Posted by: Nazausgraben | December 27, 2009


It is not the Tirolean Christmas that we anticipated; the farmer’s fields are green, the temperature hovering at or about freezing, cold nights and comfortable middays. The sun shines every so often, but mostly there is a cold stinging drizzle plunging through the mists and fogs lying low over our valley. The rich dark earth, so fertile and lovely during the rest of the year, has turned into a semi-solid muddy gatsch (yes…that again) into which one slightly sinks with each step.

In this deep Winter, the Roman Road remains unoccupied, save for those few living here making their way about for an afternoon’s walk, pilgrims headed toward the village church and wanderers on tour from the nearby inn. But at the moment, the Roman Road of Cesar Augustus is more akin to a Roman mud ditch. So it has been these last days of Advent.  

This is a time for visits with dear friends and neighbors. There is no need to call ahead, for it is customary just to appear at ones door. It matters not a whit whether the friends in question are at dinner or engaged in some other activity….perhaps with guests already there; you are welcomed with great flourish and are invariably asked in. One is then greeted with a schnapps, beer or glass of wine, and a table full of Weihnachtskaekseln (homebaked Christmas cookies)..some of purest sugar, others filled with marmalade, gingerbreads, chocolate covered fruits and still others in small crescents bedecked with powdered sweet. Then there is also a separate plate filled to overflowing with Christmas Stollen, the airy cake-bread filled with fruits, nuts and marzipan..ahh, Heaven!

Once planted around the Stueben table, there is always abit of catching-up to do, all the local news and scandal afoot; who now hates who, local and international politics (I remain decidedly diplomatic…that is, quiet), the economy, and the chatter that makes the local “bush telephone” the primary means of spreading the news here. Knowing how stories can take on new meaning when passed fom one to another, I can only speculate as to the stories at their first telling.

A walk around Pinswang early on Christmas Eve is customary as well.  With the advancing embrace of night, one bundles into multiple layers to ward off the evening deep chill.  With Christmas about arrived, one would expect a sudden burst of bright color, some glitter and timed bulbs dancing their ascending and descending ways on and between homes. Yet, there are but a few of Pinswang’s farmer’s houses that are modestly bedecked with icicle lights and illuminated shooting starts of Bethlehem; the rest are darkened as if on any other night. In yards here and there, a Tannenbaum sports a few white lights. The village green Christmas tree and Krippe (nativity scene) are illuminated beautifully; there is nothing kitsche in evidence.

This understated time of Advent remains even quieter on this Christmas Eve. There are neither dancing nor loud festive parties in the Anglo-American tradition…no weddings are held…yet, it is a joyous time never the less. Yes, there is the last-minute rush out to town for presents, both gaudy and modest. The local hunter sells his fresh catch from a truck parked nearby on the border between the Tirol and Bavaria. Those who work during this time have finally started their vacations, some until Heiligedreikoenigstag (Epiphany on the 6th of January) and others working in the public sector, who must head right back to care for the tourists and shoppers.

During such walks, it is tempting to throw appetite to the wind and partake of traditional Christmas Eve dinner at Gutshof Schluxen or Gasthaus Sauling, the two excellent inns of Pinswang. There, one can find a veritable feast of fresh local trout, deer goulasch, and a host of other Tirolean specialties. 

Should one so indulge, one shall find company to share the feast; there are always guests who enjoy traveling during Christmas, especially those who may no longer have families with whom to share this blessed time. Indeed, on one recent Advent evening at Schluxen, Susi and I found ourselves sitting in close proximity to a group of tourists from somewhere north of here, well into the upper reaches of Germany. They were celebrating their Christmas enroute. Older folks, they were…yet not so old that we could not imagine ourselves with all whitened hair, stooped backs and the look of many years behind….all this, but with smiles of celebration on their lips, a spirited step and quickened pace. These joyful folks were sharing Christmas as strangers with one another, yet relishing the companionship that they might otherwise not find at home. Such travels can prove balsam for the lonely soul, especially at this festive time of the year.

The clock on the Ulrichskirche strikes 2320 hours. It is time to start our short walk there.  One would normally return home to change into respectable finery. Yet, there is no need to do that here in the country; the chill is so biting at this late hour that we ensconce ourselves in thick woolen sweaters, loden or down-filled coats, scarves and shoes to hike the hardening Via Claudia. 

The Ulrichskirche is not heated, for doing so will damage both the materials used to build the venerable structure as well as the organ…now a young 110 years old. Thus, bundling up in this manner is the rule, not the exception. Humility is what is called for, especially during this night when we are to be spectators looking into a simple stall; witnesses to the most humble yet treasured of births. Wrapped in woolen warmth, we head off into the windy night to attend Die Christmette (Midnight Mass).

There is no moon, as the evening has become clouded over;  our lantern proves sadly inadequate as we find ourselves slipping on newly formed and unseen thin sheets of ice. In the bitter darkness, we feel our way around the iced Erschbach pond and along the same Roman Road route trod upon by fellow travelers long before the birth that we are to celebrate this deep dark night.

We soon come upon the group of elderly revelers from Schluxen, paused on a grassy knoll ahead, Fackeln (torches) alight. Like ourselves, they are headed toward the Ulrichskirche, yet at a somewhat tardier pace. Susi and I greet them and continue on into the fading fackel illuminated night. We curve around the pasture and finally make contact with the slick but stable asphalt road where the far side of town near the Church begins.

The bells of St. Ulrichs sound, filling the valley with their rich echoing call. I quicken my pace, thinking that we are already behind the times. No, I learn that these are but the first bells of the Christmas Mass, sounding their warning that the cloud covered town has but 30-minutes to shift tomorrow’s dumpling soup, already abubble, off the metal oventop, to throw another piece of wood or two into the kachelofen (enclosed tile fireplace), turn on the small white star lights adorning the tree outside on the balcony, and in general, prepare before the Mette begins.

Finally reaching the asphalt walkway up to the churchyard, we pause for just a moment and look up at St. Ulrichs. The facade of the building is bathed in yellowish-white spotlight and the Christmas tree before the side entrance breaks forth out of the crystalline gloom. The faint harmonies of the village brass quartet can be heard from within; the strains of very old and beautiful Tirolean Christmas songs muffled by the foot-thick walls of this lovely jewel of a church.

We climb the slight incline up to the church, and enter, pushing inward the ancient hard-carved wooden door. The wooden floors, bent with great age, welcome each step as we pass beneath the stone portal, touching fingertips into the freezing blessed water that fills the small stone font built into the wall next to the entrance.

The church is beautiful. No light enters from the near-midnight gloom outside; candles and small suspended chandeliers illuminate the interior. In this dreamlike half dim, the curving gold baroque filigree that glorifies each cherub, countless decorative swirls carved into the walls, around paintings and borders throughout, glistens as if brass shined to a luster. The frescoes on the whitewashed walls and gently curving ceiling seem to move as candle shadows are cast and flicker with the strong night winds wending their ways throughout.

I note that the wooden beams and pillars, skillfully carved from trees found along the Lech River and painted by artists two centuries ago, appear as marble; only a very close look and slight knuckle rap reveal the faux nature of the very convincing ‘stone’. The illusion is maintained until one reaches the candle bedecked marble altar, that tonight is silently guarded on either side by tall Christmas trees.

We seek a place on the hard wooden pews not too close to the front, yet not too far toward the back of the church. I also note that the first five or six lines of pews nearest the altar remain empty, with most parishioners there preferring to sit toward the rear of the church. The seats nearest the front have always been left for the village children and those who, by virtue of rank, inheritance or nobility, are considered influential in the community. Indeed, one almost immediately knows who the visitors are, as they tend to seek out the pews closest to the altar.

Interestingly, one notices that, facing the altar, the pews to the left of the central aisle are occupied mostly by women, those to the right by couples, and those in the upper levels at the rear of the church leading up to the choir loft, mostly by men (their wives presumably occupying those left side pews). There are no rules dictating where one should or must sit; this separation by gender is a respected tradition that all continue to practice without question, without concern. Those living in Pinswang and the hundreds of other communities in Tirol and nearby Bavaria are volk who are very proud of their lives, families, history and living traditions, and they eschew the arrogance and foolishness that come with those who think themselves above such things.

There is no conversing amongst parishoners; a slight nod of the head acknowledges the arrval of a neighbor. The brass quartet having finished playing, the silent piety is broken only by the occasional cough, and the light steps on the stone near the altar rail as parishoners go forward to look at the splendid Krippe built on the altar of one of the side chapels.

The Krippe scene is of a rustic South Tirolean farm; a main wooden house and stall sit upon rolling moss-covered hills. There is a large painted mountainous background that further accentuates the sense of this scene taking place somewhere above a valley not far from the Brenner Pass (to the south of Innsbruck).

This Krippe was built many years ago by one Pater Angelus, St. Ulrich’s beloved village Priest until his death in 1999. Pater Angelus was born and raised in the South Tirol, and the Krippe he built was modeled on buildings and scenery that he actually saw as a boy. Pater Angelus’ Krippe is one of the Pinswang’s cherished treasures, and is lovingly placed in the same spot for all to see each Christmas.

With the opening bells and strains of “O du Froehliche”, one sees streams of warmth flowing from every mouth, atempo with the brass and old organ. The Mass begins. Advent, the quietest time of year, is coming to a close. With midnight, the bells of the church peal at full throttle, each swinging it’s mighty weight as far from side to side as possible in the onion-domed tower stretching finger-like toward Heaven from one side of the church roof.

We pray for each other, for our families, for this, our new home in a valley at the base of the Tirolean Alps. Mostly, we pray for the transcendence in which we would find great solace as our years together in our warm, gemuetlich home, visiting friends and loving children and grandbabies, celebrating such joyful feasts finally together after so many years and a mighty ocean in between.

The Church then darkens, almost to pitch…save for the faint flicker of candles near the altar…and we all begin to sing”‘Stille Nacht..Silent Night”. It is very moving indeed, as I know that this beloved 150-year old melody is now being sung in a multitude of parishes, in small village farmhouse chapels, town churches and grand city cathedrals throughout Austria and Bavaria. Families at home are gathered about  the Christmas tree at this moment, lighting candles and quietly trying to remember the words to more than the first verse. This is most special of moments, when the quietest time of the year comes to a close, not in grand fanfare, but with a gentle caressing lullaby.  All are joined on this most transcendent and intimate silent and holy night. Stille Nacht…Heilige Nacht.

The lights return, and we depart, taking some moments to once again wonder at Pfarrer Angelicus’ beautiful Krippe, to light a single small candle in memory of beloveds not able to share this night with us and to wish friends a very Merry Christmas.

As we pause in the Churchyard to breathe in the crisp mountain air on this very early morn, it begins to snow, ever-so-slightly at first, and then with each fleeting minute, a more earnest descent. By the time we reach the hot spiced wine stand at the center of Pinswang, next to the village Christmas tree and Krippe, the snowfall had become picture perfect; as if God has turned our village upside down in a water-filled glass globe a few times, and then has stopped to wonder in delight at how beautiful a scene He has created.

Layered well against the deep, penetrating cold on this cloud bedecked night, we all gather with hot wine in hand and break the holy stillness with the simple Tirolean harmonies of “Es wird scho glei dumpa. Es wird scho glei Nacht” (it will soon be dark…it will soon be night). The green is almost gone, covered now with a blanket of frozen white. We bundle ourselves up together, bid our friends goodnight, and slowly make our way across the field to the warm welcoming lights of our home at the foot of the mountains. It is Christmas. Froehe Weihnachten!

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