Germany is Christmas country. Travelers with a penchant for holiday folklore and collectors who hoard its distinctive crafts will find a year-round fantasia in this weathered land of brooding castles, loden-colored forests and silvery river valleys. There are museums preoccupied with it, artists inspired by it and craftsmen engaged in the wonders of it.
Most of the year, remnants of Christmas past appear in degrees. On one hand, some villages seem so reluctant to douse the celebration, they always leave a few lighted trees. At the other extreme, Rothenburg, Germany's best-preserved medieval town, provides exactly the right setting for permanent Yuletide displays in 100 charming cottage-shops.
These off-season teasers are fun but can hardly be compared to the real thing. Germany's unabashed love affair with Christmas translates into a literal rendering of beloved ideology bound to the past. It is marked by a glorious sequence of glamorous and humble celebrations that effectively elongate conviviality from the end of November through the first week of January.
Travelers fortunate enough to be there at this time should expect to encounter an unforgettable pas de deux with a fairy tale. There are glittering outdoor markets, masterfully decorated shop windows and entire towns hung with spruce, bow-tied in red and bedecked in tiny white lights. Once Advent is ushered in and a majestic tree is illuminated in each town square, the entire country acts as if it were transformed by a magic wand. It often snows, and carols ring out across the dusky horizon.
If the concentrated gaiety seems to generate a kindly, good-natured frenzy, it is anchored in ancient lore. Early Germanic tribes burned "Jul" logs to worship the sun god during winter solstice. Later, during the fourth century, the first Tannenbaum was dedicated to the Christ child and Bishop Nicholas initiated the idea of gift-giving when he distributed presents to the daughters of impoverished noblemen.
Today these historic events are re-enacted faithfully in a variety of guises. But the colorful Christkindl markets are considered precursors of this favorite season. The gaily festooned booths, brimming with handcrafted glass and wood baubles, carved creches, straw ornaments, icing-slathered gingerbread houses and pastries, leave little doubt that Christmas, German-style, is on its way.
Although hundreds of markets are staged all over the country, each offers its own reason to come. Visitors are lured to 2,000-year-old Augsburg for the awesome living spectacle of elaborately garbed angels playing traditional music above and around the Town Hall. Nuremberg Market is Germany's largest. From 1697, it has been the place to go to for the best Lebkuchen or gingerbread, as well as Zwetschgenmannchen, the winsomely costumed prune characters made from nuts, raisins and dried plums that Germans love to hang on the tree. Berlin's 150-year festivities, interrupted by war and Wall, have giddily resumed where they left off -- on Kurfurstendamm and the plaza surrounding Kaiser Wilhelm Church.
Frankfurt's market was first recorded in 1393. Today its setting along the banks of the Main River and within the historic embrace of Romerberg Square conveys an aura of medieval antiquity. Beneath the town hall's trio of Gothic spires, booths hung with flickering lights offer wares of every imaginable genre: candy and tree ornaments, porcelain and ceramic figurines, woodcarvings, candles, wax decorations and toys. On certain days trumpeters sound rousing carols and the glockenspiel from Old Nicolaus Church is played by hand. In addition, the beginning of Advent and Christmas Eve are heralded by the spine-tingling sound of pealing bells and carillons rung in unison for 30 minutes from the steeples of nine downtown churches.
Frankfurt's gateway status and proximity to other attractions makes it an ideal entry point for winter touring. From here visitors are within striking distance of Munich, the Black Forest, Rhine Valley and ancient spa towns. Although each district stages activities that range from caroling to Nativity plays, this southern route allows travelers to enhance itineraries with the diversity of charming rural stops. Like refreshing sorbets between courses, these detours effectively prevent Christmas overload. They also serve to maintain the delicate sense of wonder one needs to appreciate the scope of Germany's holidays.
Undoubtedly, the best place to recoup from jet lag and flee the hubbub of Frankfurt, is the Sybaritic town of Wiesbaden, a mere 25 minutes from the airport. The walkable, tree-lined city, called "Gateway to the Rheingau," rises above 27 bubbling springs, which locals call "aggressive water" and are reputed to heal everything from lung problems to stress. Warmed by climate, tempered by sun reflected off the nearby Rhine, it is one of the Continent's best-known spas as well as the European headquarters of the U.S. Air Force.
Wiesbaden is a jewel of boulevards and museums, parks and shops, restaurants and concert halls. Across from the 19th century Kurhaus classic colonnade, the gracious Nassauer Hof Hotel beckons with delightful accommodations, superb service
and the opportunity to languish or work out in its full-service rooftop spa. The ambience and culinary creativity of its tiny, two-story restaurant, Die Ente vom Lehel, have contributed to its reputation as one of Germany's most memorable gourmet experiences.
From here, touring the nearby Rhine Valley's vineyard-carpeted hills and wine growing villages adds a sweet perspective of rustic Yuletide customs. There are small markets featuring handmade goods but much of the merrymaking centers around friendly vinstubes, or wine bars, ancient cloisters and castles. For an outstanding overnighting opportunity try the half-timbered Hotel Krone in Assmanshausen, "a stopping place for horses since 1591." In an inviting riverside dining room, regional fare is served up with violin music, and romantic accommodations usually feature antiques, fireplaces and sweeping views.
Another intimate base for excursions is Baden-Baden on the fringes of the Black Forest. Here, especially at Christmas, Brenner's Park-Hotel is the place to rub shoulders with nobility. The scored granite building, set within a 15-acre park, faces the gentle tumble of the Oos River. Guests stroll miles of peaceful forest paths, take sleigh rides, relax in the health and beauty spa or join the glittering casino crowd.
As if that's not enough, the swanky spa town dresses for the season. Pedestrian streets are transformed into a dazzling wonderland of high-quality apparel and gifts, and local productions range from caroling children to rousing orchestral concerts.
After a refreshing pause in Baden-Baden, Munich is easy to reach by car or rail. No matter how visitors enter the city at Christmas, most admit they are unprepared for the fantasy that awaits them.
Munich's Christkindl Market is the essence of lavish ideality. Lighted booths stand shoulder to shoulder. Like bookends they successfully obliterate the contemporary bustle below the spire of St. Peter's Cathedral, creating narrow medieval alleys for browsers and a wandering St. Nicholas. The mouthwatering aroma of roasting chestnuts and fat pork sausages tempts visitors to taste lusty traditional fare.
As Germany's oldest, the Munich Market, dating from the 1300s, at once a stage set and bazaar. To be sure, there is glistening tinsel and mountains of gold and silver baubles. There are choirs of velvet, sequined angels for sale. Hundreds of vibrantly painted nutcrackers and pine-cone characters beg to be taken home. But the immense selection of lifelike hand-carved creches underscores the proximity of the Black Forest and its profound reverence for these masterpieces of Bavarian folk art.
Downtown Munich is a great place to stay any time. During the season the dizzying cultural schedule of operas, concerts and ballets makes entertainment choices deliciously difficult. From its central location near the world-class shopping of Maximilianstrasse, diminutive 74-room Hotel Rafael is a calm refuge that encourages guests to step back from the almost continuous external visual and auditory feats. Within its cocoon of Biedermaier antiques and soft colors, they are able to absorb endearing Christmas images.
For whether one cherishes the purity of a children's choir translating "Silent Night" into the original strains of "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" or the joyous peal of bells above medieval rooftops, visitors will want to remember every nuance. After Germany, Christmas anywhere else in the world will never be the same.
If you go . . .
For information, see a travel agent or write the German Office of Tourism, 747 Third Ave., 33rd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10017; phone (212) 308-3300.