December 23, 2005

When Christmas meets Hanukkah in Berlin

By Karin Strohecker

BERLIN (Reuters) - The smell of sausages, the cheery chimes of Christmas jingles and the thud of "Klezmer rap" hang heavy in the December air as Berliners huddle around the kosher mulled wine stall.

Welcome to the "Chrismukkah" market.

Berlin's Jewish Museum is for the first time holding its own traditional-style market of the sort that dot German cities at this time of year. But this one is for Chrismukkah -- in German "Weihnukkah" -- a merger of Christian Christmas and the 8-day Jewish Hanukkah.

Jewish festivities are usually celebrated in the family home in Germany but Klaus Siebenhaar, head of development at the museum, says it is time to bring them into the public arena to celebrate the historic overlap in the two traditions.

"We don't want to be a Holocaust museum. We want to be a museum for German-Jewish history and so at this time of year Chrismukkah is representing that," he said.

"Jewish families here in Germany often have all of it: the Christmas tree, the little nativity scenes, the decorations and of course a big family party."

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, marks the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over Syrian rulers in 165 BC and the subsequent rededication of Jerusalem's deconsecrated temple.

Hanukkah usually falls in December and sometimes overlaps with Christmas but this year in fact starts at sunset on Dec 25.

This coincidence has intensified what is known in the United States as the "December dilemma." Jews in Germany have the same problems -- trying to observe their own religious traditions at a time when Christmas is dominating most people's lives in a country that is largely Christian by tradition.


But in the Jewish Museum's baroque courtyard, the dilemma is easily resolved -- at least for a few hours.

"We have sold quite a few of our Christmas kippahs," said Claas Walter, showing off specially made Santa-style red skull caps trimmed with white fur at his "Schlock shop."

"A lot of the stuff actually goes to people who are not Jewish, who just like the way it looks or find it original."

His wooden stall is covered with all the Christmas trimmings of fir branches, stars and colorful glass baubles.

Visitors enjoy the plastic glasses that make every source of light look like a Star of David, and the gold-colored Christmas tree decorations in the form of hanukkiahs -- the nine-branched candlesticks used in the celebration of Hanukkah.

"My husband is from Israel and I still need candles for Hanukkah, that is why I am here," said Judit Ben Dor, a German who is not Jewish herself. "But it is so amazing to see the two religions mixed together on a market like this."

Melding Christmas and Hanukkah has long been routine for Jewish families in Berlin, especially before World War Two when the city was home to a thriving community of 100,000 Jews.

Germany's pre-war Jewish population of half a million was virtually wiped out by the Nazi persecution and Holocaust -- but nowadays the Jewish community is one of the fastest growing in the world, having more than doubled in a decade to about 100,000 with the help of a state immigration program.


That thriving culture is on display at the market -- side-by-side with traditional German Christmas staples.

Distinctly un-kosher pork sausages from east Germany roast on a grill while kosher-style poultry sausages -- strictly separated -- sizzle nearby. German gingerbreads are piled into a bowl, each with a hanukkiah etched into the marzipan topping.

Pictures of the Virgin Mary and Christian crosses lie alongside dreidles -- spinning tops used in traditional Hanukkah games -- and foil-wrapped chocolate coins known as gelt.

"Berlin is home to a lot of very open and tolerant people and everything touching on the issue of Judaism and Christianity is very, very popular," said Siebenhaar.

"This has been such a success, the visitor numbers to our museum have doubled since we have had the market here."

While a lot of visitors are Germans curious to learn and see more of Jewish traditions, it has not been all one-way.

"The German wooden figures with the little candles and the pyramids -- they are so beautiful. They even have a lot of Jewish features like stars and chandeliers," said 29-year-old Michal Vilkomir, on holiday from Israel.

All visitors have one thing in common, Siebenhaar said.

"Wherever people are from and whether they like them kosher-style or just plain German-style, the most important thing for everyone at a German Christmas market is a good grilled sausage."