That Time My Dad Bought My Mum a 30 Pound Ham for Christmas

Merry Christmas! How you doin’? Me? It’s 10 p.m. on Christmas Day and I’m running a fever. Because obviously.

So because Mum had to take care of Aunt for a couple days we had the big family celebration not on Christmas Eve as usual but on Christmas Day. Which, in hindsight, was a clever ploy of fate because on Christmas Eve I felt all shipshape and Bristol fashion, but today was another story. All morning I’d felt sort of queasy. Hadn’t slept much, because I somehow woke up at 7 a.m. and could not go back to sleep. That’s never a good sign. Sometime after lunch my back started hurting so bad. Also not a good sign. And now I’m here chained to my bed, and not the sexy kind, heating pad on my back like an old lady and running temperature. Awesome. When I said I was going to take it easy for a few days I didn’t mean this. Anyway.

Maybe now I’ll have time to try this new battery powered manicure set my mum gave me. Are my nails finally gonna look fancy and like I have my shit together?

Anyway, Dad got whiskey, Mum got stuff for her phone (first smart phone, already addicted) and a giftcard for as many kindle books as her device can eat, Great Aunt got food and wine (she’s 91 and a hoarder, we can’t really give her stuff), Boyfriend got his 237th Doctor Who DVD. And after all this… Dad comes in with a big box.

The box stands about 1 metre tall. It has a note taped to it that details the adventure Santa had to go on to get this thing, whatever it is. Dad grins. It is the grin of a dad who is terribly pleased with himself. The grin that has a joke coming. Armies have fled in terror before the Dad Grin. Those who see it seldom live to tell the tale. So Boyfriend and me proceed to open the box because Mum apparently has a terrible premonition and doesn’t want to.

The box contains a smoked Serrano ham. A whole one. Weighing roughly 15 kg, or 30 pounds. The whole pig’s leg without the foot. Smoked. From Spain. With a cutting board.

Mum lets her head fall into her hands and seems to scream internally.

I have a terrible flashback. This is probably my fault.

Roughly twelve years ago, during the weekly grocery shopping when I was still living with my parents (being severely underaged tends to do that to a person), I saw a giant ham at the market. Very similar to this one. And I may or may not have joked that this would be something for the next barbecue. My father, bless his kidneys, may have remembered that remark. For over a decade. This decision probably started with the sentence “Hey, didn’t Kiddo say she wants something like that?”

Yes. Maybe. As a joke. Back before there were smart phones. Back before there was Youtube. Dad, why?

Back in the present, Mom seems trapped between laughing and yelling. Dad is grinning from ear to ear. I secretly dub the whole affair Hamgate 2015.

“But it’s Serrano ham You like Serrano ham. Everyone likes Serrano ham.” – “But what are we going to do with it?” – “Eat it.” – “This will go bad within days!” – “No, we’ll just eat it!” – “Alright, tomorrow you’ll cut this thing into nice thin slices and deliver it in portions to your aunt, the children, and the neighbours! Have fun cutting for two hours!”

Paraphrasing, of course. The half laughed and half despairing argument went on for half an hour. And that is why there is a 30 pound leg of ham on my parent’s balcony. I’m going to keep telling this story until I’m 90.

So… guess I’ll wait for a ham delivery tomorrow. Wonder if this works out or if mum makes herself a widow tonight by use of a 30 pound pig’s leg. If nothing else, this was a present to remember. It will probably be brought up as a stern warning for the next, oh, let’s say twenty years.

Maybe next year we’ll get a wheel of cheese to go with the ham, but I better not say anything out loud in front of Dad.

Rant Day! A short and sweet list on mid-December complaints!

Item 1: Last year I was full of good cheer and Christmas spirit. This year… nah. I don’t know what happened? Why am I not being all merry and annoying?

Item 2: My back’s been hurting for a week now and it’s not getting better. What’s happening in there? Not fair, I’ve been working out, I should not have back pain.

Item 3: Managed to pull a muscle in my arm this week. On the train. Because those hold-onto-sling-thingies they have in trains basically just exist for you to swing around better in case of a sudden stop. No really, they stop you from face-planting into the window by an inch but that’s the end of their usefulness, you have to do the rest yourself. Balance your body plus fifteen pounds of winter clothing. In a stuffed train. While holding a cake with the other hand. Somehow not that easy.

Item 4: I know it’s the holidays again, Boyfriend, but stop getting on my nerves about the marriage thing. I will not plan a huge event for your millions of relatives when I only have five, out of which three are able to actually show up. And don’t come at me with your newly-found practicality. “Oh, you’ll get a widow’s pension when I die!” Okay. That’s nice. But actually I wanted a reason to live with you forever, not a reason to kill you and make it look like an accident.

Item 5: Christmas presents. What do you do when your mom deserves an island and you can afford a candle?

Random praise: Thank you, Rap Critic on YouTube, for sharing my sentiments on Hotline Bling and expressing them way more eloquently than I could manage.

No really, what DO you get if you cross a snowman with a vampire?

Why did I ever think this was a good idea?

I went to a holiday party. You could say it was an office holiday party. I was talked into this. I lasted less than two hours.

At my age I should be good at this. I should be able to make small talk. I should not be in a the middle of a crater of people all talking with each other and around me. I should be able to join a conversation. Not become social ground zero.

But I do. Every time. Without fail. At least no one can complain I’m rude; I’m sure no one even noticed I was there.

Maybe it was because the party came at the end of an already long day. Maybe my social quota was already drained. Entirely possible. Or maybe I’m just the same socially awkward dork I’ve always been. Also entirely possible. And not ‘adorkable’ or whatever that godawful word is (think Zooey Deschanel or any other hot chick with glasses), but really just… sort of there. Nothing to say. No safe topics. I need a workshop. And maybe cue cards.

You know how in theatres they have prompters that help actors out if they forget their lines? I need one of those. In real life. I mean, I feel like that’s a gap in the market. Social Situation Prompters. Imagine all the job opportunities for extroverts!  I could pay one to follow me around inconspicuously and then go to some other person, “Oh, hi! The Grad Student was just telling me about her research, weren’t you?” And then the other person would just have to ask about it, right? Or another, my SSP could just linger behind my back and then when I run out of things to say whisper in my ear: “Weather!” Or with the rise of google glasses they could follow me online and send me my lines directly. Imagine the possibilities!

In reality I just sit there, smile and nod to conversations I’m not part of and can’t even really hear over the din and the music (auditory processing problems, anyone?), feel left out and excuse myself early. Keep smiling. Come up with excuse. Prior engagement. Have to leave now. It’s been so nice. Happy holidays to you, too!

And go home and cry. And whine on the internet.

Prooobably smiled too much. Dead giveaway. Urgh.

And what really breaks my heart is how when I say my goodbyes everyone goes “Aw, already? But it’s barely x o’clock, why don’t you stay?” like I just walked in the door and announced I’m leaving after five minutes. I don’t get it. You won’t even notice I’m gone, I promise.

I mean, I’m not blaming anyone but myself for my lack of social interaction or social skills. It just, y’know, kinda hurts that I can’t do it properly like other people can.

I’m just more of a one-on-one person. Single serve. Elevator, no more than six people. Rehearsed, not improv.

I probably called someone by the wrong name, too. Urgh.

I’ve been listening to this song since I came home:

This girl is about ten years younger than I am. So I guess this make me living proof that this kinda thing does not get better with age.

Urgh.

Christmas: The Reckoning

So this was Christmas. How was yours? Did you even celebrate? Any other solstice festivities maybe? Well, anyway, it’s over now. Time to prepare for New Year’s Eve!

Hah, no, oh ye gods, can this month of festivities finally be over? I’m pretty much all broke at this point. St. Nicolas’, Christmas, Boyfriend’s birthday coming up, New Year’s. That’s a lot of stuff. Can we stop with the stuff? And then there’s January, with it’s presentations and exams, because getting a master’s degree around here means two years of jumping through hoops of shit you already did in your BA program. If I’m thirty by the time I can finally start actual work on my thesis I’m going to be so mad.

Ahem. Anyway, Christmas. Christmas wasn’t bad. Actually, I was really getting into the holiday spirit this year and of course, in the eternal irony of the universe, everyone around me turned Scrooge. I get it, we all have a lot of things to do. Like, y’know, me, what with work, school, projects, relatives needing a strong helping hand, job interviews two days before Christmas Eve, the card crafting, all the Christmas shopping and present wrapping…

Also, damn, I forgot to take pictures of the cards. I was working real hard on them, too!

Come December I made a Christmas collage to hang on the living room wall and I even got some cheap holiday lights to hang above it and on the balcony door. I was feeling uncharacteristically happy. And because I’m not as stupid as people like to think I am, of course I immediately got suspicious of this. Feeling happy is dangerous. Bad things happen when I’m happy. I don’t even like the word. When I’m happy, people die.

Which is exactly what happened, I’m not even kidding. The last I’d seen my grandfather was 15 years ago, so I don’t feel particularly sad. Hardly knew him and by all accounts he wasn’t exactly a nice person. Not even a halfway decent person. Feeling kinda bad for my mother and aunt, because even though the guy treated them like shit and they only knew from his lawyer that he died, they still feel sort of sad. I guess that’s what being related to people does to you. Fucking genetics. (Yeah, yeah, we’re not supposed to talk badly about the deceased, but come on. The truth can’t hurt them anymore.)

Ah, well. Ain’t no Christmas without a death in the family.

Anyway, it put a bit of a damper on my mood. I mean, this always happens. The minute I’m feeling slightly good, something terrible happens. It’s like my supervillain power. And I guess other people are starting to catch on, I mean, with the way everyone refuses to join me in my merriment. So I made merry mostly on my own, because shit, it’s Christmas, and I’m a motherfucking adult! And I did what I always do: I made a to-do list. It ran something like this: help aunt with shelves, get Christmas tree, finish making all the cards, wrap presents, decorate tree, do grocery shopping for long weekend, clean entire flat, mom asked to buy cake to bring on Christmas Eve, also don’t forget your job interview, here’s what you’ll be wearing, and don’t forget to wear the pretty shoes.

After I helped my aunt set up shelves in her new flat, we went to get a giant prickly tree (courtesy of my aunt by way of a Christmas present: “So I don’t have to go out and shop and you’ll have something you like!” If you read this post you know my family’s attitude already.) and once I got it home I donned my work gloves and hacked it into submission (resulting in an interesting pinprick pattern on my arms that sort of looked like a rash) until it stood somewhat upright in it’s little standy-thingie. Caused a giant mess in my living room, but hell, it’s only me who has to clean it up anyway, so who cares?

Then in the evening it was tree decorating time, which has always and will forever be my favourite part about Christmas. Because… you get to hang shiny sparkly stuff on a tree! Any other time of the year that’s considered crazy! And it’s great! I don’t know why, but then again, I can never explain why I like things. Things I don’t like, shit, let me write you a dissertation about all the reasons I think it’s stupid, but shit I like… eh, I just like it. I like hanging shiny things on evergreens. And I like to do that with another person. But I guess those times were officially over when I moved out of my parent’s place.

So I fought my way through the prickly mess to hang the lights while Resident Man Beast played the umpteenth round of whatever on his computer. Then he hung three ornaments with me while talking about wrestling for some reason, then distractedly returned to his computer to google pictures of the porn star-turned-wrestler-turned porn star who starred in the She Hulk porno while I finished the tree. I was in such a good mood I even played Christmas music.

Getting older really is a good thing. Two years ago I’d have been devastated by Boyfriend’s refusal to decorate with me. Now it’s like, fuck you then, if I want to decorate a tree, I’mma decorate a motherfucking tree! And if I decide the day before Christmas Eve is the perfect time for present wrapping because all our shit finally arrived in the post and you don’t want to lift a finger, well I’mma wrap up a storm! Glue and glitter and ribbon and paper strewn everywhere and who cares about it? Not this bitch, nuh-uh. Not until it’s time to clean up, anyway.

So in a nutshell, project Start Holiday Traditions With Your Spouse Resident Man Beast has not been successful. Unless you count Do Everything Yourself While RMB Is Burning Through Mobs as a tradition.

Grocery shopping was uneventful because it was early. I always go early, and I absolutely refuse to go on the 24th if I can help it, which I usually can. I mean seriously, let the poor retail people go home. Why don’t they make the 24th a public holiday already?

So, with supplies stocked up and presents wrapped and packed, I eagerly awaited Christmas Eve. Which became Christmas Midday as per usual, so off to the parent’s place to eat my mom’s delicious, delicious food. If you cook everyday you learn to appreciate not having to do it. And really, that’s all I really wanted for Christmas: not having to cook. And then there was cake and cookies and my stomach nearly burst and we all took a half-nap (it’s like a proper nap only you don’t sleep; you just kind of lie there thinking “I’ll never eat again in my life!”, a vow you’ll break half an hour later) because daaaamn, so much food. Then we gathered around mom’s tiny laptop and watched silly cat videos. I mean, we meant to listen to Christmas music but somehow got distracted. Though dad did try to sing “Mele Kalikimaka” and hilariously failed at it, and I got everyone hooked on “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”.

The gifts were well received. But then dad opened up mom’s present, which was an infrared thermometer, basically a thermometer for objects that are far away, looks a bit like a sci-fi gun. And I got Boyfriend his much coveted sonic screwdriver. They spent the rest of the night in fierce battle.

I got some awesome t-shirts, a cute tiny chocolate fondue cup thingie and my all-time favourite, cold hard cash, courtesy of grandma because, and I quote, “living in the city is so expensive”. Oh, grandma, you have no idea. I can finally buy chicken now! Where’re all my chicken recipes at, we’re gonna feast!

So now Christmas is over, it’s only a few days until New Year’s and I already have one resolution: Lose all the weight I gained during the holidays, I put on 2 whole kilos (or 4 pounds for you imperialists). No starving in this family, that’s for sure.

Also, like I predicted, the temperature dropped sharply after St. Stephen’s Day and now we have snow. And cold. Did I mention the cold? The terrible biting cold? And the fact that I still haven’t learned how to grow a beard so my face is always cold? I mean, have I mentioned the cold? I’m sure I haven’t touched upon it, so let me tell you about the cold! It’s a real cold cold. It’s the coldest cold that ever colded since… earlier this year.

And in this cold I’ll have to venture out next week and schlepp my aunt’s new dishwasher into her new flat.

Did I mention the cold?

Random Thought… Wednesday? (Sorry, I’ve been christmassing hard.)

So I’ve been thinking…

OMG, can you imagine the Mafia trying to get protection money out of Santa Claus? “Nice elves you got there. Be a shame is something happened to them.”

 

Bit late because CHRISTMAS! The lack of chimneys around here means I have to do everything by myself. So, got any random Christmas thoughts? Or would you rather think about Star Wars?

(By the way, happy whichever-way-you-celebrate-solstice to you!)

Twas the Week Before Christmas – A Prelude to Disaster

Twas the week before Christmas and all through the halls

I yelléd at people, “Come on, grow some balls!”

Okay, I can’t actually rhyme shit. Let’s try a song then…

Snowy hell, snowy hell,

Icy all the way,

Oh what fun it is to slide

Your feet in disarray – hey!

No? Well, it would be fun if it was actually snowing but it looks like we’ll be getting one of the warmest winters ever again. In fact, we’re expecting 10-12°C on the weekend. That’s basically spring. I have a hypothesis for this (beside the Persephone one): Shortly before Christmas people get hella stressed. Because they are stressed, their heart rate accelerates like whoa and they breathe faster. That means of course they exhale a lot more. Humans exhale CO2. Greenhouse effect!

Is that even the right term? Eh, who cares.

I did part of my Christmas shopping the other day (only part because I want to put off getting the perishables for a few more days, and also because I did a lot of it online) and oh, was I glad to be done. I threw myself into the shopping street and instantly regretted the entirety of human evolution. People. People everywhere. I’m pretty sure ‘crowd’ is an ancient Irish word for “lumbering organic mass that’s in your way forever”. Apparently the entire city noticed that it’s Christmas in little more than a week and reacted in typical panic, storming the shops with the fury of three premenstrual attacks. Amoebas don’t have to deal with that shit.

I myself was uncharacteristically mellow throughout the whole thing. Actually, I’m kinda feeling the holiday spirit this year. I got some cheap lights and set them up around the house. I even made a Christmas collage. Maybe you do become a lot more tranquil with age. Maybe that’s because the part of your brain that’s responsible for anger and impatience slowly rots off, just like your face.

Thankfully my family is pretty low-maintenance in the gift-department. My mother has loooong ago given up on the drop-hints-all-year-and-let-me-surprise-you-for-Christmas schtick and joined my father in “Just bloody say what you want”. So around the end of November or early December at least one phone call like this will happen:

Me: Hey, how are you? By the way, what do you want for Christmas?

Mom: Oh, I saw X thing on the internet.

Or like this year: I don’t know, maybe a gift card for [insert store]? Around [X amount]?

Or like last year, end of November: “Guess what you’re getting me for Christmas! I already ordered it!”

My dad is less materialistic… for lack of a better word.

Me: Hey, how are you? By the way, what do you want for Christmas?

Dad: A long holiday, a new back, and a functioning brain for [co-worker and/or boss].

So then it’s another call to Mom and she sends me for shirts or expensive alcohol because she knows what Dad wants even if he doesn’t. Actually, Mom knows what everyone in this rather small family wants or needs and allocates the present-distribution among the other members. “You’re getting your grandma [this] and Aunt would like [that].” It’s also a clever covert way of hers to control how much I’m spending because my parents are always and forever worried that I’ll starve to death in a debtor’s prison or something (perks of being an only child with semi-helicoptering parents, I guess).

And when I get asked what I want, it might go a little something like this:

Mom [on the phone]: What do you want for Christmas?

Me [on the phone]: Well, I could use a new hard drive, the one I have apparently isn’t compatible with…

Dad [somewhere in the background]: What did she say?

Mom: She says she needs a new hard drive!

Dad: Ah, alright.

Mom: What is that again?

Dad: Never mind, I’ll get it.

Everything is so nice and easy and relatively stress-free. Boyfriend assimilated quickly into this system, at least where my family is concerned. He has absolutely no problem letting me do all the Christmas shopping and then splitting the bill, and no one is surprised when the card says “From Grad Student and Boyfriend”. It’s kind of a family tradition for the women to do all the nitty-gritty social-process present-obtaining stuff.

However… Boyfriend still believes that you should surprise people on Christmas! That you should get them what they want instead of what they need! That you should get them something they wouldn’t get for themselves! And that you can’t just ask because that ruins the surprise! (Total coincidence, he’s also fatally allergic to spoilers.) Who likes surprises anyway? I hate surprises. Surprises are suspicious. You never know if you get a crock pot, cancer, or the bloody end of all life in the universe.

Yeah, no, ain’t nobody got time for that. We’re just a bit too practical for that sentimental nonsense. What we need is usually what we want. And if we don’t have to shell out the cash ourselves, hey, all the better. The mentality runs a little like this: “I’m not actually expecting you to get me anything, because that’d be rude, like, you don’t just expect that, but since you asked and since it’s kind of tradition because Christmas and all, the coffee machine’s broken and we’ve been meaning to get a new one anyway, so maybe you could take this off our hands, we had our eyes on this one?”

So Boyfriend is the odd one out with his deep-seated wish to be surprised and that I should just know what he wants. At which I usually throw up my hands and proclaim like an old English governess: “Know indeed! You think I have nought else to do!” Because seriously, with all my lists, schedules and various other things I think about all day I can’t always keep track of all your subtle hints. I’m not good with subtle. I’m about as subtle as a demolition ball that has “Guess what! I’m a demolition ball!” written on it in glitter glue and I expect the world to do the same. But no, not good enough, so every year I have to guess what to get him and then it’s not the right thing anyway, like, I missed it by this much. And then my parents call and ask what to get for him. And then I have to guess again and despite my best efforts I’m still not a telepath. It’s like a neverending game show, “Will the Grad Student get the right thing this time?” Ugh, daytime TV is the worst.

Knowledge is power! Not-knowledge is not-power! If you want that, I’ll get you a Schrödinger. It’s the best gift of all, basically you just put a cat in a box, wrap it nicely and what happens when the other person opens it is a complete and utter surprise, because shit, how long has that been in there?!, or alternatively, AAAhhh, claws!!!, because the cat is either dead, alive, or bloody mad.

I mean, we like a win-win situation. You ask what I want. I tell you what I want. You don’t have to wrack your brain about what to get me. I get something I actually want. Everybody wins!

I mean, except for the part where you have to go out and actually buy it, everybody loses there because people. So many of them. Where do they all come from? And why don’t they go back there?

Urgh, holidays! I’d say bah, humbug, but I got something better. So I’m just going to leave this here:

“Easy for you to talk, I have to live here!”: Christmas Edition – A Brief Survey (And Damn Long Post) of Christmas Traditions in Austria

Ah, Christmas.

Ah fuck, Christmas! And I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping!

After I did the Halloween post back in October I thought, hey, that was kind of fun, being all high and mighty and lecturing people. So, since I couldn’t do an episode of how-we-do-things about Thanksgiving in Austria, I decided to do one on Christmas. Why? Because Thanksgiving doesn’t exist here. Stuffing our faces is part of our lifestyle and doesn’t need a holiday of its own. Also, we didn’t have pilgrims, nor did we have native inhabitants to kill. We are our natives, ever since the Indo-Europeans made their way to Europe a good 3000 years ago. Ergo, no reason to celebrate.

So Thanksgiving doesn’t make much sense. We do small local harvest feasts at the end of summer, though. Fresh must and cider, now that’s something to be thankful for.

I think everyone, all over the world, is very familiar with stereotypical American Christmas. I mean, we’ve all seen so many movies about it, right? So why not think about how we, all us non-Americans, celebrate our christianised solstice? So this is what this segment is for. Keep in mind that this is a secular and very limited perspective, locally speaking, I’m only talking about Vienna here.

Okay, so Christmas, yeah, of course we have Christmas. Even though about half of people under forty identify as atheists, and every second child in 2013 was born out of wedlock, we’re not some sort of godless heathens (as far as you know, and you can’t prove a thing!). Also, food. FOOD! Nothing better than cheating on your diet with “But it’s Christmas time!” and have that extra gingerbread, that extra cookie, that extra piece of roast, that extra ANYTHING!

I mean, I assume you already know this, but on the off-chance that you don’t: Christmas has been celebrated way before Jesus and way before it was called Christmas. The Christians moved their festival to the day of the winter solstice, which has been celebrated since humans in this area discovered, hey, the days are getting longer again. Knowledge like this, the solstices, the equinoxes, have been vital for our survival in the past and should rightly be celebrated because they are useful, especially in an agricultural context. The gods came later. Nothing wrong with keeping them about, but just remember, they’re not the reason for the season. The season is the reason for the season.

The most interesting part about Austrian Christmas traditions is perhaps that the action happens before and after the Christmas date. On Christmas itself, you just stuff your face, maybe go to church if you have to. But mainly, you eat, exchange presents, pretend to be delighted, try not to pick a quarrel that results in a mighty family feud again, and fall into a food coma as soon as you’re home.

Now first things first, the date. We usually celebrate on the 24th of December. Can be midday, can be afternoon, can be evening, that depends on every family’s tradition. Like, me and mine, we usually get together about late afternoon, because my mother said, and I quote “I’ll be damned if I get up at 6 am to start cooking!” (She tried this a couple times when I was a kid and the family was still well enough to visit, and she was not happy.) Families gather together to eat and exchange presents and have coffee and sweets and maybe engage in group food coma. There’s family drama and debates from god-knows-when and tears and whiny children and drunk grannies telling their first dirty jokes in years. Hey, some people (especially in rural communities) even go to church for midnight mass! All in all, pretty usual stuff.

After food there’s usually the traditional exchange of peace gifts presents which may or may not involve sending the little children of the house off into a different room while the parents get their Xboxes and iPhones (or whatever it is kids get these days) out of their careful hiding places and arrange them around the tree, then ring a small bell to pretend the Christchild has made his delivery and shove the kids back into the room. Magic! Aren’t you just so surprised, our Franzl?

Someone might even choose to torture the entire family with Christmas music. Christmas music falls into two variations: the traditional and the imported British and/or American stuff. I still can’t decide which is worse. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, Alle Jahre Wieder, Es Ist ein Ros Entsprungen, Leise Rieselt der Schnee, O Tannenbaum, Kling, Glöckchen, Klingelingeling, or, the very worst, Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa, all those songs from the early 1800s, when everyone was suddenly into family values, family religion, and family Christmas. If anyone, and grandmothers are infamous for this, insists on hearing “something nice for once” or, worse, something “besinnlich”, you know you lost, because the above mentioned are what you will hear until your eyes pop and your ears bleed. Youtube at your own risk. I’m going to hear this all month.

On the other hand we have your foreign classics like Rudolph, Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland (uuuuugh), Let It Snow, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Santa Baby, and the worst Christmas song in the history of ever, Baby It’s Cold Outside (seriously? If someone asks “Hey, what’s in this drink?” how is that not a rapey red flag?! Yeah, nothing says peace on earth like the prelude to sexual assault.) for the more open-minded cosmopolitan and, most importantly, younger crowd. And also every store everywhere ever, and I’m about ready to shove an oboe up my auditory canal. No one ever plays the funny songs like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.

And since eating is so important on Christmas Eve, what do we eat? Again, depends on the family tradition. Some have goose (still very popular, but hellish to make I hear, takes forever), some have roast pork, some have roast beef, some have fish, some have duck, some have chicken, with a range of sides like various aggregate forms of potatoes (cooked, mashed, fried, french fries, oven grilled, pan grilled, do you even know how much you can do with potatoes?), green beans, salad, cooked vegetables, gravy, and so on. Some have something different every year. Some say, fuck it, and book a table at a restaurant and no shame, a lot of people do that. Like, book a table a week or a month in advance. Then there’s the cookies. Oh, the cookies. Non-German-speaking world, do you even have Vanillekipferl? Linzer Augen? Zimtsterne? Spekulatius? Kokosmakronen? I dare you to google pictures!

Okay, before you drool all over the keyboard, let’s consider the word itself. Christmas consists of mas, meaning “feast” (see also mass and German Messe), and Christ, so the feast of Christ. Weihnachten, the German word, comes from ze wihen nahten, a Middle High German phrase first found in a 12th century sermon that basically means “at the blessed/hallow night”. It is not a plural form, a question I sometimes get from people who are in the process of learning German. (German has so many damned different plural forms, it’s okay if you get them confused sometimes.) Anyway, only the part about “blessed night” survived, and tada, a new word.

Everyone together say “Uuuugggghhhh”.

 

Let’s now consider the word besinnlich. Old fashioned cards and old people like to wish you “besinnliche Weihnachten”. This is probably one of the most German words EVER. A dictionary will tell you it means reflective, contemplative, or tranquil, but it’s all of those and more. It draws you right back to the time when Germany could rightfully claim to be the country of poets and thinkers (“Land der Dichter und Denker”, notice the alliteration and compare Ireland’s “land of saints and scholars”. It’s aaaall marketing.), back when Kleist and Heine were big shots of the German literature scene, the time of the Bildungsbürgertum, the intellectual and economic upper bourgeoisie, in the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s like this state of mind you should reach around Christmas, this kind of ur-Christian feeling of being a) thankful, b) believing, c) reflecting about your life and the universe and everything, possibly in context with your flavour of Christianity. It’s the kind of feeling that you should experience listening to Silent Night, Holy Night, that insufferable song I’m going to hear until New Year’s that doesn’t make me feel besinnlich but more like homicidal. So it’s a pretty rare feeling, I’d say. It’s not something you’ll readily feel while hunting through the malls and shopping streets, checking off many an item on an ever-growing list. Then again of course it developed before malls and shopping streets. Nothing besinnlich about shopping unless you’re a real fashion victim.

Do we have Christmas trees? Well, duh, where do you think this tradition comes from? Dragging evergreen plants into your home is about as Germanic as you can get without drinking ale out of your enemy’s skull (for some reason that’s frowned upon these days). It used to be for magic purposes (however the hell that was supposed to work) to bring spring back, or, on a more psychological level, as a green beacon of hope to make people endure the cold and patiently wait for the next spring without too much of a nervous breakdown. Now we just hang balls and garlands on them. Or X-wings, depends on the people and their personal fandom. Most people still buy a new genuine tree every year, because plastic may be cheaper and less hassle and less needles but it is just. Not. The. Same. Sorry, we’re a bit too traditional for that. Needles are a bother, yes, but on the other hand, a real tree feels better and smells better. And, well… do you know how many pines and firs and other coniferous trees grow in this country?

But who puts presents under those wonderfully smelling trees? We don’t have Santa Claus. AT best we have the Weihnachtsmann, but he’s only been moving in for the past 30 years or so (thanks, America). We get our presents from the Christkind (Christ-child), which is basically baby Jesus, not only come back from the dead but also suddenly a lot smaller. It’s like Jesus is a Time Lord and he regenerated shortly before Christmas and something went wrong and he didn’t take an adult form and that’s how the legend was born. Okay, it’s baby Jesus merged with the holy spirit merged with an angel like thing with blond hair and wings. Blame Martin Luther and the Protestants who didn’t want to continue the Nikolaus tradition because worshipping saints is too close to polytheism but angel-like things from heaven that are inspired by local nativity plays are a-okay.

The Christkind doesn’t crawl through the chimney. First of all because no one has fireplaces anymore, and second because, well, it (he? No, I think it’s an ‘it’.) can just appear if he wants. It doesn’t need any reindeer pulled sleighs either. It’s also shy as hell, so if you try to sneak around the house and spot it, it won’t come and bring you presents!

Now, if you’re a kid in Austria and you grow up with the tradition of the Christkind AND somehow got an impression of the Santa Clause tradition, you might have a period of confusion before putting two and two together and surmise that either a) they work together, or b) DOUBLE PRESENTS! Let’s just say parents of small children around here have some ‘splaining to do this time of year. (If kids these days even still believe in anything, because I’ve overheard 6-year-olds making fun of their peers for believing in such figures as the Christkind. Like, everyone knows it’s your parents, dude, we’re all just playing along to spare their feelings. Then again, if there’s presents involved, kids can be very believing all of a sudden. Or at least pretend to be. Sneaky little secular bastards.)

Also, if you’re an Austrian child and you know that the Christ-child is more or less baby Jesus, who is male, but on every Christmas market you see a post-pubescent woman in a blond wig parading around as the Christchild, you’re going to have a long period of confusion, and your parents will haven even more desperate ‘splaining to do. (“But if the Christkind is Jesus, why is it a lady?” – “Because the Christkind is a baby, after all.” – “But she doesn’t look like a baby! Babies are very small and can’t walk!” Ah, children. They know when things don’t add up.)

Then there’s the whole business with St. Nicolas (who we call Nikolaus or Nikolo), an old man in a bishop’s robe and a giant beard, and Krampus, a devilish lookin’ fella with horns and hooves. (In the Netherlands, he’s called Swarte Piet, “black Peter”, and apparently there was some postcolonial controversy about that recently.)

“Ho, ho, ho, would you like to talk about our Lord and Saviour?”

Remember Gandalf? This is him now. Feel old yet?

No reindeer here either. Both are part of our pre-Christmas traditions. The Krampus’ feast day is on Dec 5 and Nikolaus’ on Dec 6. And if you’re not from Central Europe you’ve probably never heard from them. Which is a pity, because Nikolaus is one of the bases for Santa Claus, as is obvious from the name alone. It’s not a state holiday here, though, and it’s more important for example in Finland and Spain. There are various theories about the origin of Nikolaus  and all make a certain amount of sense, but which one is accepted usually depends on where in Europe you are. One of the established and long-going theories is that Nikolaus himself is based on Odin (also known as Wotan in the south), himself a bearded old dude, but during the Christianisation he merged with a bishop (hence the name) to include him into the new religion. (It was vital to make this tradition extra-Christian because early Christians in German-speaking regions were so afraid of the old gods, we don’t even have Odin’s name in our names for the days of the week. English has Wednesday, “Wotan’s day”, German has Mittwoch, “middle of the week”.) Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, who apparently gave three young women gold for their dowries and did similar things that made him fit for the role of… bringing small sticky children chocolate to make them even more sticky. (Used to be oranges and nuts, but you know how kids are these days.)

What do we do on Nikolaus day? Well, before Christmas gift giving became a big thing in the 1800s, Nikolaus was the traditional gift day for the kids. Nowadays they get chocolates in various forms, sometimes still traditionally to be found in their shoes in the morning, and usually Nikolaus- or Krampus-shaped because gimmicks sell. All through the schools and day care facilities children are forced to sing cheerful songs about the joyous reason for the day (Kling, Glöckchen, Klingelingeling, fuuuhuuuuck youuu….). People dressed as Nikolaus and Krampus run around desperately trying to impress our increasingly unimpressed children. Usually they visit the local kindergartens to give out candy. Sometimes, in the evening, parents blackmail an uncle (or Mom just forces Dad) into dressing up and giving out chocolate to the children of the family, who usually already know who’s trying to hide under the not-at-all-convincing beard, but hey, free chocolate. And if you can scare your little siblings/cousins by telling them how they are going to be punished, hey, more power to you, kid.

Us grown-ups sometimes participate in the festivities ourselves, to varying degrees: chocolate,  sexy chocolate, other sexy things for when the kids are long asleep (because there’s nothing sexier than being bad and we’ve all been naughty, oh, very naughty indeed, “oh, Krampus, are you gonna spank me?”. Don’t. Ask.). Some just stuff a jute sack with chocolate, peanuts and marzipan and try to stuff it into their boyfriend’s winter boots (hint: boots can never be big enough, it seems).

There are many Germanic traditions surrounding the time between the winter solstice and the early days after New Year’s Eve. You may have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas? That’s the twelve days between Dec 25 and Jan 6 now. (Feast Day of the Three Wise Men, very big in Spain as well.) For ancient Germans, this period was called “Rauhnächte”, and it was a baaad time to venture outside, because Odin and the dead (that’d make a great band name) went a-hunting, what was called the Wild Hunt.

What Odin also supposedly did, either during the Rauhnächte or on St Nicolas’ feast day, depends if we’re talking before or after the missionaries made their move, was to reward good people by bringing them presents of food, and punishing bad people. People were also supposed to put carrots in their boots and put them outside for Odin’s eight-legged horse (which Loki gave birth to – Germanic mythology, ladies and gentlemen!) to have a snack, and Odin would then deposit gifts where the carrots had been. Sounds familiar yet?

The Krampus, known as Knecht Ruprecht (“servant Ruprecht”) mainly in the protestant regions of Germany, especially in the north, on the other hand, is of a more obscure origin. He’s on the punishing side of things, rattling chains and brandishing a rod, or at least he was before people started to be all “Won’t somebody think of the children!” Now there’s no more spankings and you can buy chocolate effigies of him as well. (Funnily enough, when people dressed as Nikolaus and Krampus come to visit kids in kindergarten, as is practised, kids are usually more scared of Nikolaus.) Krampus, in a Christian context, is basically Beelzebub, a stand-in for the devil, a lesser demon who can punish children on Nikolaus’ command. (Remember, kids, devils need heavenly permission to whip you stupid. Isn’t that a comforting thought?)

“Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”

Such a jolly time of the year!

In a pre-Christian context, Krampus has a lot of roots. The parallel to the devil is more than obvious, but that came later, with the Christianisation of the continent. He is associated with the Wild Hunt, and his outer appearance resembles the Perchten tradition, which we’ll come to later. The name Krampus comes from a Middle High German word meaning “claw”. He carries either a sack or a wooden tub to carry off bad children. He usually is clad in fur, has a tail and has cloven hooves for feet, again, see devil depictions, it’s not far off. During the Early Modern period until about the 17th century it was actually forbidden under penalty of death to dress up as Krampus, because a good Christian could of course not dress up as a demon or diabolic anything. Nevertheless, some people just carried on with the tradition like they just didn’t care and so it survived and was re-established somewhere around the Enlightenment period. When the Perchtenläufe came back in full force and quickly gained popularity again all over the Alpine region (southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, you name it) at the beginning of the 19th century, a time marked by a general return to traditional German values and customs, a want for some good ol’ Brauchtum, the Krampus’ appearance began to resemble theirs.

Perchten are a very Alpine thing. Just look at this:

“Hello, we’re the Millers, just moved in next door.”

Google it if you like. Google pictures. Things like this could only ever be conceived in the Alps, because if you get right down to it the Alps are fucking scary as hell. Bitter cold, biting snow, sun sets too early, harsh winds, echoes everywhere, one false step and you fall down a cliff, just imagine how it must have been for people living there 1000 years ago or even longer.

Perchten are not just some weird hairy things. In a real Perchtenlauf they have roles, and those roles and their costumes vary sometimes greatly from region to region. In such processions you might also find people donning what looks like gigantic hats made of fruit, flowers, or mirrors (also known as Schönperchten); other people with wooden tubs strapped to their backs sweeping the streets; others still with giant feather headpieces; some decorated with pine cones; people dressed as exaggerated representations of old women or witches; generally you can say that the hairy horned Schiachperchten symbolise evil spirits and the Schönperchten, who in the procession follow after the Schiachperchten, symbolise the good spirits of fertility and spring. Pretty simple concept, really. It’s all traditional, but no one is really sure anymore how or why it was started.

Few things ignite so much debate as the custom of Perchtenlauf, giant processions through the village and/or adjoining fields by dozens of pretty fellas as those you see above, all during the twelve nights. Some communities have a fixed date for this, and apparently it varies by region. We don’t do it in Vienna, it being more of a rural west part of the country thing, so it’s pretty alien to me, too, but it seems to be slowly gaining interest. I’ve seen Perchten on the subway, probably on their way to perform a show for us town folks, and it’s kinda surreal. (And not a single kid screamed! Kids are weird.)

There are a lot of theories about the name. The name itself has been used since the Middle Ages. The most popular one sees the root in an Old High German word, berchttac, the old name for the holiday of Epiphany. It’s definitely the root for bercht, a Middle High German word meaning bright. If those words have anything at all to do with the custom, however, is up to debate.But then again, just because you didn’t call it Perchten back then doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

There is also a lot of discussion about a possible pre-Christian origin, because the first written statements about Perchtenläufe date from the 16th century. Again, maybe people just didn’t write much about those weird mountain folks living in regions you hardly ever wandered through if you could avoid it. There are some ancient Roman reports from the 5th century about parades of masked people running about Alpine towns around the time of the solstice, expelling winter and evil spirits with noise and bells, stomping all over the fields to break the ice on the ground, and invite the good, nice and most importantly fertile spring spirits back. Well, I mean. Look at those masks. Let’s just say good Christians aren’t usually that creative.

Another big point is the supposed worship of Frau Perchta. There is a theory that a goddess of that name or a similar one was once one of the main deities in the region. There’s not much evidence for that, though (well, duh, not like people did write a lot until a few hundred years ago), so this theory not taken very seriously. Granted, the Perchtenlauf role of Frau Perchta/Witch exists. There definitely is a mythological figure know to the Alpine and some Slavic regions of that name, though in how far there was any worship involved ad any time is unknown. She might be the result of centuries worth of cultural contact and fusion between Celtic, Germanic and Slavic tribes. Then again, there are similar figures of different names (Frau Holle (the fairy tale of the same name is based on her) in the northern part of Germany, Frau Fricke/Gode towards the Netherlands) in German-speaking regions, so it might be a case of an archetype. Maybe this figure is old enough to have travelled with the Indo-Europeans.

According to mythology, Perchta is a witch-like figure who punishes bad housekeeping and bad farming practices, punishments ranging from nightmares to plain ol’ bloody death. Like… she hacks people to pieces. Or disembowels them. I told you the Alps were scary. On the other hand, she rewards diligence, hard work, and helpfulness, so if ever an old woman in the Alps asks for your help you better go and do what she asks, it might be a test. During the Rauhnächte she flies through the houses to check that everything is clean and orderly (might explain why we do Big House Cleaning Action shortly before Christmas, maybe it’s not just for the visiting relatives) and WOE BETIDE YOU IF IT’S NOT! Excuse me while I go find my swiffer kit.

Maybe we should return to less violent matters? During the Twelve Days of Christmas, but especially on Jan 6, you might also find what we call “Sternsinger”, people, mostly children though, dressing up as the Three Wise Men (or as we call them, “die Heiligen Drei Könige”, the Three Holy Kings, again, they’re really big in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries), going door to door to sing and collect for charity. This is a relatively old custom, dating back to the 16th century. This explains a lot. Like, why sometimes one of the kids is in blackface. Well, Caspar has been represented as a black man since the 13th century, that’s not our fault! And certainly no one thought anything about it in the 16th century! So if you’re a tourist, maybe hailing from the Americas, be assured no one means to offend, just trying to be historically and religiously accurate. And because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t like change. “But why can’t you just get an honest-to-God black kid to play Caspar?” Because there are not that many black kids here, sorry. And isn’t it kinda racist to ask the black kids to play the black character just because they happen to be black? What? I’m sure I already put my foot in my mouth so I might as well chew on it. There are not that many black people in Austria in general, seeing as we never had oversea imperialism or slavery (and, for the sake of completeness, minstrel shows or what you call it, I just learned about them this year). Sorry? We have a really good black soccer player, though, we get points for that, right?

What you might have noticed if you’ve ever been to Vienna is that some houses and apartments will have a date written in chalk above the door. This is basically a “we were here” graffiti of the Sternsinger.

When you think about it, Christmas is really all about the kids while the adults rush through work, Christmas shopping, and a million item to-do list. There is so much stress involved about:

  • the food: One doesn’t eat that, the other doesn’t like this, Grandma wants her traditional meal that she used to cook before she was to weak to hold a pan, Aunt A is allergic to X thing, while Cousin B is experimenting with vegetarianism, etc.
  • the grocery shopping: What with all the stores being closed from Dec 24th noon to Dec 27 7:30, because holidays, which sucks really bad this year because the 26th falls on a Friday, probably making Saturday a bridge day, and before you say, oh, just do your shopping on Sunday… nothing is ever open on a Sunday here.
  • the family: Let us feel pity for the big families where it’s always guaranteed to be two people who cannot be in the same room together without killing each other. Then the feeling that you, as the host, have to please fucking everybody adds a dozen extra layers of stress. But even in small families, where everyone hates everyone else, you’ll have a million words to swallow just to keep the peace.
  • the presents: No one has any damned money anymore, and everyone has everything they could possibly need already. So what do you get them? Then there’s the kids who can never have enough of the new expensive anything and somehow despite very careful explanation still believe that money grows on trees; the teenager who doesn’t know what they want aside from a different life, less embarrassing parents, the new iphone, and a hundred items of designer clothing; and the older person (aunt, uncle, grandparent, anyone) who just complains about everything.
  • the gathering: Who will host? Who will come? What will be eaten? When will be the gift exchange? At least two people don’t know if they can make it, then show up just as the food is on the table, kids everywhere, teenagers who would rather be in their rooms masturbating, someone started talking about politics, throw alcohol into the mix and merry nervous breakdown.
  • the time: There is never enough damned time. Consider all those things: Deciding on the host, deciding on the food, sending out invitations, calling everyone three times to make sure everyone’s on the same page, planning the grocery shopping for the feast and the following holidays, preparing the food, buying a tree, decorating said tree, buying presents, wrapping presents, maybe even decorating the house, baking cookies, possibly with whiny children, cleaning the house, washing and ironing your and possibly your immediate family’s nice clothes, because Grandma always tuts if you show up in sweatpants… all this while you still have to work, pay your bills, do your household stuff, maybe take care of children, maybe go to school, maybe take care of sick or old relatives, maybe all of those…
  • And then after the holidays are over you sit yourself down and start telling yourself how you will do it all differently next year, how you will start preparing earlier, how you will not be influenced by the judgy stares of your in-laws or own family members next year. Guess how well that works out?

Sometimes I wonder why we still do it every year. If you objectively look at it, Christmas sounds like utter madness. First people worship the sun, now they’re having heart attacks over their child’s presents and their in-laws’ opinions. Insanity! Lunacy! What fit of frenzy made us think this was a good idea?

Ah, well. At least there’s gingerbread. Can’t argue with gingerbread.

My Christmas List – Some Assembly Required

So people – family, boyfriend, not Santa – have started asking me what I want for Christmas. Ahhh, if only you could buy me the planet, world domination to go, please… well, anyway, if I could make a 100% honest list, it would probably look something like this. And let’s just say this is Christmas List Part 1, because I probably come up with some more stuff before the 24th.

Dear Santa, or whoever is in charge, for Christmas I’d like…

  • MONEY! So much goddamned money! Make it rain on this ho! I have 99 Problems and money could solve at least 76 of them. About 10 million Euros would be nice for a start.
  • A serious job! I’d make a great office monkey. I’m also really good at translation and transcription, and I make an alright editor. I’d absolutely love to be a librarian. But what do you know, such jobs are hard to come by, and the librarian system of Austria is pretty much run by the Illuminati. That’s as good an explanation as any why you can’t get in.
  • Time. So much time. Like, get me a Tardis, that’s the amount of time I need.
  • A real remedy for my many allergies, I want a cat, dammit!
  • Motivation! I need every least little bit of motivation just to get my arse out of bed in the morning. Everything else is only managed by colossal, draining effort.
  • Mind-reading abilities. Seriously, this would be so useful. People never tell you what they want, then get mad if you don’t do what they didn’t tell you. Like, what even?
  • A device to slap people through the internet.
  • A delivery service that delivers well-deserved smackings internationally. Like, enter the name of the person you want smacked and have a big box delivered to them and when they open it a giant fist comes out and KA-POW! The gift that keeps on giving!
  • A jet-pack so I can avoid the crowds of humans on my way.

Well, that’s all for now. What’s on YOUR Christmas list? Have you been nice or do you need to blackmail Santa with incriminating photos?