On December 4th, when students from all of Radnor High School’s German classes arrived at Philadelphia’s Christmas Market, many of the shops had not yet opened. Seeing Love Park barren of people made the day feel almost colder, if possible. And yet, amid all the little shops with closed doors and empty tables, Helmut’s Original Austrian Strudel stand was open and ready for business. The miniature counter window, filled with fragrant flaky treats, was the first stop of many students.
Known to be traditionally Alpine in culture, the Christmas Markets have many Austrian, Swiss, and of course, German stands. Multiple shops sell traditional or Alpine-inspired decorations. One shop in particular, called Gifts From Afar, features small charming models of half-timber houses. Another, called Bohemian Jumpers, has popular Swiss dolls. And the two German sweets bakeries have advent calendars and personalized gingerbread hearts, and are dizzyingly colorful. By mid-afternoon these stores become incredibly busy.
The biggest store, and probably the busiest attraction, is Käthe Wohlfahrt. Unlike the others, it was put up in a large tent closer to Fifteenth Street, and offers beautiful handcrafted German Christmas ornaments and decorations. There are hundreds of incense smokers and spectacular glass and wooden ornaments. Breathtakingly detailed nativity scenes and nutcrackers fill the shelves. With everything being out of my price range, I took the opportunity to stand near the space heater and admire the craftsmanship.
Before lunch, we split into two groups to take a tour. One group heard the tour in English, and the other did a scavenger hunt. When the tour was done the groups switched, and the tour was given in German and the other group did the scavenger hunt. The tour guide explained the history of Weihnachts (Christmas), the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree), Vorweihnachtszeit (the time before Christmas), and other traditions. She spoke of Saint Nikolaus and Krampus in a quiet voice that was barely audible over the crowd.
My group heard the tour in German, and did the scavenger hunt first. Although some students were able to complete the scavenger hunt without asking the vendors, it was fascinating to hear what some of them had to say. The cook at Helmut’s Strudel stand asked Megs Packer and me the meaning of Gegenstände, one of the words on our paper, it being the only word he didn’t recognize. We asked our teacher and returned to tell him, but he was busy serving a native German. The man had just arrived the day before, and was more than happy to explain the context of the term to us. I don’t think I will ever forget what it means, despite it being a generally insignificant noun meaning “item”, it was the experience that meant the most.
It was a great learning experience and was also super fun at the same time. If we put the effort in, we were able to immerse ourselves in German culture. Those who didn’t take it as a chance to further their German education really missed out on a great opportunity. Even when it wasn’t required, I found myself speaking German to the people I was walking around with, and understanding when they responded. I had a great time and made amazing memories. If they offer the trip next year I would definitely go again, just to get the feeling of being a part of something bigger than me.