Dr. Zither at Mifflinburg, PA, Christkindlmarkt

One of the great traditions of Christmas in the German-speaking countries of Europe is the open-air Christkindlmarkt. Starting at the end of November, vendors open booths and offer what is often a wide variety of items, both as gifts or as nourishment. Mugs of steaming hot chocolate or hot mulled wine (Glühwein), roasted chestnuts, fresh cooked bratwurst, gingerbread (Lebkuchen) are all readily familiar to anyone who has ever had the good fortune to attend one of these markets. Longer lasting are those items not intended for consumption. These include Christmas decorations, many hand-carved and of considerable workmanship. Many of these durable items become family treasures and are handed down from one generation to the next.

Rudy Skucek, a native of Austria, carried memories of this wonderful 700 year old tradition with him when he immigrated to the US, and remembered them through the years. When Rudy retired and settled with his wife, Joannah, in Mifflinburg, PA, the memory of the Christkindlmarkt remained with him and the idea of creating an authentic Christkindlmarkt in Mifflinburg began to take hold. Rudy needed to do a lot to convince the townspeople that a market held outdoors in the middle of December in a part of Pennsylvania known for its cold and snow was actually possible. Rudy’s powers of persuasion are clearly evidenced by the fact that Mifflinburg celebrated its 25th annual Christkindlmarkt this year. Although Rudy passed away in 2007, Joannah and a dedicated group have continued the work that she and Rudy started.

In 2013, I was asked if I would be able to play some traditional German / Austrian Christmas music and I said I would be delighted. Wanting to showcase the zither I was given a spot directly at the entrance to the Markt, which was a wonderful location. Many people who passed by the tent stopped to hear the music and learn more about this wonderful instrument, the zither. Many of the people were of German or Austrian heritage and many had heard about the zither but almost none had ever seen a zither or heard one played. They were very grateful for the experience. The snow and 30 mph winds made playing a bit difficult and I have decided that playing outdoors in a snow storm is most definitely not the best way to showcase this wonderful sounding instrument.

When Joannah asked me if I would consider performing again this year, I immediately said “Yes”, and then added, “… as long as it is indoors!” I was scheduled to perform twice on Friday and twice again on Saturday.

My first performance on Friday attracted so many people that not only was it “Standing Room Only” with people standing all around the room, but there were people sitting in the adjourning meeting room, trying to catch as much of the sound of the zither as they could. The Market organizers quickly arranged to hold my remaining three performances in a much larger venue, the church sanctuary.

I began each performance with a few brief remarks about the history of the zither. I explained the parts of the zither and how the strings are arranged. I told the audience that I would play some American and some German Christmas carols and then some well-known songs to help them relax from all the stress of trying to get ready for Christmas. I also invited the audience to join me in singing any of the songs they knew. After an initial moment of hesitation, people started singing.

Once again, many people told me that they were very appreciative of the wonderful sound of this instrument, and after each performance a number of people stayed to ask questions about the zither and about how I started playing.

When Joannah wrote me to thank me for bringing the sound of the zither to Mifflinburg’s Christkindlmarkt, she added that the Festival organizers would like me to perform at the 2015 Christkindlmarkt and asked if I would consider returning for a third year. I told Joannah that the greatest compliment a musician can hear is the request for an encore!

I’m looking forward to the 2015 Mifflinburg Christkindlmarkt already!