The Wine, Women and Smokers of Cologne

Perhaps more so than any other country in Europe, Christmas is huge in Germany. Gigantic markets devoted to the holiday can be found in nearly every city between Hamburg and Lindau, all of them offering visitors things like exotic meats, wooden ornaments shaped like WW1 fighter planes and wine, wine and more wine. I spent last weekend fighting the crowds at the ones scattered across Cologne.

This year, the city is hosting seven markets, each with a unique theme, all of them chock full of families in identical Santa hats and/or insanely drunk locals. Imagine a combination of Oktoberfest and a Christmas overlay at Disneyland.  People flock to the markets from every corner of Europe. Scoring a glass of Gluhwein on a busy Saturday night can be like tossing yourself inside a Bavarian-themed, human pinball machine. After heading into a wine garden in the Angel Market and bouncing off a woman who looked like the cloned love child of Gerard Depardieu and David Hasselhoff, I finally made my way up to the bar.

The Germans mix a variety of liquors with this popular spiced wine, Armaretto being my personal favorite. I also managed to try a tasty (and unpronounceable) Feuerzangenbowle, a wine that’s mixed with rum and sugar, all set aflame. A word to the wise: if you ever find yourself at a Christmas market in Germany drinking this stuff and your mug’s flame goes out, don’t attempt to relight it. You’re more likely to ignite all the Feuerzangenbowle that other patrons have spilled on your table throughout the evening.

Aside from the wine, another thing that seems to be a ubiquitous part of Christmas markets, in Cologne at least, are the smokers. Known locally as Räuchermann, these wooden toys are one part Nutcracker, one part incense holder. Hailing from the region surrounding the Ore Mountains in Eastern Germany, the smokers date back to at least the early 19th century. Much like nutcrackers, which also have roots in the Ore Mountains, various legends and stories surround the smokers.

According to one, a group of magical, moss-covered sprites called Moosmannel, flock from their forest homes to German towns around Christmastime to help out those in need by turning leaves into gold. When they’re not busy, they tend to hang out in the most festive taverns they can find and join the holiday cheer. They stay for the twelve days of Christmas before heading back to the forest. As a tribute, many smokers are made to look like the sprites but there’s roughly a thousand variations. It’s possible to buy teacher smokers, lumberjack smokers, minter smokers, golf smokers, doctor smokers (lung cancer? Humbug!), nun smokers, etc, etc.

Despite their philanthropic origins, I guess smokers are the “bad boys” of the seasonal wooden decoration world. I’ve never seen one of these in the United States. Given the country’s rabid objection to nicotine, I can’t see them ever becoming too popular.

I snagged a blacksmith smoker from a small stand at the Fairy Tale Market.  He’s currently hard at work high atop our entertainment center. Here’s a photo gallery featuring his colleagues back in Cologne….

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