The Germans do Christmas big. We have relatives by marriage who live in Berlin, and a few years ago they asked us to spend the holidays with them.

Central Germany in winter is a dark and often moist and misty place, with even the fair-weather sunlight filtered by the fact that Berlin is at the same latitude as the southern tip of Hudson’s Bay. So daylight is precious for its brevity.

Which may be why the city’s night-time streets glow brightly during Christmastide, with shopping areas (located in the center city and smaller districts away from the core) ablaze with light and decorated to the max.

We got to accompany our hosts on what seemed to be a mandatory holiday visit to KDW – KaDeWe (“Ka-Deh-Veh” in German), the Kaufhaus des Westens, an eight-floor “Shopping Center of the West.”

KDW is the second-largest store in Europe, after Harrods in London, and is an experience from a former era. Each floor is devoted to a different type of merchandise (this being Germany, two of them are for food).

Back at our hosts’ home, I found one big surprise on their tree. The first time I saw it, I thought the lights on its branches were the most realistic electric simulations of lighted candles I had ever seen. Then I realized that they actually were real lighted candles, which apparently are common decorations, as I saw them in other homes as well. At least they keep a bucket of water nearby.

But the delights of the season were the many examples of a neighborhood or municipal Christkindlesmarkt, literally “Christ child’s market.”

These Christmas markets, found all over Germany and dating back hundreds of years, often take up a group of side streets, big public squares or entire parks. The one we visited in Potsdam occupied the entire downtown, and according to the Deutsche Welle website, collectively they draw upwards of 85 million people annually.

They are cornucopias of mulled wine, food, many handmade and commercial gifts, food, street performers of all varieties, food, children’s play areas, food, beer gardens, arts and crafts displays, and much more. (Did I mention food? Wurst is the best, that’s my motto. With a stein in hand, of course.)

Not only were the markets themselves delightful, but we got to see Germans of all ages departing from their dour reputation to hang out and play, enjoying themselves in full appreciation of the season. Gemutlichkeit abounded, and the spirit was contagious.

So of course it was devastating to hear that one of the most prominent Berlin markets was the target of a terror attack, with 12 killed and dozens injured by a truck smashing into a crowd, as happened on Bastille Day in Nice, France.

Happy holiday crowds were the target both times, which likely is no coincidence.

This time, however, we received a reminder in no uncertain terms of why Christmas is important, and why it is necessary.

Theologians debate over just how much of our nature is good or evil. That’s an important discussion – we don’t understand as much about ourselves as we think we do – but no matter what the balance is, human beings have shown themselves capable of all sorts of despicable deeds throughout all of history.

Germany is covered with the scars of such behavior (the starkly brutal Holocaust Memorial near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is but one reminder), but none of us is immune.

As Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted, the dividing line between good and evil runs straight down the middle of the human heart.

Which is why, at the first Christmas, light came into darkness, peace entered into the midst of conflict and war, joy made itself known in deepest sorrow, and love shouted out its message of hope – in the form of a helpless baby – into the teeth of hatred.

During our visit, we went to a couple of church services (of the Lutheran variety), where it turned out that you can still sing familiar carols even if the words are sometimes strange.

And I saw a couple of new things in some German manger scenes. First, perhaps with the idea that the Magi represented different cultures, some creches had only one of them riding a camel. The other two arrived on a horse and an elephant.

And in front of the manger at the packed church we attended on Christmas Eve was a figure I’d not seen in a creche before: a young man facing toward the congregation and cupping his hands around his mouth, shouting a message to the people of Bethlehem (and the world).

“Come!” he seemed to be calling. “Come to see the one who will save us from ourselves! Come to see the newborn King!”

So, Frohliche Weihnachten. Merry Christmas.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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