Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas like it Used to Be

Every year when Christmas looms on the horizon, I start longing for home- the land of my childhood and Christmas memories. In Germany, we celebrate on Christmas Eve or Heiligabend as it is called in German. Leading up to it is Advent, starting four Sundays before Christmas, marked by lighting a candle each week on an advent wreath. This is usually kept on the table in the family room where, in the old days, the family gathered and sang Christmas carols.

On 1 December, the tradition is to give children an advent calendar with little doors numbered 1-24, each containing a piece of chocolate.  It makes counting the days and the wait till Christmas easier impatient for  little souls. If you like crafts you can make your own. I used to tie 24 little parcels on a ribbon or garland, filled with mini something’s like candy, tiny toys, or crayons.

Everybody loves St. Nicholas who, on Dec 6, rewards children that have been good during the year by placing little surprises in their boots. Every child puts her pair outside the door that night. Of course they need polishing first. Naughty children only receive a fir twig, a little symbolic punishment. This tradition survives from pre-politically correct days, but it is always mitigated by some goodies.

We exchange our gifts on Christmas Eve. Until then all the presents are well hidden somewhere, not always easy under prying eyes. The 24th is a busy day marked by secret preparations, with the parents sneaking in and out of the living room where the tree is decorated behind closed doors. The tree has to be a real one, often a noble fir.

My parents had an understanding that Papa would take me out in the car pretending to do a last minute errand while Mama got everything ready including a special meal.

After dark, with all the family washed and dressed up waiting around, a mysterious little bell was heard. That was the sign that Father Christmas had graced us with a visit. The door of the living room would open revealing a tree with real candles and the presents laid out underneath. Children’s eyes would glaze over at this stage; carol singing was to follow before anybody was allowed to open presents. Kids would play till late, but also allow their parents to sleep in the morning.

When we moved abroad we kept up this tradition although it meant hard work. We were facing a tidal wave of early presents and artificial trees with electrical fairy lights all around us. For the neighbors’ kids it was hard to comprehend why Santa Claus would make an exception for Germans and come early.

I can still smell the aromas of fresh Christmas cookies and the combined fragrance of fir trees and candles. For me there is no fascination in electric lights. Naturally, you have to be vigilant and watch the tree at all times; and yes, occasionally someone would have a fire. For extra safety, some people have a bucket of water at the ready. It’s best to blow out the candles when you leave the room.

Stollen, marzipan and advent calendars are available here. But in shorts and T-shirts and with the kids having flown the nest it’s not the same. Maybe with the arrival of the next generation and the patter of little feet, I’ll regain my enthusiasm.


  1. You remind me of my German friend from years ago who always had a real tree with lighted candles and gifts on Christmas eve. Her family moved across the country a few years ago, but I still remember her on Dec. 24.

    Merry Christmas!

    Mary Montague Sikes

  2. Holy Evening came and went.To the surprise of my in-laws and hubby, I didn't burn down the house on 2 consecutive evenings.I'll give it another try tonight and then the tree is too dry and has to go.