friends. Each time this happens, they tell me not to worry because they're used to it (I KNOW, Ouali, but I can't help it).
When it happened back in April (and again a few months later), I wrote about it for Worldpoliticsreview.
Heres Algeria on a happier day:
On the left is Ouali, who gets mixed up between rappers and rapists; then there is Hocine, the Weapon of Mass Consumption; next to him is Hanafi, who USED to leave posts here, but no longer :( ; and then Liesse, who is the man who got me hooked on the music of Idir; and then Said, who, poor thing, has to tolerate them all....
And then there is Nadir. He's on the right. Standing proudly next to a famous Algerian actor.
The only one missing from the group is Salah Eddine. Maybe his baby girl was born that day, and that's why he wasn't there...
Monday, December 10, 2007
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Monday, December 03, 2007
Saturday, December 01, 2007
My sister has been attending assemblies at her kids' Cookham school for something like 13 or 14 years (they aren't stupid children, she simply has three that have attended over that span of time). I've attended a few, too, but only for the occasional Christmas pageant, esp. the one where Luca played Joseph.
Last week I was in Cookham and the school was having another assembly, in which my nine-year-old, blue-eyed, Nordic-blond nephew, Ethan, was participating. I point this out because the night before, Ethan casually announced that for the assembly, he would be playing a Jew.
At the assembly, my "Jewish" nephew and his "Jewish" classmates acted out a scene at a long wooden table, which had the misfortune of being stationed directly under a crucifix.
But before the assembly started is where the real drama played out. My sister and I had already taken our seats when a parent she knows pulled her chair up in front of us and told us how thrilled she was because Jane had thoughtfully brought her a fox she had found.
"It's really lovely. The hairs are so beautiful and fine, and the colors are glorious, but it's starting to get a little soft," she said. "I don't know when Jane found him but he was quite stiff and easy to work with a few days ago."
Okay, I know all about soft and hard and hard being easier to work with, but I gathered this was a significantly different situation. Mainly because it involved a fox. And the fox was dead.
The best I can tell, it seems the fox made his way toward the light, but went with Jane instead of Jesus, and ended up modeling its fur for this Cookham artist before continuing his tumble through the tunnel.
"Tsk. It's too bad that rigor mortis doesn't last a bit longer, really, because I just adore painting this creature... oops, must hush now, the kids are coming in."
I'm uncertain, but I believe this is among the strangest conversation I've been privy to, and takes its place alongside the all-time strangest conversation, which was my mother waking me on a Sunday morning to explain that a spaceship had landed in the backyard and oh what a night it had been, do you want some breakfast.
Bring on the lady with the dead fox because I've heard it all.