As with most traditions, locale is key to understanding and appreciating Christmas in Germany. Millions of visitors flock to the large, open air markets that are erected late in November or early December. The exact date for each market depends on the town. Usually the Mayor starts the festivities by lighting an enormous tree in the square where the market will be held. Then families peruse the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the holiday season together.
These “Weihnachstmärkte” date back to the 14th century. At that time, it was one of several yearly markets. The winter stalls provided everything German families needed for the holiday season, from baking molds and decorations to toys and treats.
Different parts of Germany became famous for specific traditions or creations they sold at their Christmas markets. With today’s easier transportation, you can get all these specialty items at most markets, but they still originate from their imprinted home. This is the first in a series on those regions and how they became popular for their locally made products.
Today we’re going to focus Frankfurt’s two claims to fame. Originally, both the little prune men and “Brenten” almond cookies were edible. Now-a-days, the stalls displaying the colorfully dressed “Quetschenmännchen” make sure you know they aren’t for consumption. Don’t worry; the cookies are still as scrumptious as ever!
The legend goes that an unmarried man in the wire industry created the first prune men. He had a meager salary, and often dried and burned brandy from the plums whose trees grew in the moat of the castle he lived in. One year, during advent the man lay very ill in bed. He overheard children singing Christmas carols and the joy in them revitalized him. His joy bubbled over, so he used wire and the plums to mold the first Quetschenmännchen. He gave them as gifts and the tradition stuck.
As time passed, scrap fabric was used to make simple hats and clothes for the men, and paper balls were used for heads. Later still, the dolls were embellished and other dried fruits were used for limbs. Today the men are dressed to impress and the smoothest shelled walnuts are used for heads. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is the prune that’s used and the fact that each and every one is still made by hand in the Frankfurt and other Northern regions of Germany.
In current markets, you can’t find any two prune men that are exactly alike. For around 18.5 euros (20 US dollars) you can pick out your favorite to take home, and be told one of dozens of stories romanticizing them. In the larger markets, you will often hear: “Hosd an Zwetschga im Haus, gäid dir es Geld und Gligg ned aus” … “With a prune man in your house, money and happiness stay too.”
In addition to Little Prune Men, Frankfurt is also known for its dainty almond cookies called Brenten. They are a type of marzipan that have been imported all over the world. The combination of almond flour, powdered sugar, and rose water make them literally dissolve like butter in your mouth. The bakers use molds to put folksy designs on them like the ones below.
Have you tried these cookies at holiday gatherings? Did your family or a friend have a little prune man giving good luck to the household? Please share with us in the comments below!
Next week, we’ll travel hypothetically to Augsburg, Germany where Christmas is celebrated in a big way.