(Tribune Media Services) -- Like a German child's fantasy, Nurnberg's fairy-godmother-like teenage angel stretched out her arms and said, "If you're very, very gentle, you can touch my wings." I stayed seated while little Bavarian preschoolers mobbed the stage to touch their Christkind.
In southern Germany, a lovely angel named the Christkind charms wonderstruck children.
Bavaria and Tirol -- two traditional regions of Germany and Austria -- are great for Christmas traditions. While most travelers visit for the Christmas markets, that's just the start of the holiday charm. Germany's grandest Christmas market, in Nurnberg, comes complete with an angelic Christkind dressed in gold, played by a real-life teenage girl.
How does a female Christkind fit in the Christmas story? Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther -- the church reformer who hailed from these parts -- wanted to shift the focus from St. Nicholas back to the Christ child. But as Germans had a hard time getting their mind around baby Jesus giving gifts, the Christmas gift-giver gradually morphed into a sweet girl who was still called the Christ child (or Christkind).
I was in Nurnberg producing a TV program about traditional European Christmas celebrations. I had arranged an interview with the Christkind. Chosen every other year in a contest, she's like a rock star ... complete with bodyguard, publicist and entourage.
We had been filming a montage of mistletoe kisses in action. After the interview, I pulled out the mistletoe and asked if I could give her a little kiss. Her bodyguard explained she could kiss my cheek ... but I couldn't kiss hers.
Each culture has a mythic gift-giver that parents use to encourage kids to be nice, not naughty. In Switzerland children enjoy an annual visit from a dynamic Christmas duo: Samichlaus -- Swiss-German for "St. Nick" -- and the black-clad henchman Schmutzli, his sidekick. We filmed Swiss children promising they were nice and not naughty, singing Samichlaus a carol, and eagerly digging into his big burlap bag to get their goodies.
While much of Europe is down on the commercialism of the holiday season (I even found some towns that had proclaimed "Santa-free" zones), much of Europe is also so secular that you hardly see any Christmas festivities. Austria, however, celebrates with sacred and traditional gusto. Visiting a Tirolean farming family, I enjoyed dashing through the fields in a two-horse open sleigh. Then, at the door of their gingerbread-cute yet massive home, the entire clan greeted us with a Christmas yodel.
Inside their time-warp home, grandma made cookies, an old Hapsburg grandpa played the zither, and Mom lit the advent wreath while teaching her child the significance of each candle. Dad blessed the house from the attic to the barn by spreading incense smoke and sprinkling holy water. The parents decorated the tree in secret, placed the gifts, and lit the real candles. They rang a bell, and the kids tumbled into the room filled with joy.
My time in Austria had its musical ups and downs. In Salzburg, my film crew and I hiked to the abbey where Maria of "The Sound of Music" caused her fellow sisters to sing, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" The sisters had agreed to let us be present at their holy Mass.
Our soundman carefully set up the microphone stand to the side of the altar, facing the choir of nuns (as I sat in the back happily humming "Climb Every Mountain"). Suddenly, the old but very spry Mother Superior dashed across the altar, evicting the soundman, who had to drag all his gear out of that holy zone. We heard the music, but couldn't record it.
Thankfully, the next morning -- Christmas morning -- we were given a royal perch in the Salzburg cathedral. As the cameras rolled, a huge orchestra and choir filled the place with a glorious, powerful Diabelli Mass.
Austria is the home of "Silent Night." In Oberndorf -- the town just outside of Salzburg where the song originated -- I hoped to catch a performance of "Stille Nacht" for viewers. On Christmas Eve, we scrambled to record at several spots where events were to take place. But it was basically a muddy, touristy mess, with underwhelming music and not a hint of the magic we had naively hoped for.
I managed to persuade a couple of musicians to perform a private little concert in the town's church for us. After a day of frustration, we filmed "Silent Night" as it was first played -- with two guitars and two singers.
Today, this heavenly song can be heard from small-town street corners in America to magnificent cathedrals in Europe. However and wherever you celebrate this year, I hope you too have a peaceful holiday -- as the song says -- both calm and bright.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at email@example.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.
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