It’s Christmas time. The streets are crowded with bumper to bumper traffic and stores swarm with frantic people, Starbucks offers eggnog and gingerbread lattes and red and green bows and decorations adorn entryways as fir trees fill homes and plazas everywhere. As Andy Williams says, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the hap-happiest season of all…” but sometimes it seems like a busy and lonely time for people and we forget the significance of the season.
I discovered the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas movies last fall when I was going through a difficult time personally and professionally. The movies deliver hope, promise, love and happy endings without violence, swearing, sex or drugs although the characters indulge in their share of wine. As I binge watched movie after movie for hours on end, my deepest desires came to the forefront and I was reminded of all the things missing from my life — no kids, no spouse, no cute little home with garland and the perfect Christmas tree shining through the front windows. I cried through the Christmas Blessing and Christmas with Holly and fantasized about the possibilities with a Princess for Christmas but realized I had my shot at moving to Buffalo years ago and much preferred the Palace at Castlebury. I sat on the edge of my seat with Christmas Incorporated only to roll my eyes through a Boyfriend for Christmas. Why couldn’t Douglas Firwood tell the truth?
Determined to work for the Hallmark Channel, I researched the company’s history and went so far as to Google every actor’s biography blurring the lines between reality and make believe. Most of Hallmark’s storylines revolve around a widow or career dominating women who must make an important decision during Christmastime. The characters are named Holly and Nick and scenes take place in New York or Chicago and quaint imaginary villages like Cookie Jar or in the mountains at Snow Valley Lodge. By a stroke of luck, a local do-gooder handsome man interacts with the desperate but dazzling attractive woman, steals her heart and the entire town rejoices in the Miracle of Christmas. The movies always end with a special kiss. What’s not to enjoy?
I wanted my own Christmas Miracle and I believed if I forced myself out into the world I could find it. The movie—my movie, Chasing Christmas would feature me as the lead actress, the successful career oriented woman who finds happiness and joy through Christmas. I kicked off my journey at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony in New York City with friends and then jumped on a plane to Germany where people celebrate the weeks leading up to Christmas with markets in the center of town or in front of iconic churches and museums.
The Christkindlmarkts in Germany offer visitors handmade arts and crafts like glass ornaments or winter gloves and hats, Advent wreaths, gingerbread and other local delicacies like sauerkraut and glühwein (hot mulled wine). Each market embodies its personal story filling colorful wooden decorative stalls with food and gifts representing its history and traditions. I braved the winter elements and wandered my way around medieval towns, large cities and Hallmark worthy villages. The warm glühwein served in keepsake mugs warmed my heart and soul, the schneebälle, a snowball-shaped ball of chocolate filled my belly but the sounds of carolers and people laughing embraced me in a tender hug. I wanted hugs.
People venture to the markets to spend time with family and friends and the entire community comes together to observe annual rituals, enjoy food and drink specialties and to buy gifts. Couples hold hands and kiss, generations of families gather around hot chocolate and punch stands to talk and share stories. Tourists delight in trying Spätzle, a cheese and egg noodle dish for the first time and Eierpunsch, a thick spiked eggnog liquor. It is a time to believe in magic.
After visiting several markets, I joined my German cousins in Karlsruhe. My family proudly and lovingly showed me around their town square and we toasted the season with glühwein and Nutella crepes. We modeled Santa hats and took pictures smiling and laughing before the cold chased us away. There were fun conversations of politics and catching up on the children’s school and music activities. In Mannheim, I joined forces with my German-American friend Frank who showed me around his hometown forcing me to indulge in Kartoffelpuffer, a type of potato latke with applesauce. Frank provided all the translations I had missed and explained the significance of spices and sugar cookies. He also informed me that gingerbread is more for decoration than eating, which could have spared my teeth in Nuremberg. We also conquered the six markets in the Old Town of Heidelberg and hiked breathlessly to the castle gate before ending the night posing with several Santa impersonators. I met up with my dear friend Annette in her hometown of Flensburg, a picture perfect village on the Baltic Sea near the Danish border. They served hot Bailey’s and Grünkohl, a stewed kale and sausage dish unique to Flensburg. Annette and I celebrated our upcoming birthdays with a special dinner and vowed to make a habit of seeing each other somewhere in the world yearly. Lastly, I reunited with my adorable friend Corinna in Hamburg who ushered me from the train station to her apartment. We visited several of the city’s markets clinking glasses and spilling glühwein onto our gloves and coats while taking selfies and talking about life, love and travel. The City of Hamburg is bold and bright and buzzing with an electric energy.
The people of Germany are affectionate, spirited and disciplined. That is how I describe myself. As I talked with Annette and Corinna about why I wanted to see the Christmas markets and why I had this urge to live a Hallmark movie they empathized with my mission. But the more I talked, the more I realized I don’t actually want to compare myself to “Holly and Nick” on television because I never wanted children. Most spouses cause grief at some time or another and if I really wanted a Christmas tree in my house I could pick one up on any street corner and cover its branches with a lifetime of collected ornaments. What I wanted and what I found in Germany was love—not the romantic kind but the fill my heart bring a smile to my face love. The early morning snowfall on the cobblestone streets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the surprise serenade by a musician in the Old City of Nuremberg, the rock hard gingerbread treat I nearly lost my tooth biting, the bond between Frank and his mother, the generosity and welcome hugs from my cousins, the conversations and shared experiences between friends who keep in contact despite time changes and long plane rides. This is the magic of Christmas. This is what allows people to be present in life. It’s the connection to people –contact with friends and family.
I still adore the Hallmark Channel and I am thankful for a Countdown to Christmas to remind me of the meaning of Christmas. It’s about coming to together, delivering hope and determination, experiencing love from the heart, family, tradition and even cookies, and angels. It’s not about the shopping malls and gifts under the tree.