One of the first things I remember someone telling me when I moved into our new neighborhood was that one day, someone would come to the door expecting schnapps. Unfortunately, that was the only part of the story I remembered. Not who was coming, not when they would be there, nor did I recall exactly why. The only thing I remembered for sure was the bit about the schnapps.
As we settled into our house over the summer months, I kept this piece of information tucked away. Each time the doorbell rang, I wondered if it was the mysterious schnapps drinkers. It never was. I was surprised by the volume of traffic at our door. Most were routine, the man who came to read the water meter, the man who came to read the gas and electric meters, kids selling things. Some were educational. We learned that German doors are not child-proof when a neighbor returned our wandering son and dog to us. We began locking our doors from the inside after that.
There were others too. The chimney sweep, was a highlight for us. Though he visits German households regularly throughout the year, it was my first encounter with a chimney sweep – outside Mary Poppins that is. There was the sad girl from the circus soliciting donations. There were the kids collecting money for a project to save bees. We had visitors looking for the previous occupants of our home, several people taking surveys, some selling religion, these all stood out for their unique character or purpose. In the warm months our doorway was a busy place, but not one visitor was looking for schnapps.
As the weather grew cooler, the visits to our door seemed to stop altogether. We had a handful of trick-or-treaters in the fall, then nothing. With Christmas and the New Year the mysterious schnapps drinkers vanished from my thoughts completely. And then one January morning, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to find a group of five costumed teenagers with a large star and incense. Two of them were dressed like Altar boys. The other three wore brilliant robes of green, red, and purple. One of those brilliantly robed teens was unrecognizable owing to the black paint that covered her face. Now I was completely befuddled. That was quite possibly the last thing I ever expected to open my door to find in Germany. Soon enough the shock wore off and it dawned on me. It was almost Epiphany. These were the Heiligen Drei Könige – the Three Wise Men.
Every year around the 6th of January, small processions of children and teens dressed as the three wise men travel door to door, collecting money for Catholic charities. They mark the doors of the houses they visit signifying that they’ve been blessed in the New Year. They are often accompanied by angels, stars, incense, and in our new home town it would seem that they were also accompanied by a wise man in blackface. So the thought of schnapps once again crossed my mind – hey, it is Europe. However, one of the three kings was my neighbor’s 16 year old daughter, so I was fairly certain schnapps was out of the question.
The remainder of January came and went with no further unusual visitors. February began and I started to think it was all a joke. Then one cold evening in late February, the doorbell rang once more. A group of men, dressed like some strange adult version of the Boy Scouts were standing on our doorstep.
Their cheeks were red, although I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold night air or the warming beverages they had already consumed. Here were the mysterious schnapps drinking visitors. But exactly who they were would take some time to determine. At this point my German was still quite rudimentary, fortunately my husband studied German in college and could carry on a basic conversation. We invited them inside, and as they warmed themselves in front of our fire with full glasses of schnapps, it really didn’t matter that our German was far from perfect. We enjoyed the warm fire, the warming beverages, and the jovial visitors. Between our broken German and their broken English, we were able to piece together that they were selling newspapers for Fasnet (Carnival in parts of Southern Germany). We were also able to determine that they would visit once more. The exact time and date was another mystery.
A few weeks later, while my husband was traveling, my son and I awoke with a start. Somewhere in the darkness, we could hear a very loud crack. Not entirely certain what it was we hearing, we went out to the balcony. From this chilly vantage point, we could hear it more clearly, but there was nothing to see. We went back inside, and the noise continued. Slowly, steadily, it got louder. Then we saw them. It was the schnapps drinkers – the Schnellers, a whip cracking Fasching guild. The lead Schneller carried a bent staff that held a lantern. They stopped at the intersection in front of our house, formed a large circle and let the bull whips go. The sound the whips make is related to the weather, and this first year was cold and dry – allowing the whips to completely shatter the stillness of the otherwise peaceful early morning. They continued down the street, but within half an hour the doorbell rang. They had returned. It was not yet 6 a.m. so I offered them coffee, but no thank you – schnapps was the order of the morning. It was the first time I have ever started the day with a shot of plum schnapps.
For the next three years, we eagerly anticipated the beginning of Fasnet and this highly unorthodox visit from our boisterous new friends. It was always a treat to spend a few minutes by the fire chatting together then seeing them happily on their way. These days, we always answer the door, and we always keep a bottle or two of schnapps on the shelf.