23 posts categorized "The Holiday Season for an Atheist"

The Angel of Piste

The Angel of Peace.  Her golden wings have flapped ineffectively since 1899, when the Munich city fathers screwed her to a column in the überspiessig suburb of Bogenhausen.  That makes the Angel of Peace—in German, der Friedensengel—a neighbour of ours.

Her day job doesn't tax her very much.   She reminds us of a warless quarter-century after the Franco-Prussian war.  German kingdoms fought shoulder-to-shoulder, and repelled the armies of Napoleon III in a spat over who would be the King of Spain. 

The creation of a strong, united Germany out of many disparate monarchies changed the political landscape forever.   A strong, united Germany would ensure peace for generations.  Wouldn't it?

In truth, the now-beloved Angel was a bit of PR window dressing.   Coming together as a nation put Bavarian troops under Prussian orders for the first time.  This humiliated the Bavarians, and reminded them that their king, the notorious Ludwig II, was unfit to command.  The Angel  told Müncheners that they should view this new state of affairs as just peachy. 

Nowadays, we've forgotten all that.  Müncheners love the Angel for her beauty, and who can argue with the message?  "Her angel wings seem to reflect the golden light of an early morning sunrise.  Poised in grace and tranquility, [the Angel] can serve as a reminder to seek peace and calm."  So says Horst Kohl in his authoritative Bismarck and the Creation of the Second Reich the blurb for the Angel of Peace Barbie® .

The good burghers of Munich, after a schnapps or three, sometimes take the piss out of our poor angel.  Especially around Karneval time, or as we say in Bavaria, Fasching

Last year, a few tipsy sculptors made a Schneeengel tribute on the plaza before her.  It proved such a hit, that they came back in 2013.  This time, they made the tribute grander. 

Look at the size of that gal!  The Tagezeitung wonders if this is not the work of American snow-artist Ignacio Marc Aspera, since his technique allows for exceptionally high snow-sculpture.  They dismiss this speculation in short order.  Frankly, neither the art or the engineering is up to scratch. 


The lady's weak engineering begins to show.  How un-German!

But let's celebrate her strengths rather than criticize her weaknesses.  Some rascals added amusing details.  The original bears a rose in her right hand, and it looks like the snowy tribute as dropped it.  Or simply a Valentine's gift scorned?

As warmer weather approaches, her days are numbered.  Already, the snowplows circle ominously.

The sun may soon do the snowplow's job.  A sign on her back urges caution in the face of collapse (literally, the signwriter warns us of avalanche).  But until then, she remains another of Munich's curious popular tributes, which take over public spaces


On the last day of Benedict's Papacy, dammit if someone didn't turn our angel into the Pope. 

The sculptor remains anonymous, but he's now left a clue.  His Snowliness wears a mitre fashioned from a cardboard box.  That cardboard box once contained a Liebherr 2321-23 model upright freezer

Liebherr, by the way, means beloved lord in German.  So to out the artist, we need to look for a devout Catholic who likes ice cream.   In Bavaria, that should narrow it doen to about nine million or so


Playing with Feuer

Silvester 179a
Living in Munich, we enjoy high levels of peace, safety and public order. Which is why it's so surprising to witness the Silvester, or New Year's Eve, in action.

There's an awful lot of recklessness with fireworks, and many drunken revellers toss firecrackers around simply to cause mischief.
A fave trick, it seems, is to toss a string of crackers at someone's feet and tell them to dance.

On Monday night, I witnessed someone throw a string of crackers under the wheel of my neighbour's Porsche; luckily, it only smoked up the upholstery. (Was this a political statement, like the rash of car burnings in northern cities?)  The ever watchful Papa Scott assures us that the injury toll in his northern city of Hamburg has declined in recent years, but I suspect this may be more luck than management.

Our place is near the Friedensengel in Munich, where police close off the street to give tipsy pyromaniacs a free rein. Even today, we can smell the cordite in the air. I posted the photo above on New Year's day in 2008, and it gives a hint of how we face down the dangers of a festive occasion.  The überlin blog gives you a filmic taste of what it's like to be in the middle of a German public Silvester celebration.

Drunken assholes love to toss firecrackers into post-boxes. It's such a common problem, apparently, that the post office has worked out a procedure. The deliverable mail is dried out after the fire brigade's dousing, placed in a plastic sleeve, and delivered with a very, very obsequious letter of apology, asking the recipient still to trust Deutsche Post nonetheless.   It also asks one not to blame the sender for the condition of the article.  This kind New Year card arrived from Berlin damp and smoky, but legible.  


Let me use that card as a segue.  Master Right and I belatedly wish you all a happy, bountiful, and above all, safe 2013.

The Christmas of Drinking Half-Decent Wine for a Change. Part Two.

The social media was unanimous.  They recommended we drink the Mersault on Heiligabend.  So we did.  Twitter and Facebook had excellent taste.

Now the 1st Weinachtstag dilemma.  Which shiraz to have with the duck?  The choice is a bit more complex. One from the Barossa Valley, the capital of Shiraz.  And two from McLaren Vale, the grape's spiritual home. 

Let's start with the McLaren Vale shiraz.  D'Arenberg wine is dear to my heart, from the days when my pals and I would skive off lectures at the nearby University of Adelaide to go wine drinking tasting. 

There's an art to university drinking.  The undergrad imbiber must calculate, usually on the run, how to squeeze maximum merriment from minimum dough. 

In most parts of the world the math is easy—beer wins.  Especially so 'round these parts; beer is the Poland Spring of Bavaria.  Those poor students in England must resort to cider when skint, and I pity them. 

In the South Australia of my youth—home to about 60% of Australia's viticulture—the most cost-efficient booze was wine.  When wineries finished their run of bottling proper wine, they would often find some left over.  They decanted the leftovers into three-litre bottles, known as flagons or 'goons for short, and sold it cheap to the likes of us.  Depending on the luck of the draw, one's palate could become quite spoiled. 

Our 'goons of choice came form D'Arenberg, and to boot, their tasting room showed great tolerance of freeloaders.  D'Arrys curls up in a special corner of my heart.   The wine on the table today bears the name of a highly successful racehorse owned by the founder of the winery.  Historians credit Footbolt as the first true backer of the business. 

The Barossa Valley, though big and tempting, lay a little bit too far from city for convenient wine-hookey.  But the Barossa shiraz shows promise.  

The Burge Family Draycott Shiraz comes from another long-established family winery.  It contains about 30% Grenache, a light, sweet fruity grape that doesn't age so well.  That makes it front-runner for tonight's cork-pop, since we must drink it urgently.  The last bottle of this we opened was corked, so there will be tension in the air as we plunge in the screw. 

The Beresford Shiraz—well, the winery is a comparative newcomer, established in 1985 in Langhorne Creek.  I've not tasted any of their wines before.  A dark horse, but if the blogosphere/twittersphere/facebookworms tell us to drink it, drink it we shall.  And happily. 

Let us know what you think.

The Christmas of Drinking Half-Decent Wine for a Change. Part One.

Time for a bit of crowdsourced Christmas cheer.  Your advice, please.

One of the curses of adulthood is patience.  Grown-ups know how to defer gratification.  It usually works out for the best, but from time to time, you have to loosen the corset, open the poppers, and live a little.

I've collected wine, in a modest way, since university days.  A few dozen nice reds actually got schlepped across oceans and equators.  Since arriving in Munich, Master Right and I began to hunt for bargains at wine auctions—the Munich Wine Company in Diesenhofen offers some real gems if you look carefully.

In a wine-auction house, most of the stock is nicely long-in-the-tooth.  Much comes from estate sales; previous owners stockpiled wine in the cellar, waiting for it to age, and never quite made it to their last tipple. 

It occurred to us that some of our wine is so old, that it may no longer improve with age.  And that if we drink the stuff at our current modest rate, it could end up with a new owner, yet again.

So Master Right and I have declared 2012 the Christmas of Drinking Half-Decent Wine for a Change.   We're having a quiet Christmas at home, but you can celebrate with us.   Tell us which bottle to open with tonight's traditional baked ham. The choice is between two chardonnays, and a pinot bianco.  

The bottle in the centre is a classic 2001 White Burgundy from the Mersault appellation near Beaune—a find from the MWC. This wine is so smooth that you scarcely know you're drinking it, until you suddenly realise how happy you are.  We bought half a dozen to impress my high-school pal Neville.

Neville poses a grammatical problem when I choose to describe him.  That problem is the order of adjectives. 

Is Neville the cigar-smoking, ballroom-dancing, black-belted, corporate-compliance-credentialled, wine-connoisseur banker?  Or is he the banking, ballroom dancing, corporate-compliance-credentialled, wine-connoisseur, black-belted cigar-smoker? 

(You needn't look for him amongst my Facebook friends; one could include internet-prudent on the list of adjectives, too.)

Of course, the aspect of his many-faceted character that concerns us is wine-conoisseur

The bottle on the left is an Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, sourced in cleanskin.  Neville offered it as a gift in exchange for one of the bottles of Mersault.  The grapes for this vintage probably came from the limestone soils of the Padthaway vineyards, in the far south-eastern corner of the state of South Australia.  Online reviews call it "plump".  Online merchants call it expensive, but sourcing it in cleanskin makes it consumable with a good conscience. 

The bottle on the right is a younger choice, from 2006. Given the sweetness of the meat, someting drier and fruitier may be in order, like a Pinot Bianco.   The Jermann wine has a misleading name—it's not German at all, but Italian, from the region just to the north-west of Trieste.   My maternal grandfather was born not far from there.  

So help us choose.  Better palates than mine have given a merry thumbs-up to all of these. 

We're giving you all a nice big, plump thumbs up, too, for the holiday.  May you have a happy one.

Stay tuned to help us decide how to wash down the duck on Christmas day.

Cheer, Sincere.

NeilconcertposterY'know, these newfangled social media ain't so different from good-old-fashioned social life. Especially at this time of year.

Some parties, you have to attend, out of obligation.  Some parties, you really want to attend.  The people are  genuine, warm and mean it when they wish you happiness, merriment or peace. 

Yes, social media let you dispense with the obligatory good wishes easily and quickly.   But they really shine at keeping you in touch with the people you care about. 

Cyber-pal Neil Kramer,  has forged an open, friendly community of generous souls with his long-running blog Citizen of the MonthEvery December, his online version of a seasonal shindig is the tongue-twistingly PC Christmahanukwanzaakah Online Holiday Concert. 

All his online friends get together and do what they would do, were they a 3D community.  They sing songs, share laughs, wish each other well, and enjoy a drink or two.  Judging by some of the singing, they probably enjoyed more than two. 

The singing consists of YouTube videos, which Neil posts at the appropriate time. (This year, he did it wirelessly aboard a plane form New York to Los Angeles.) Those, like me, who choose not to sing for reasons of modesty, can submit a picture.

You recall that I said social media may be used to share happy, memorable, sincere good wishes, or you can use it as a cheap way of going through the motions?  Guess which of the following videos came from Neil's concert, and which not. 


Readers will note that public comments on the second video were disabled on upload.

With that small tale, please accept sincere good wishes for a great holiday weekend from Master Right and me, and for a fantastic, Deutschmark-denominated 2012. 

The chap below is my contribution to this year's Christmahanukwanzaakah celebration on Neil's blog; we snapped him in the Austrian ski-and-spa town of Bad Gastein on Boxing Day, 2010.    I love it when a twink...er, twig, gets naked without you having to ask.   I'm sure he wishes you a ho or three. 

Bad Gastein Woody Twink

The Opposite of Christmas

Mittenwald Nativity dramatic
Though Master Right is a one-time trainee in the Shinto novitiate and I am an avowed atheist, we spend an awful lot of time in Christian churches.  That's where the music is.  German churches support a great deal of serious music, and provide a venue for many concerts and recitals.

While listening to the music, the eye begins to wander about the room.  Especially here in Bavaria, since the buildings are rich and grand.  In the days before an average Joe could find entertainment at his fingertips, he looked to the local church as his main source of fine music, art and drama. And they laid it on thick.

The art and the drama went hand in hand.  Paintings and statuary brought bible stories (and more) to life.  Even the humble Nativity set gets the glam treatment.

Mittenwald Krippe close-up 2 
Mittenwald Krippe close-up 2
These Nativities come from churches and museums in and around Mittenwald, in Oberbayern.  All of Upper Bavaria is famous for woodwork, but a thriving violin industry in the town provides an extra dose of woodcarving skills, which enjoy a seasonal outing.

The newborn Christ gets a makeover in many of these scenes.  He often becomes a toddler, since toddlers are way cuter than those ET-like newborns.  If the Holy Infant did, indeed, emerge as shown in the nativity scene below...well, the Blessed Virgin certainly has my admiration.

Mittenwald Krippe close-up 2
Which brings me to the point of this post.  As we visted churches this Easter weekend, we encountered what can only be described as an Anti-nativity.  A life-sized scene of a most unhealthy-looking Jesus in his tomb.

Creepy Christ 1
If one spends enough years kneeling before crucifixes, one grows desensitised to the sight of murder-in-progress they depict.  Master Right, who does not have years of hanging out in Christian churches to make it seem normal, points out how grotesque it actually is.  But this creeped out both of us. 

Creepy Christ 1
Throughout my Catholic boyhood, I encountered many a cute Christ in a stylised manger.  But never a creepy Christ in a mock-tomb.  Is this simply a south German custom?  A European one?  Did any other new-world Catholics see such a thing in their churches at home?   

Grinch Relents

My personal feelings toward Christmas can be summed up in two words: bah and humbug.  But sometimes, even the biggest pshaw has to catch the spirit.  Blogging pal Neil Kramer is hosting his annual multi-belief holiday concert at Citizen of the Month.  He asks readers to record a short video in which they sing their favourite holiday song, or post a picture or two from whichever religious tradition tradition takes their fancy.  My personal religious tradition this year is Heterosexual Soft Core Erotica.  Happy holidays, and remember to be naughty!


Tokyu Hands, Shinjuku, 2003


Nymphenberg Porcelain, Odeonsplatz, 2008


The Beef Market, Munich, 2010

Pimp My Rad.

Where is he gay today?  Adelaide, South AustraliaP1140695
Is it just me, or is Halloween catching on outside of the USA

Take last year.  I was enjoying a glass or three of Wolfie's highly quaffable Eaglehawk Semi, alfresco, outside the Arab Steed pub in Adelaide.  A splendid bicycle club called The Boneshakers pulled up for a cleanser on their way to a Halloween picnic.  In spite of the fact that there's no real tradition of  dressing up for the holiday, they did seem to get rather into the spirit.

After the lads and ladies had left, we noticed the group's lone unicyclist riding past.  Never thought about it, but I guess a unicycle is a lot slower than a two wheeler.  Notice the jockey's helmet and horsewhip.
If you're celebrating Halloween, may you be afraid.  May you be very afraid. And pedal very fast.

How to Avoid Jesus While Shopping


Warming to the theme of a secular Chistmas, YouMadam posed a question on my post about Christmas 2009.  If expensive gifts run counter to the true spirit of the holidays, can one blaspheme on the cheap?  

Most Germans shop for cheap Christmas gifts at the local Christkindlmarkt. From the name, you can guess the obvious Christian overtones which no amount of Feuerzangenbowle can distract you from.  Management often pays some kid to dress up like the Christ Child and...well, wander around being Christly.

Luckily, two Munich markets took a secular slant on the season.

Pink Christmas.  The Gay Christmas Market.

Small, but beautifully formed, as we say the backroom.  Pink Christmas used to be a weekend affair, tucked away in a quiet corner of boystown.  (I've mentioned it before)

This year it swelled to an enormous length, and lasted almost the entire month of December.  Not to mention that it extended to that gayest of spots, Berlin.


By the time we visited on the last day, the schedule was taking its toll.  The tinsel had begun to fray, and the trees to droop.


But the partying kept up non-stop.  Every evening, the entire place turned into an outdoor disco where you could shake your long-johnned tush.


Isn't there a Christmas song about Silver Balls?

The rest of the gayborhood got into the spirit.  KraftAkt, one of my favourite Munich gay bars, decked its halls with yuletide drag.  Their inflatable snowman looked like he could use a blowjob, though.

Watch where you stick that icicle, Frosty!

Careful where you stick that icicle, Frosty!

If you're a real-live gay snowman, would the bar's Christmas decoration make a good sex doll?  Or would that be a bit flaky?

Diburnium, the leatherman's supermarket, dressed its window with many helpful suggestions for that last-minute gift. Your friends won't believe their eyes when they unwrap your package!

Merry Fistmas!

Merry Fistmas!

FIST™ brings warmth and good cheer to any holiday gathering.  If I were the marketing manager for FIST™, I'd pitch it  as alternative to a bottle of wine as the perfect present  for the host, if you've been invited to a party.    Like a bottle of wine, he can open it for all to share, or he can put it in the cellar for later.

Tollwood.  The Hippie Christmas Market.

Tollwood is so politically correct, it's secular by default.  

From their website: "The Tollwood Festival is a beacon of cultures, ecology and quality of life.  From the beginning, the festival has striven to be the image of a multicultural society, which is why tolerance, internationality and openness are the cornerstones."

Alas, many Müncheners think Tollwood is a bit of a joke.  The stalls sell a collection of candles, batik, organic soap, hand made pottery, incense and fairtrade knicknacks. Hippies go there to stock up on all their hippying needs.

Tollwood stays mostly schtum about all this birth-of-the-saviour business.  In fact, Master Right and I went there to buy a Christmas-tree ornament, and had trouble finding one


We loved it. At the entrance, an ice sculpture of the pyramids greets guests.  African drums lull you as you make your way amongst the stalls.

P1000098_2 The traditional way to say welcome in Bavaria is Grüß Gott, or "God Greets You".   Tollwood welcomes you with a hearty Grüß Göttin, or, "The Goddess Greets You"

The Goddess, I'm delighted to say, greeted us with a sumptuous paella and a couple of Tsing Taos.  Free of genetically engineered ingredients, as Tollwood policy stipulates.

We didn't work up the enthusiasm to try out the ice rink made of recycled high-tech plastic. So all we could do is lounge under the palm tree made from a recycled autobahn sign.  From the Ruhrgebiet, by the looks of things.  I hope everyone can still find his way to Düsseldorf. 

What idiot declared war on Christmas?

Just around the corner from our place, a certain upmarket food store trimmed its tree with boxes of champagne.  Empty ones, I might add, lest you decide to pluck a sly tipple before they disappear tomorrow.  Tradition in Bavaria holds that the tree comes down after the Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

Some may deplore this as a particularly crass example of Christmas gone commercial.  If so, bring it on.

Like every December, 'twas the season for self-righteous to remind us of the True Meaning of Christmas.  Which, by all accounts, is that we shouldn't be enjoying ourselves too much, since we have to remember that a pregnant lady 2000 years ago once had trouble finding a hotel room. 

But if we want to achieve  peace on earth and good will toward men, then gifts, celebration and laughter surely help. 

Any atheist who tut-tuts the holiday because of its religious origin, truly does his cause no service.  What idiot turns his nose up at joy?

Johann Hari wrote of this in The Independent a couple of Christmases ago.   And though I'm not a big fan of Objectivists,  Tom Bowden's thoughts on the Ayn Rand Institute's Voices for Reason blog make a convincing case for the atheist to roll up his sleeves and get into the holiday spirit.

The so-called "commericalisation" of Christmas makes a broadly-celebrated holiday meaningful to everyone.  To those with different beliefs, or with none at all.

Irving Berlin gives us the classic example of a non-Christian's constructive engagement with the holiday.  Many have remarked on the irony that Berlin, a Jew, should have written the most popular Christmas song of all time. But if you look closely at the lyrics for White Christmas, you'll find it utterly secular.  It's just a song about the weather, really. 

You'll notice that I put the word "commercialisation" in quotes.  I did that deliberately.   A secular Christmas doesn't need to cost a lot of dough.  

But since God and Mammon are apparent opposites, spending too much money on a holy occasion guarantees big-time blasphemy.  Right?

On those grounds, Munich is a blasphemer's paradise.  Compared to the average German, a Münchener contributes three times the GDP to the national economy, and he likes to spread the wealth.  There's no better city for a materialistic Christmas, if that's what you're after.

The upscale merchants of the Briennerstrasse turned streetlights into chandeliers


Insouciant little Christmas balls, sprinkled around a €3000 party frock

A 2008 Christmas display at the upmarket Nymphenberg Porcelain

The last paragraph might surprise some.  After all, I've lived in New York.  Isn't that the birthplace of Christmas glitz?  

In my experience, New York Christmases are glittery, but not all that glamourous.  You'll see lots of decorations,  but apart from places like Rockerfeller Centre, they're not exactly classy.

New York Christmas 2006 018_2 In a 42nd Street gift shop

New York Christmas 2006 017

A Mad Manly watering hole.

New York Christmas 2006 013a
A relic of better times: extravagant trees grace the lobby of Bear Stearns in 2006.

Now that we've reached the official end of the Christmas season, I've paused to reflect on it.   Few cities celebrate Christmas with such grace and style as Munich.  We enjoyed our third Christmas here.  Trust that wherever you are, you did the same.