Germany basically invented British Christmas (thanks, Queen Victoria!), a cosy, candle-lit family celebration that eventually morphed, thanks to assists from Tin Pan Alley and Coca-Cola, into the holiday extravaganza America knows and loves today. Germany has since recognised its outsized influence on this most nostalgic of holidays and now sells tangible Christmas cheer to tourists at every possible opportunity. Christmas markets are the best place to pick up carved wooden ornaments, high art crêche figurines and that windmill that turns because of candles. If it is important that the piece is made in Germany, be prepared to dig deep. Most of the cheaper ornaments come from China.
A bit of the Berlin Wall
The 155-kilometre (96.3-mile) Berlin Wall is the souvenir that keeps on giving. How can you tell if your little baggie is full of legit pieces of the wall and not a little bit of the neighbour’s graffitied basement? Does it really matter? The Berlin Wall Memorial sells bits with a certificate of authenticity, but the best option is to hack off a chunk yourself with tools provided by the Westin Hotel.
An iconic symbol of East Germany invented by psychologist Karl Peglau, the Ampelmännchen (Little Light Men) has become a hot souvenir item in Berlin. After unification, the little guys were due to get the axe and be replaced by the less charming Western image. Designer Markus Heckhausen stepped in to save the day, and now tourists the world over can enjoy sunglasses, shot glasses, ice cube trays, chalkboards and even pasta, which all bear the mark or even come in the shape of this intrepid little street crosser. Visit the Ampelmännchen shop near Konzerthaus Berlin or order online.
They’re hideous and impractical, but nothing says Germany quite like a beer stein – maybe a cuckoo clock, but they are expensive and fragile as well. A great buy for uncles or fathers-in-law, choose from stone, porcelain, glass or pewter, with a lid or without. The Silver Bullet never knew such style.
It looks gross on the box, and it tastes gross in your mouth, but many Germans swear by sauerkraut juice as a cure for what ails you, particularly stomach complaints. Supposedly, there is something about the milk and vinegar mixing together with your stomach acid to calm the roiling down. It’s available at any grocery store. For extra Deutsch realness, package the juice with a box of medicinal dirt.
Nothing says Christmas in Germany like setting fire to rum soaked sugar in the middle of the dining room table. Seriously. A Feuerzangenbowle is a way to prepare mulled wine in a manner that makes everyone want to take part. Special equipment is needed, as a normal punch bowl will explode when it comes in contact with either of the two flames. It’s fun, but a little hard on Grandma’s clean, white carpet. Buy this in any department store – look for Karstadt or Kaufhaus or just ask an older person near you in the café.
Dirndl and/or Lederhosen
While this souvenir is an obvious one, it’s not budget-friendly. Lederhosen for men (and sometimes women) and dirndls for ladies (and, why not, sometimes men too) are the traditional clothing in Bavaria, the state in the south of Germany that touches the Alps and includes Munich. Beautiful silk dirndls start at about 800€, and a quality pair of deer leather lederhosen go for at least 400€.
A warning: Lederhosen are never washed, instead kept soft by the wearer’s natural oils, which is something to bear in mind when you spy a pair at a second-hand shop.
Germany is an old place, and for all the time that there have been people here, there has been some type of furniture. This fact means that Germany, along with the rest of Europe, has a lot of beautiful old furniture that just can’t be found in the US or Canada. Well, it can, if a furniture dealer imports it, but that’s not as fun as finding something yourself. Whether sourcing your own treasures is cheaper than having an expert do it for you is open to debate, but any reputable antiques dealer can help you sort out shipping.
Be careful at flea markets where the romance of it all and the lure of a deal makes you vulnerable to hustlers and a lot of hidden costs. That 18th-century Biedermeier secretaire may be to die for, but working out where you’re going to stash that behemoth during the remaining eight days of your holiday could be a bit dicey. And your friends at US Customs will have something to say about anything with rare wood, ivory or other restricted materials.