Written by Madeline Twooney
If you live in Germany, or have ever visited Europe during the Christmas period, you have most likely paid a visit to one of the traditional institutions on the German holiday calendar – the Christmas market.
Open from the 24th November – 23rd December, the Christmas markets take place in multiple locations in every major city, town, and village in Germany. An attraction for both locals and overseas tourists, the markets draw an attendance of 85 million visitors every year.
Despite living in Germany as an English ex-pat for the past 18 years, the whimsical atmosphere of the Christmas markets, with its fir-trimmed booths, Christmas music, and mouth-watering food aromas, still enthralls me every year.
However, since being diagnosed with burnout and chronic depression three years ago, l have made an effort to keep my distance from the Christmas markets during the holiday season. Pressing myself through throngs of crowds easily overwhelms me; that coupled with loud noises and an over-stimulation of my senses, can lead to me experiencing a panic attack in public.
That’s why it came as a great surprise to my husband Solomon last Sunday, when l accepted an invitation from Eddie and Joan, two acquaintances of ours from our church, to visit the Christmas markets in the city of Bochum, where we live.
Since my husband and l moved from Cologne to Bochum last summer, l have tried to form friendships with people from our church. However irregular attendance due to ill health has made it difficult for me to connect to others thus far.
For that reason, l was determined to accept Eddie and Joan’s kind offer to enjoy the festivities in the city’s bustling center, even if it meant braving the crowds on a weekend.
As we approached the first of the wooden market booths, the gentle croonings of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was playing over the speakers. Fairy lights festooned every vertical space and lit up the market area like a yuletide fantasy wonderland. I felt a tremor of anxiety about entering the market grounds, yet at the same time, l felt a tingle of anticipation for the delights that awaited us. I was going in.
The festive ambience of the Christmas market had also clearly infected newcomers and seasoned visitors alike. Families and friends were gathered in groups, enjoying each other’s company over steaming cups of mulled wine. As people passed me by, l caught happy snippets of conversations in German, English and Dutch.
Upon discovering the food booths, tantalizing wafts of food and spices offered my nose an olfactory bouquet of different delights: sizzling sausages, chocolate drizzled churros, and sugary roasted almonds mingled with the smoky scents of incense, anis fragrant black licorice, and sweet cinnamon. With rumbling stomachs, we ordered spicy hot sausages, deep-fried mushrooms, and sweet potato fries sprinkled with sea salt. The proprietor of a crepe stand exchanged an easy banter with us as she served us hot fluffy crepes filled with gooey marzipan.
Bellies finally full, we ambled past vendors offering handmade soap, colorful glassware and dainty silver jewellery. As l was looking at some star-shaped paper lanterns, l was surprised to find myself having fun: I had even managed to forget that l had health problems. Though the market was full of people, l didn’t feel crushed or penned in; I was too busy enjoying our new friend’s company that l hardly noticed the other visitors around me.
With a new found enthusiasm, l joined Joan in buying some honey scented beeswax candles and thick woolen scarves for Christmas gifts. Afterwards, we all watched a children’s pantomime on the main stage. It felt good to laugh and share an enjoyable experience as part of an audience.
Upon agreeing to come to the Christmas markets, l had internally steeled myself for any mental fallout. I had been prepared to endure psychological and physical discomfort, as well as unaccustomed social rituals for the sake of making much needed friends.
What l didn’t expect to feel was a sense of belonging, joy, and an insight into what if felt to be normal.
I began to understand more clearly what Paul meant, when he wrote about the importance of fellowship in Thessalonians:
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
Eddie and Joan’s kindness certainly uplifted me. It made me thankful that God heard my pleading and prayers to give me the fulfilment of life as He promises in John 10:10. It gave me hope that He was going to heal me permanently from depression and burnout.
With the arrival of early evening, the four of us took a selfie to commemorate our special time together under a clear, inky black sky, with a canopy of fairy lights twinkling above us like hundreds of stars.
As Solomon and l prepared to go home, I thanked God for blessing me with this beautiful day and for bringing him and our new friends into my life. It was a further confirmation for me that with God, all things are possible, especially healing.
The Christmas period can be a particularly challenging time for those struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues. Our inability to join in the festive cheer, coping with disrupted schedules, and over-stimulation from pre-holiday stress can increase our anxiety and stress levels and leave us feeling more socially isolated and alone than ever.
If you have family members or friends who are struggling with these health issues, make extra time for them and let them know how much you value them. Your kindness can help shine a much-needed light into their darkness and give them hope of living a fulfilled, healthy life – free of pain, of mental distress, and of fear.
Merry Christmas and God bless!
Co-Founder of Jacob’s Ladder Blog