I miss German Christmases.
I used to go home for Christmas, just like millions of other people, whether they have moved thousands of miles away or merely settled in the next biggest town. It’s what you do, and although tensions arguably run high when groups of people suffer through stress, alcohol and fatty food together, you don’t want to miss the comforting traditions you used to know as a child. Now that my children are old enough to remember things, we spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at our house, establishing our own traditions. Then we move on to Germany to help my parents with the leftovers. It’s a system that works well enough, but the tail-end of Christmas has none of the magic of the weeks leading up to it. The older I get, the more nostalgic I become. While English traditions are likeable (stockings hung on the mantle are incredibly romantic, but somehow I’ve never managed to live in a house with a fireplace), it’s just not the same. Not that things aren’t just as commercialized in Germany, but people seem to cling to tradition much more over there. Let me tell you about my childhood Christmases…
On the first Sunday in Advent, we lit the first candle on our advent wreath. This wreath is not hung on the door, but set on the table with decorations and four candles. Each Sunday before Christmas, a candle is lit, until all four are burning just before Christmas. There are songs about it, so I think we can safely say that it’s a big thing for Germans. My mum was brought up as a Catholic, so she takes her traditions seriously, and one of the strictest rules is the fact that no Christmas decorations whatsoever are allowed to be put up before Sunday of the Dead, a religious observance that falls on the last Sunday before Advent. Of course the shops start selling gingerbread in October now, like in England, but most people claim to hate it and will not buy them. When Advent arrived, we put up decorations, but not the actual tree, which came much later. The most popular decorations in East Germany have traditionally come from the Ore mountains, and are sold in the whole of Germany now. Our house was filled with little wooden angels. They cost a fortune, but make great heirlooms. My parents are still assembling the whole orchestra, which is seated on a cloud.
Then there are the smokers, wooden craftsmen that hide incense cones in their bellies and thus have smoke coming out of their mouths. It sounds weird, but I was the happiest girl in the world when my grandma gave me my very own birdseller. He is happily smoking away in our house now. Nothing says Christmas like this little guy:
The most famous German Christmas decorations are candle-powered pyramids. My family was never really into them, so they don’t play a big role in my Christmas traditions. They are present at every Christmas Market though, which brings us to that. Christmas Markets are the thing in Britain at the moment. Tour operators ship thousands of Brits off to the continent every year, where the poor people freeze their behinds off and get drunk on horribly sweet concoctions that might or might not contain actual wine. Blargh. I’m not a fan of Christmas markets. We only really went there once during Advent time, after my choir concert.
Having been to a church nursery, I was recruited to the children’s choir at the tender age of five. We gave little concerts, and every Second Advent Sunday, we would sing in the big church in town with other choirs and soloists. It was great, and I really miss singing. I still remember all of the carols (yes, “Oh Christmas Tree” is one of them), and since nursery also came with recorder lessons, I can still play them all on the recorder. My sister would join, and to this day, we still play together. One of the first years I spent in England, we played through the phone, across countries. The commitment! Playing carols on the recorder is an essential part of any self-respecting East German childhood. My best friend is East German (we somehow sniffed each other out here in Liverpool), and we have played the recorder together this year. Because of course she knows how to play, and of course she took her recorder with her when she emigrated, and of course she has her old songbook. It was magical.
Christmas music is a serious thing. I can’t speak for everyone, but most people I know listen to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and attend church concerts during Advent. Almost every little church puts on such concerts, and it’s the thing I miss most. My Christmas Eves are simply not complete without a late-night performance of the Christmas Oratorio in our local church. It always took the utmost willpower to drag myself out of the nice warm house at 11 p.m., but it was worth it every time.
Christmas Eve is the big day in Germany. We used to decorate the tree in the morning, then my mum would dissolve into hysterics at the thought of all the things that still needed doing. Friends would call to wish us a Merry Christmas. As soon as darkness fell, the whole family would get together for tea and biscuits. I can still smell my grandpa’s aftershave mingle with the smell of candles and gingerbread… After that, my sister and I would play the recorder while my mum sneaked into the living room to “help the Christ child.” (This is a southern German tradition, where the child himself arrives bearing gifts. Santa is only grudgingly accepted into the proceedings. In Germany, traditions do not change quickly.) At the sound of a bell, we would be let into the living room, where we would see the tree lit for the first time, and give each other our presents. After all the excitement, it was time for the traditional Christmas Eve meal: potato salad. I kid you not. Ask any number of Germans, most of them will tell you they have just that for dinner. The big Christmas dinner comes the day after, so the food on Christmas Eve is relatively modest (although my mum’s potato salad is the best thing in the world ever). All this never changes. My parents still do the same thing, even now that me and my siblings have moved out. It will never change, and we don’t want it to.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to make our Christmas just as memorable for my children. We do put the tree up early in Advent, like most Brits, but most of the things we do come from the German side of our family. Most importantly for the children, Saint Nicholas visits on the night of December 5th to put little treats into their freshly cleaned boots. (Trust the Germans to combine chocolate with something useful like cleaning boots!) And even though Christmas Eve is a working day in England, I insist on celebrating on this day. It means a lot of stress trying to get my husband home from work on time, but so far, the system has worked. There’s nobody to play the recorder with me, and I can’t find a church that puts on a Christmas concert in my area, but my kids get giddy at tea-and-biscuit time, the candles are lit, and we all have our presents earlier than the neighbours and fall asleep late, full of food and drink. I miss my childhood traditions, but I’m making the most of the fresh start we have been given here.