As autumn draws to a close, Christmas descends upon Bratislava. It does not barge into the mall. The mall trees tend to be no taller than me. Nor does it make its appearance as houses adorned with lights, a single flickering candle in each window and a wreath trimmed front door. Individual home decorations are non-existent. Santa Claus is not ubiquitous. In fact, I have never seen him here. Christmas arrives quietly and sets up in the old town square.
During November, the square swarms with activity. Booths are dropped from the back of trucks and hammered into shape. Colorful plastic and Christmas decorative paper drapes the roofs and counter tops. The remnants of last year’s market are scrubbed away as the booths are set up afresh. The performance stage stands at the square’s edge near the clock tower, exactly where it is during the summer festivals. By the last weekend in November, the Christmas market opens.
Some booths sell small gifts; hand crafted nativities, husk dolls, and painted ornaments. Other booths specialize in edible gifts; elaborately painted gingerbread and bottles of honey wine.
The most common booths vend the food stuffs traditional to this time of year; chocolate filled pancakes, sheep cheese, chicken or pork and onion sandwiches, and deep fried potato pancakes. And of course, there are hot mulled drinks – wine and punch. Children eat their weight in fried foods. After all, it is Christmas.
In Bratislava, Christmas is, as it should be, a time to pause and connect with friends. Each night, the streets which flow into old town are a parade of families. The children dance along on tippy toe, run skipping as they go. Everyone is bundled against the cold – scarfs and hats and boots and gloves. Babies are swaddled into their carriages. The mood is festive .
Later in January, the square will be quiet – but not in December. Live musical performances interleave with recorded music piped through the dangling speakers. It is the music of home; Santa Baby and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree. The music is peppered with laughter. Grease and sweet spices waft through the air. It is a distinctive smell – the Christmas market smell.
The tree is placed in the corner near the clock tower. Each year we marvel at the tree. It is slap dash installed – stuck down a drain hole, the base encircled with wooden shims. There are no cables or ropes to secure it. No bright orange cones denote a safe perimeter. The fact that is stands at all is a testament to the miracle of Christmas.
Before moving here, I associated Christmas markets with Germany. Years ago, we visited the market in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The market overflowed with Kathe Wohlfahrt ornaments and intricately hand carved nativities and mulled wine sold in seasonal ceramic keepsake mugs. Tourists traipsed thru the stalls – their arms laden with treasures.
In Bratislava, the market defines the season. The ornaments are handmade. The hot wine served in plastic cups. The square is a living room. Friends and family gather to commune. It is a community. It is the meaning of Christmas.
Categories: Insiders Bratislava