“Marley … was dead – to begin with.” This line from Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” used to kick off Christmas for me for many teenage and early tween years. I had wrought a tradition of my own to go to a theater in downtown Stuttgart, Germany, to listen to British actor Brian D. Barnes reenact the glorious tale of an avaricious recluse who gets converted to the real Christmas spirit. Every once in a while, my brother and a friend of mine tagged along to these unique, unforgettable productions.
By that time, Christmas to me wasn’t really about receiving gifts anymore. Ever since I had discovered it was my parents who did the (probably carefully budgeted) Christmas shopping for us, I also realized that most of my wishes – except books and music – were flashes in the pan and basically a waste. Christmas had become something way more spiritual to me.
Of course, I don’t deny that our family traditions of wreath-making and advent calendars were quite hands-on and less spiritual – but they added so much to the Christmas ambience in my little world. Or that of Christmas baking. And it seemed like my mother was cranking out endless streams of Christstollen, coconut macaroons, tube cookies, cut-out cookies, nut crescents, and whatnot. Our home took up the fragrance of cinnamon and vanilla, a sweet cookie smell that mixed pleasantly with the harsher notes of pine twigs in a vase in the living room. Advent Sundays were celebrated with a church service in the morning and caroling in the afternoon. Our family, always very close-knit, became even more of a microcosm during Advent.
Christmas time in German cities or towns is also unthinkable without Christmas markets and Christmas decoration. In my childhood, only few cities spent on light chain decoration for their downtown pedestrian zones. Many were still filling in bomb holes from WW II or replacing temporary shacks from the 50s. The best decorations were always in the windows of toy stores, candy stores, and cafes, as well as department store windows. The latter displayed whole stories or scenes from fairy tales all along their fronts. When I left Germany in 2010, it had almost become something of a competition between cities about who had the most glamorous Christmas decoration, the biggest Christmas market with the most creative stands, or who could showcase the best choir, nativity exhibition, or extra-feature. My hometown Stuttgart’s Christmas market has grown to triple its size ever since I was a child. It has even an ice rink on its central square, the Schlossplatz. The World Christmas Circus shows up on a fairground every year with “the best of”. There are fancy exhibits inside the Old Castle, whereas in the castle’s inner court choirs from all over the world vie for attention. Apart from that, each and every suburb has its own little Christmas market. Stuttgart’s neighboring cities Ludwigsburg and Esslingen lure with baroque ambience, respectively a medieval fair as an add-on.
Christmas Eve, the main part of Christmas in Germany, always used to be a very quiet celebration for our family. Everything was scheduled, down to listening to specific radio shows in the morning that we gathered around for in the kitchen where my mother was cooking from scratch a lunch of the most delicious chicken soup and rice I will ever remember. After a nap in the afternoon, we almost always walked to church (sometimes over a mile each way) in a neogothic building with balconies and a huge organ. Our eyes would search the crowd for people we knew – and there were crowds back then. Extra-chairs had to be carried in, and people huddled real closely together in order to make room for more church-goers, some of them still left standing. No better tear-jerker than the ending of a Protestant Christmas service when the lights went down, the Christmas tree the only source of light, and the entire congregation singing by heart “O du fröhliche” (pronounce: oh doo ‘fruh-lihe, i.e. O Sanctissima), accompanied by the fortissimo of the organ. After church everybody gathered around town hall to listen to and sing along with the local brass band playing hymns. Walking home through the cold dark made the simple dinner of weisswurst, mashers, and sauerkraut a festive warmer-upper. Then – finally – we ended up singing underneath the lit Christmas tree – a real one with real candles always.
Living in the United States now, my Christmases have changed, of course. My husband and I are mixing family traditions. Now I am the one baking cookies, and I provide the advent decoration. The Christmas tree goes up way before Christmas, unlike I’ve been used to from my former life, where it was decorated behind closed doors on December 23 to be revealed only late on Christmas Eve. We do rides around the neighborhood to look for the most beautiful Christmas lights – and it’s quite interesting how close stylish and gaudy can border on each other. We participate in Christmassy activities as they come – Christmas at the Orr Home in Steilacoom and caroling at its Wagon Shop, plum pudding parades at annual dinners, Christmas stores, and bazaars. We attend church service on Christmas Eve. We enjoy a German dinner on Christmas Eve and an American Christmas dinner on Christmas Day before we exchange our three gifts each.
I would have to lie if I said I didn’t miss German Christmases with its Christmas markets, church bells, hymns, and organ music. But my husband and I do combine the best parts of our memories and traditions, and we enjoy what we gain from the part that’s novel to each us. Quietly and in blissful harmony. So, as Tiny Tim observed: “God bless us. Everyone!” Merry Christmas!