I guess it is pretty much the same for Germans and Americans – most of us love the Christmas pre-season that is called advent. Though most of us also don’t want it around in the stores when it’s still summer. Advent and Christmas carols have their season, and this year, when Thanksgiving is almost two entire weeks before First Advent, I certainly haven’t put up any advent ornaments yet.
I grew up in a family that took advent pretty seriously, and I still remember these weeks before Christmas with warmth. My mother used to make her own advent wreath from fir, decorated it with red candles and ribbons, and stuck some tiny pine cones on for decoration. It looked the same year after year, and it was put onto the table only after Eternity Sunday. I have kept the tradition of a home-made candle arrangement, but I have to admit that craft stores are a pretty awesome source for none-wilting, real-looking evergreens, and that my decorations and color schemes are changing every year. Putting up our Christmas tree before an advent arrangement has never been the question.
Of course, like every other German child, I received my advent calendar punctually every November 30. That was the day I was permitted to open the first of its 24 doors. Always one day ahead of the actual date, there would be no chocolate in it left on Christmas Eve … which made the distribution of the gifts even more exciting. As a grown-up, I preferred the Victorian kind of paper calendars that were and are still made in a suburb of my hometown. I like those best that integrate the motive behind the door seamlessly into the main picture. I had no expectation to find any of the like over here in the States. But I discovered a great variety of filled German-made calendars in diverse stores around the South Sound, and the Steilacoom Historical Museum’s Christmas store even has a selection of those beautiful paper calendars. It seems that this German tradition has made it over here as well.
Come to think of it, a lot of Germans started to create their own advent calendars from various materials and in quite some quaint styles during the 1980s. Only the other day a friend of mine presented hers on Facebook, a row of 24 paper bags lovingly decorated with all kinds of natural materials, sprayed subtly with gold and other metallic lacquers and stuffed with little surprises. And I once helped fill and knot 24 parcels onto a clothes line that was to be hung into a friend’s home. It’s a fun tradition that heightens anticipation in people of all ages.
In many German families, advent is never (only) a church occasion. They gather around their wreath or arrangement on the four Sundays’ afternoons, having special cookies and other typical seasonal treats. Stories are read, music is played. Our family also always sat down and sang carols and hymns, accompanied by my father’s guitar playing. As on Sundays most Germans don’t work, advent Sundays have an additional tinge of festiveness. Here, everyday life continues with its boisterousness, noises, work shifts for many – the Christmas decorations inside and outside the houses cannot deceive about advent not being such a “biggie”.
There is another German tradition that is upheld by many who have kids over here: Nikolaustag (pronounce: Nee-koh-louce-tuhk, meaning: St. Claus’ Day). That is the only time Santa comes to German kids. On Christmas it is – a Lutheran tradition that made it nationwide over there – the Christ child who delivers the gifts. Santa stuffs children’s boots that stand by the front door with goodies the night before his name day, which is December 6. These days, gifts have probably become bigger and more. Back in my childhood, it was just candy and dried fruit, and maybe a home-made sweet yeast bread in the shape of a man symbolizing Santa. My mother always made a braided woman with a skirt for me.
I am happy to say that American and German traditions perfectly intermingle in my tiny family’s advent tide over here. My husband watches Charlie Brown movies with me – and they have become very dear to me. We deck the Christmas tree way in advance of Christmas, though we lay our gifts underneath only a couple of days or so before. I have to admit that I have never given my husband a Nikolaus gift. And I will have to hurry if I want to get him a calendar this year – they might be sold out by now. We do our rides around the neighborhood every once in a while, to see who has decorated their homes. And last year, my husband built a giant candy cane from plywood that he illuminated with Christmas lights. In Germany, I never had decorations outside the front door, except a door wreath. These days it’s rather something on the front steps.
Ah, advent! We bustle like crazy to make everything as perfect as possible. There are social dinners over social dinners, Christmas tree lighting events, caroling festivities, Christmas movies, Christmas music, Christmas cards. It is noisy. It is joyful. It is stressful.
But my most delicious advent moments are still these Sunday mornings when we are sitting at the breakfast table and my husband asks: “Don’t we have to light another candle?” And then, while I flick the lighter and the wick bursts into flame, we stare into the warm color and muse in quiet. How, as the year outside keeps getting darker, advent makes sure that the light inside grows.