“I feel sorry for people who have no real Christmas traditions and wonder if they sometimes feel as though the holiday is just another hectic, confusing, and stressful time of year; rather than a peaceful and serene season.”
Mike Huckabee in A Simple Christmas
No series on my Christmas traditions would be complete without covering the one that went bad. It’s properly remembered as, “The Death March to Falkenstein.” It occurred during on Christmas Eve, 1990 when I was an Air Force Captain stationed at Sembach Air Base in West Germany.
One of the great traditions of Germany (where everything is either tradition, compulsory, or forbidden) is the Volksmarch. Almost every weekend across the country you can find many of these 10 to 20 kilometer (6.2 – 12.4 miles) walks. The routes usually take you through charming villages and beautiful countryside. Along the walk there are several stops to mark your route card, get refreshments, or give the dog a drink of water from the “Hundebar.” It’s a great way to stay in shape and see the country. At the end of the route you got a souvenir plate, mug, or medal for completing the walk. When it was a good souvenir, we’d even buy a route card for our cocker spaniel. She did the miles, so she earned the prize.
We especially enjoyed doing a walk with our friends Keith and Jill during the Christmas season when the towns were decorated so nicely and the stops usually included mulled wine. But one year with no convenient Volksmarch in the area we opted to create our own. Keith and I chose a route from Winnweiler, the small village where we lived, to Falkenstein, home to a 12th century castle ruin at the end of a steep valley. The route we chose was only about 3.5 miles—much shorter than our normal six plus mile routes. But unlike standard Volksmarch routes this one was hilly. Very hilly. Keith and I were training for the Munich Marathon in March and one of our favorite runs was from Winnweiler, altitude 787 feet, to Falkenstein, altitude 1326 feet. But with the hills in between the two villages we were so exhausted that by the time we reached the top, the run back down took us just as long.
Keith and I figured we’d resolve this problem for the girls by staging a car at the top of our personal Volksmarch in the morning and then running back home. Then the four of us would walk to the top. We figured the hilly route would be compensated for by only having to do 3.5 miles—with a car waiting at the top. Right? Or so we thought.
The walk was great at first. With no rest stops on the route we hauled our own spiced wine. The view along the trail is really incredible and the weather was cool and comfortable. But when we started the slog up the Falkenstein Valley the steep path began to take a toll on Laurie and Jill. The 12th century castle at the end of the valley was built on what was then very defensible ground. Read that as “on the high ground.” The last quarter mile would have been a tough one for barbarians storming the gates. Jill and Laurie made it clear that the car should have been parked a bit lower on the route. “Clear” is the tactful way to put it. At the time Keith and I were Captains while Jill was a Major. Good thing for us that she didn’t pull rank on us, make us walk back home, and reserve the car for her and Laurie.
Although we were eventually forgiven I felt like there was a missing element to the walk that might help put a lighter side on the walk. Frankly there had been no appropriate souvenir at the end of the challenging Volksmarch. Fortunately, there was a little shop on base that was equipped to make custom coffee mugs. With the help of a German who worked for me, some skull and crossbones insignia, and a drawing of the old Falkenstein castle, I created custom cups for each of us. The legend across the top of the cup was “Todesmarsch Nach Falkenstein,” or “Death March to Falkenstein.”
The cups come out every Christmas to remind us of a great memory, that wasn’t so great at the time. And to remind me to pick an appropriate route for our Christmas Eve walk that doesn’t turn into a “Death March.”
Click here for an auto translated version of the German version of the Falkenstein website. I highly recommend the restaurant at the top of the village.