The older one gets, the fonder one looks back on memories. It’s called nostalgia, and often enough things seem rosier than they were. But I think my German childhood Christmases were pretty much perfect. I can’t transmit you the fragrances, but I can give you some impressions of the sounds if you care to click the links in this article.
Basically, everything started with an advent wreath my mother produced punctually after Eternity Sunday every year. It was made from fresh spruce branches and red ribbons and candles as well as a few pine cones, some of them slightly gilded. With a chocolate-filled advent calendar on November 30, which was the first night my little brother and I were permitted to open the first door. And Nikolaus (aka St. Nicholas) would visit secretly during the night of December 5, so we found our little boots stuffed with figs, sugar-covered almonds, and chocolates the next morning, December 6. And a sweet yeast cake shaped like a man respectively a girl by our breakfast plates.
About ten days before Christmas Eve, our family would walk to one of the local tree markets. We always chose one that was about the height of my mother’s, as that would fit just perfectly on top of our sideboard and still leave room for the tree topper in the shape of a straw star she had artfully created. She taught me the art, too, and many a years later, I still ironed wetted and split straws, cut them into shape, and bound red or white sewing thread around the center of the creations.
Our tree didn’t go up at once, but was kept on our apartment’s balcony in a bucket of water. Only on December 23 it would be placed into its stand and on top of the sideboard in our living/dining room. Then the glass door would be hung with a white sheet and the room declared off-limits. Not that we would have been able to enter anyhow – my parents locked it and kept the key. Of course, the Christ child and his angel helpers had to stay undisturbed.
Christmas Eve in the morning meant that the entire family was in the kitchen, helping my mother with lunch preparations and listening to the radio. It started with carols and Christmas hits, and the later the day, the more festive the program became. A Christmas story with a drawing competition (in which I once won a book) was followed by the President’s Christmas speech at noon, then more Christmassy programs. Around three in the afternoon, we had some coffee and home-made Christmas cookies. And then?
Oh, the anticipation! Of course, it was church time. I could barely sit still to get there. It was so utterly festive and crowded. And, of course, knowing that church bells all over Germany were calling to church at the same time was marvelous. I remember Christmases when extra chairs had to be hauled in to seat every churchgoer – and we were almost sitting on each other’s laps already! During one of my earliest Christmases – I remember was four – I was a little shepherd child in a nativity play, and my line was “Let’s sing a song to the child”, which was followed by the congregation singing “Merrily my heart shall leap”. What a response to my short line! It was almost overwhelming. And “O Sanctissima” sung as the closing choral, standing in a darkened church only lit by the Christmas tree, will give me the goosebumps and stir me to tears for the rest of my life.
After service, there would be a brass group outside church, playing Christmas hymns – they would have been wandering through the neighborhood all afternoon already, playing just for people’s enjoyment; certainly not for money.
Walking home was almost torture – still, when my brother and I were older, we shared the wish to go to a church over a mile away. Just to keep anticipation high.
Back home, we were frozen and gathered in the kitchen again. While my parents were frying white sausages Silesian style, made mashers from scratch, and elevated sauerkraut with some special ingrerients, we listened to the radio again. After dinner, my father went into the living room “to help the Christ child”. And then the soft tinkle of the bell announced that the heavenly guests had left and we could come in.
There it was in all its glory – the Christmas tree covered with tinsel and colored glass balls, fondant and chocolate ornaments, and real burning candles. The gifts lay hidden underneath, carefully covered by the sheet that had hung over the door earlier. Now, don’t think we could have descended on our lovingly wrapped treasures then. We always sang Christmas hymns galore before, and sometimes my brother and I had rehearsed some extra-program for our parents. Only then was the sheet lifted, and we were permitted to unwrap what the Christ child had brought. After the gifting we’d sit together for a while yet, listening to “Concerto grosso fatto per la note di natale” by Arcangelo Corelli and nibbling some of the goodies from the tree or a crystal cookie bowl.
Did I say that all these memories even evoke the fragrance of all the different places we were during Christmas Eve? The kitchen, outdoors, church, the kitchen again, the living room? Not to talk of the sounds – the whispers, the bells, the guitar my father played to accompany our singing, the concerto? The flavors – my mother’s wonderful chicken soup, her cookies and Christstollen, our traditional dinner?
Ah, childhood Christmases – they last us a lifetime. Mine were probably quite modest compared to other people’s. But the family spirit we shared was unique. And the experience of getting ready to celebrate the birthday of Christ. May your Christmas this year be as blessed!
Susan your story was so beautiful. Our childhood Christmases were a lot like yours. My mother is German and she always made our christmases so special. We always celebrated on Christmas Eve and the bell was always rang when Santa came while we waited in my room. We’d all run down the hall to see what Santa brought then we get dressed up and go to midnight mass. We welcomed our first grandson this spring and this Christmas is so special because Christmas joy for me is see the joy and wonder on a child’s face. We look forward to starting traditions with my sons family. So this Christmas Eve I made a complete German meal and we had such a lovely time together. We look forward to watching this beautiful boy grow and to see his joy grow. Creating memories. Thank you.
Susanne Bacon says
Nothing better than to see a child’s eyes gleam with Christmas joy and seeing their faith in the Christmas “magic”. It surely infuses us with memories, too. Thank you for your kind words, Patti, and Merry Christmas to you and your family!
JOHN LEECH says
Great memories Susan – fun to read and think about my family’s traditions too (many of which are passed on to my kids now). Merry Christmas and God Bless you on Christmas and every day – John
Susanne Bacon says
Merry Christmas to you, dear John, Brenda, your “kids”, and their families. And blessings to all of you. It’s so good to know kind, mindful people like you.
Jaynie Jones says
A heartwarming glimpse into your early life and precious memories of Christmas with your family… Thank you for sharing your traditions with us.