A Rose in Winter

Continuing our brief series of posts on Germany’s best Christmas carols …

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen

Rose in snow

One of the most melodically beautiful carols from Germany or anywhere, this haunting composition is also known in English as Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming. The original German text was written by an unknown author sometime in the 16th century, and the version we know and love today was set to music by the composer Michael Praetorius in 1609.

Click here for a wonderful video of a choral flashmob from Munich University bringing Munich Central Train Station (home of the Radius sales office) to a halt last year with a splendid rendition.

And here is the English version, as performed by Sting.


Dances with Angels

Germany is responsible for many of out most beloved Christmas traditions – Christmas markets, the Christmas tree, and Santa Claus (see previous post). One it did not invent is the Christmas carol – the French and Italians have a better claim to that. The German-speaking world has given us some of our most beautiful carols, however. Over the next few days, we’ll blog on a personal selection of our favourite German carols.

In Dulci Jubilo.

"Five Dancing Angels", by Giovanni Di Paolo, 1436.

“Five Dancing Angels”, by Giovanni Di Paolo, 1436.

Meaning “In Sweet Rejoicing”, the original text was written by the medieval German mystic, Heinrich Seuse (known as Henry Suso in English), who spent his life preaching in southern Germany and Switzerland before dying in Ulm in Bavaria in 1366. It alternates between German and Latin, and recounts a supernatural encounter.

Heinrich Seuse.

Heinrich Seuse.

Seuse claimed that, alone in his room one night in 1328, he was visited by angels, who dragged him from his bed and … er … insisted that he party with them. Maybe they were freshman angels. As they danced, the angels taught him the song that we know as In Dulci Jubilo.

Now this same angel came up to the Servant (Seuse) brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion.

Which suggests that, in addition all their other Christmas innovations, Germans should also be given credit for staging the first office Christmas party. Considering that Seuse demonstrated his devotion by “mortifying his flesh” (wearing undergarments studded with nails), sleeping on stone floors in winter and not taking a bath for 25 years, it’s possible that the angels were trying to get him to relax a little.

In any case, six hundred years later, this angelic party led to a top ten Christmas hit for Mike Oldfield. And it’s as danceable as ever.

The Mike Oldfield version is here.

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why … Wotan, Lord of Asgard, is coming to town

Munich and Christmas, part two … the German origins of Santa Claus

Forget Lapland or the North Pole. Santa Claus is German. To be precise, a Turkish-German emigrant to the US. But definitely German. Here’s how …


1. St. Nicholas’s Day

St. Nicholas Day 2013. St. Nick visits Radius to greet his little helpers ...

St. Nicholas Day 2013. St. Nick visits Radius to greet his little helpers …

Today, 6th December, Munich celebrates the feast day of St. Nicholas, who is known in German as Sankt Nikolaus and Dutch as Sinterklaas. German and Dutch migrants to America in centuries past brought with them to the new world their traditional celebration of the saint, marked by the giving of presents to children. Their English-speaking fellow settlers adapted the practice, but struggled with the pronunciation of the name. It came out as “Santa Claus”. Later, the dates got mixed up and some of the rituals got shifted from St. Nicholas Day on 6th December to Christmas Day on the 25th, and Nicholas himself, like other successful emigrants to the States, put on a bit of weight, had his teeth fixed, jazzed up his dress sense and started bellowing “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

St. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Orthodox bishop of Myrna (in modern day Turkey) who, according to tradition, saved a poor family from destitution and the terrible possibility of having to sell their children into slavery and prostitution, by dropping nuggets of gold down their chimney in wintertime (he wished to remain anonymous). The gold fell into stockings drying by the fire – hence the tradition of Christmas stockings. For this reason, he is the patron saint of both children and prostitutes. Traditionally, he was represented holding three nuggets, or apples, of gold, as in the statue to him in a side chapel of Munich’s Frauenkirche cathedral.

The statue of St. Nicholas in Munich's Frauenkirche cathedral depicts the saint with his traditional symbols, three golden apples.

The statue of St. Nicholas in Munich’s Frauenkirche cathedral depicts the saint with his traditional symbols, three golden apples.

The feast day of St. Nicholas remains very important in Germany today. Children go to bed on the evening of the 5th in anticipation of the gifts awaiting them the next day … and in dread of the Krampus, Nicholas’s demonic sidekick who torments the bad kids as Nicholas rewards the good (He keeps a list. He checks it twice). The Krampus is the German forerunner of later sinister figures of Christmas chaos, from the Grinch to the Gremlins.

2. Wotan’s Day

St. Nicholas is not the only precursor to today’s Father Christmas, who is an amalgam of various figures stretching into the dim and mythic past. One of the most important is Odin, chief deity of the pagan pantheon of gods worshipped in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia, lord of Asgard and father of the thunder god, Thor. He was known in German and Saxon lands as Wotan, and has given his name to the middle day of the week in English (Wednesday – “Wotan’s Day”). His son gets the following day (Thursday – “Thor’s Day”; in German, Donnerstag – “Thunder Day”). Also known as the “Old Man of Winter”, Wotan was believed by ancient Germans to ride through the sky on a magical chariot at this time of year in order to distribute gifts and rewards to those who had been virtuous. Viewed in this light, the story of St. Nicholas is a Christian upgrade of concepts that had long existed in German cultural software.

Wotan, chief god of Asgard, with his ravens, Huginn and Muninn. He later traded them in for Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Wotan, chief god of Asgard, with his ravens, Huginn and Muninn. He later traded them in for Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

3. Yankee Doodle Santy

Wotan, being an ancient Norse god who later re-trained as a saint after Christianity started running things, had always displayed a talent for re-invention. And, like many who like to move with the times, he eventually crossed the Atlantic in the great wave of German emigration to the USA in the 19th century. His travelling companion was the young Thomas Nast, born in Landau in Rheinland-Pfalz to a musician in the Bavarian army. Nast would become perhaps the most famous caricaturist and cartoonist in American history – the artist who created the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party, and popularised the donkey as a symbol of the Democrats, and also the iconic image of Uncle Sam.

Like many German-Americans, he was passionately opposed to slavery (German-Americans were a major source of electoral support for Abraham Lincoln) and a strong advocate of the northern cause in the civil war. His contribution to the war effort was a series of propaganda images published in such magazines as Harper’s Weekly. Beginning at Christmas 1862 – a low point in the fortunes of war for the North – he sought to raise morale with a series of dramatic illustrations showing a distinctly Wotan-esque Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) distributing presents to Union troops – the virtuous who deserved to be rewarded, as Nast’s German cultural background had it. In these illustrations, Nast created the iconic image of Santa Claus we know today: a rotund and jolly man dressed in red and white and with a flowing white beard.

The Santa we know today, visualised by German-American artist Thomas Nast.

The Santa we know today, visualised by German-American artist Thomas Nast.

In other words, the image of Santa Claus that is fixed in the world’s imagination today began as American civil war propaganda from the pen of a southern German artist. Nast’s re-imagining of Santa Claus later went global after a hugely successful Coca Cola advertising campaign in the early 20th century – the red and white colour scheme was perfect for the purpose.

So that’s the story of Santa Claus. He’s German, he has changed his image more times than Madonna, and he probably doesn’t drink Pepsi.

Happy St. Nicholas’s Day

You can learn more about St. Nicholas and other German Christmas traditions on our Munich Christmas Markets tour – for details, click here.

Munich and Christmas, part one

With impeccable timing, the first snow of the season fell on Munich this week just as the Christkindlmärkte were opening. In the words of Dean Martin, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Anyone who wants to experience the best of Munich’s famous Christmas traditions really needs to go on our Christmas Markets tour. For those unfortunates not able to do so, we offer a series of blog posts on Munich and all things Christmassy, beginning here …

King Ludwig’s Winter Wonderland.

Ludwig II is at the heart of so many stories of Munich and Bavaria that it is unsurprising that the fairytale king should feature prominently in the most fairytale time of year. His moonlight winter rides are the stuff of legend, with the eccentric king to be seen dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh as his desperate ceremonial guards puffed behind him, jingling all the way.

O'er the fields we go, laughing all the way (maybe not).

O’er the fields we go, laughing all the way (maybe not).

It’s equally unsurprising that the King of Bling should also rise to the occasion in the season of glitz and giving. On one Christmas alone he gave away close to 400 gold watches as presents.

Above all, however, Ludwig left the world a fairytale castle that, glistening impossibly amid snow-capped peaks, seems to belong more to a Disney holiday movie than to real life.

The fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle, one of Europe's greatest winter sights.

The fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle, one of Europe’s greatest winter sights.

Does Ludwig’s magnificent castle in the sky owe its origins to his childhood Christmas memories? One of my favourite Ludwig stories is from the Christmas of 1852, when the 7 year old who would later become mad King Ludwig II received as a fateful present from his grandfather, mad King Ludwig I.

A set of building blocks.

This fired the childish imagination of young Luddi, and may have unlocked something deep within. “He loves to build,”  wrote the impressed grandfather to his son, the child’s father Otto: “I witnessed him construct buildings that were exquisite, astonishing, and realised with excellent taste.”

“I recognise a real affinity between this future King Ludwig II and myself,” added the wistful grandad Ludwig I, the dreamy fantasist recently deposed after depleting the kingdom’s coffers on a building spree and alienating his government.

Well, indeed.

The future King Ludwig II poses happily with his toys - and his future?

The future King Ludwig II poses happily with his toys – and his future?

Could this have been the most consequential childhood present since the young Nero was given a scale model of Rome and a box of matches to play with? Look at the image above of the royal cherub posing happily with his Christmas toys. Look in particular to his left, where the result of his efforts with grandad’s building blocks can be seen, towering majestically to the heavens in the nursery room. Behold the fantasia in white; behold the tapering spires; behold the castle made by and for a fairytale king.

Does it not look … familiar?

To borrow from Christopher Marlowe: was this the Christmas game that launched a thousand tour guides, and built the topless towers of Neuschwanstein?

For details of the Radius Christmas Markets tour, click here.

For details of the Radius Neuschwanstein Castle tour, click here.