COMMENTARY, Dec 23 — Time flies. This is a refrain I have been hearing a lot of late, from friends and colleagues, from family and even my friendly neighbourhood barista.

The latter invited me to have a bowl of tong yuen a couple of days back, after I had finished my coffee. Was it Winter Solstice already? I asked. Yes, he nodded. Happy Dūngzi!

As I chewed the rice dumplings, savouring its ground peanuts filling, I thought of how food and food experiences can move us so deeply, especially when shared.

Given that it’s wintertime in the northern hemisphere and Christmas is almost upon us, I recall the vibrant and cacophonous open-air markets that would pop up in every major city and every small town in Europe come December.

Stalls with baked goods offer treats such as brownies and croissants (left). A Bavarian lunch of 'Schweinshaxe', fries and beer (right).
Stalls with baked goods offer treats such as brownies and croissants (left). A Bavarian lunch of 'Schweinshaxe', fries and beer (right).

Weihnachtsmärkte
in German. Mercatini di Natale in Italian. Kerstmarkten in Dutch. Julmarknader in Swedish. Or, quite simply: Christmas markets.

Imagine stalls upon stalls offering a cornucopia of delicacies to sample, and then to take home or enjoy on the spot. Freshly baked goods such as dark, fudgy brownies and crisp, buttery croissants. Apple pies and sugared almonds. Roasted chestnuts and Yuletide logs.

There are regional differences, of course. In Munich, a Bavarian lunch of Schweinshaxe (roasted ham hock) and fries might be served, alongside the requisite one-litre Maß of local beer. Cured meats and fish are a perennial feature of Christmas markets in Scandinavia while the Dutch devour oliebollen (sugar-dusted doughnuts) by the dozen.

Textures thrill us as much as taste: Can’t decide between chewy, soft pretzels and colourful hard candy? Why not enjoy them both? (Probably not in the same mouthful, though to each their own.)

Soft pretzels and colourful candy.
Soft pretzels and colourful candy.

Christmas markets aren’t just about the food, of course. Visitors take the opportunity to do Yuletide-only shopping, from perusing festive decorations to picking up the perfect tree on which to hang those kitschy knick-knacks.

As the temperature drops, everyone finds their own way of keeping warm. Hot drinks are the best solution, such as freshly brewed coffee, black and sweet, or a milky, cinnamon-dusted varm choklad (a Swedish hot chocolate).

And then there is the seasonal mulled wine. The Germans call this Glühwein, the quintessential Weihnachtsmarkt beverage, where red wine is mulled with spices such as cloves and star anise. Orange and sugar are also added to add tang and sweetness before the mulled wine is strained and served piping hot.

Night falls and everything becomes pitch black aside from the glow from the stalls. Fairy time. When the Christmas tree lights up, it’s time to be with your loved ones. Let us not linger too long; grab our haul and head home to feast on what we have bought, to drink and make merry.

Shop for Christmas decorations or pick up the perfect tree.
Shop for Christmas decorations or pick up the perfect tree.

But will the merriment of Christmas markets be a thing of the past?

Last month, Munich was the first major German city to cancel its annual Christmas market due to Covid-19 concerns, followed by the entire state of Bavaria. These popular Weihnachtsmärkte typically draw millions of visitors, making the closures a huge economic loss for the region.

But the safety, health and well-being of the public come first, a lesson all of us around the world have learned all too clearly over the past two years.

Still, perhaps precisely because it has been such a rough time for so many of us, not being able to take part in a festive celebration – that some might have waited all year for – is a bitter pill to swallow.

Cured meats are a perennial feature of Christmas markets in Scandinavia.
Cured meats are a perennial feature of Christmas markets in Scandinavia.

Keeping warm with hot drinks such as coffee, 'varm choklad' and mulled wine.
Keeping warm with hot drinks such as coffee, 'varm choklad' and mulled wine.

You could even argue that we have been swallowing enough bitter pills, from pandemics to climate change, that we ought to be used to suffering by now.

That is too depressing a thought, however. Too maudlin and defeatist. In a season where evergreen conifers and shopping malls are decked out in LED luminosity, we must not give in to the dark. We must not give up hope.

Time flies. Even as we ponder the now almost half-forgotten delights of Christmas markets past, we must have faith that there will be Christmas markets yet to come, bigger and brighter and more beautiful.

There will be Käsespätzle (Bavarian egg dumplings with cheese and fried onions) and there will be crêpes sucrées (sweet Breton pancakes). Marzipan and ginger snaps. Panettonesperfumed with orange and candied fruits, reminding us Milan is more than a fashion capital.

When the Christmas tree lights up, it’s time to be with your loved ones.
When the Christmas tree lights up, it’s time to be with your loved ones.

They will taste all the more divine for the waiting, our hearts having grown larger, full of loving kindness for our fellow beings. We will be more courageous (to have endured this much!) and wiser.

And so, till then, let us raise a glass (or a mug of mulled wine, as it were). As Bob Cratchit said in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “A Merry Christmas to us all!” May we all be well and happy, each and every one.

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