"an elegant tapestry of quotations, musings, aphorisms, and autobiographical reflections" (James Atlas)

Thursday, December 16, 2010


"A time-honored practice or set of such practices." I like traditions; in this fast-paced world, they provide constancy and a link to important events, people, and emotions from the past. Every family has its own traditions, and so do groups of friends, colleagues, and whole populations. It's Christmas time, which makes us remember Christmas traditions. I wanted to share a few of my Christmas traditions. These were established by the German and American members of my family, and continued by me, my sister and cousins.
The Christmas season in northern Europe starts will the first of four Sundays before Christmas Day, a period called "Advent". To mark the Sundays, most homes will light candles on a "Advent-Wreath", wound from pine branches and decorated with baubles and berries. Of course, each child must have an "Advent-Calendar"! Opening each little door and finding a chocolate or other surprise is a highlight of the day.
December 6th is St. Nicholas' Day. On this day, children wake up to find a"Rute" - a few tree branches tied together - at the end of their bed. If they've been 'good', the Rute has chocolates hanging from it; if they've been naughty, they just find the bare Rute, or a lump of coal.
All through December, towns have "Christkindl-Markets", and these are very much part of the Christmas tradition. Wrapped up against the cold, and fortified with some mulled wine, these markets are a great place to while away a few hours. The smells are amazing, from the spiced wine exuding smells of cinnamon and cloves, the gingerbread hearts, and of course, the hot chestnuts roasting in a large pan (they keep your fingers warm through your mittens). Not to be missed are the sausages on fresh bread rolls, and the roasted and caramelised nuts. Stand after stand tries to tempt you into buying Christmassy things, and let me tell you, they're quite successful! A typical item is one of the "Zwetschgen-Maenner" (prune men), little people made of prunes and dressed in a variety of costumes; they are local to the Frankfurt area.
In Germany, Christmas is celebrated mainly on 24th December, when the "Christkind" (Christ child) comes in the late afternoon or early evening, announced by the ringing of a bell. The Christmas tree is usually decorated in the afternoon of the 24th, while the children are distracted or baking cookies. Once the bell rang, all the family celebrated, with Christmas music playing, or singing, and the presents were opened. My sister and I always received a plate containing oranges, mandarines, dates, nuts, cookies, and chocolates. When we were little, there was also a doll's house and a little shop to play with. The shop was full of goodies, such as lollies and chocolate coins, which didn't last much past Christmas! Then Mum made dinner, usually a shrimp salad (Dad's favourite), a grilled pork roast with potato salad, and some home made cookies for afters. I still make the pork roast and potato salad on Christmas Eve. If my Grandmother was visiting, we went to midnight mass, well wrapped up because of the cold. In those days, mass was in Latin, and combined with the decorations, the late hour, and well known hymns, it was a special time. Often it snowed, and everybody was dressed in heavy woolen coats.
On Christmas Day, we kids played with our presents, and chatted to relatives on the phone, while Mum was busy making a turkey. This was the American Christmas tradition. Dad loved his turkey, and was happiest when Mum cooked the whole bird. It had all the trimmings, cranberry jelly, mash and gravy, peas and carrots, and little onions in white sauce. She never cooked stuffing, so that's a tradition I started. Other German families ate goose at Christmas, served with potato dumplings and red cabbage. In those days, turkey was not widely available in German shops, so duck or goose, or game was the meat of choice. In the afternoon, we often went for walks, to see how people decorated their home and trees. Before WW2, Christmas lights were unknown in Germany, trees were lit with real candles (resulting in quite a few fires!). Once the US forces were in Germany, they brought the Christmas lights along and so a new tradition was started.
My sister kept all my German grandmother's recipes for cookies and Stollen, a type of Christmas cake. She still uses the recipes to make cinnamon stars, bear paws, coconut macaroons, hazelnut and walnut cookies, butter cookies, and "Spitzbuben" ('rascals'), which are butter cookies baked with a layer of rose hip jam. The American contribution to our cookie collection were toll house cookies, still a favourite of mine. Other seasonal delicacies were "Domino-Steine" (little cookies made from layers of gingerbread, marzipan, and jam, then coated with chocolate. Gingerbread is very popular, and there are many varieties - all of which have to be sampled, of course!
When we were little, Dad got us a real Christmas tree, and it was just magical for us kids. The smell of fresh pine was wonderful. The tree was adorned with home-made decorations made by my sister and me in school, some glass baubles, and lots of tinsel. Can one still find old-fashioned tinsel? Now I have only one glass ornament left from our family tree, a little Santa in a yellow coat, and it always has pride of place on my tree.
Even though I don't have children, I love celebrating Christmas, decorating the house and tree, and finding things that remind me of my heritage. I still like to cook a turkey, complete with stuffing, even if it's just for the two of us (sometime a few 'orphans' come together to celebrate!). I'm not a baker, but might try my hand at baking a batch of butter cookies again this year. I still light candles on the Advent Sundays, no matter if it's 40C outside. I try and get together with as many friends as possible around Christmastime; it's more fun celebrating together. And occasionally, I just have to experience a real German Christmas - and fly off to the real Winter Wonderland! What's your Christmas tradition?