Last week, I found myself sitting in front of 23 first graders. My daughter’s teacher had asked me to share some German Christmas traditions with the class.
Instead of rattling off various traditions, I decided to tell them a story. A story about Christmas in a small village in East Germany. And it went something like this….
A long time ago, when I was 7 years old, I lived in a small village in Germany. On one side of the village was a river where we ice skated when it was frozen. On the other side of the village was the forest. It was home to many deer, foxes and wild boars.
When December came around everyone in the village began to prepare for Christmas. Families ventured out into the woods to gather evergreen branches. We used the branches and pine cones to make fragrant arrangements with tall candles in the center. We also had an advent wreath with 4 red candles and a Christmas pyramide. Each Sunday, the Christmas pyramid and a candle on the wreath was lit, and we spent the afternoon with family and friends enjoying Christmas cookies, coffee and milk for the children. [This is a picture of the Christmas pyramid we have now.)
One such Sunday evening, we were walking back home from our grandmother’s house. It was dark but all around us was a sea of flickering lights. The lights were coming from Schwippboegen in the windows and they were lit up with candles and electric lights. Schwippbogen are beautifully handcrafted wooden or metal arches depicting artisan traits, religious scenes, town centers, musicians and more. [This is a picture of our Schwippbogen.]
After many days of opening our advent calendars, baking and eating cookies, Christmas Eve finally arrived. It was early afternoon, when my mom told me and my sister to go into our room and then locked the door behind us.
“She locked you in your room?” one girl asked with wide eyes.
“Yes, she did!” I replied.
We could hear her carrying boxes into the living room. My younger sister and I took turns peeking through the keyhole to catch a glimpse of all the activity. Of course, we weren’t as quiet as we thought we were and my mom quickly covered up the keyhole. So, we turned our attention to the window to see if Santa Clause was on his way.
“He came during the day?” one student asked rather perplexed.
“Yes, in Germany, Santa Clause comes in the evening when everyone is awake. So that Christmas Eve, my sister and I patiently waited until we were allowed into the living room. We were greeted by a brightly lit Christmas tree and our beloved doll house, which only came out at Christmas every year and was stored away again after 4 weeks. We were immersed in our play when we suddenly heard that familiar knocking on the door.
Santa was here!
He walked into the living room, put down his sack and looked around. He reached into the sack, pulled out the first present and read the tag, “Noreen“. The only thing that went through my mind was ‘Please don’t ask me to sing a song.’ (I was and still am a terrible singer). To my great relief he requested a poem. I rattled if off as fast as I could and received my first present. My sister was up next, followed by my mom, grandmother and the rest of the family.
~ ~ ~
This is where the story ended for my daughter’s classmates. But the real magic lies in what I’m about to tell you now.
While my mom decorated the tree, my sister and I were looking out the window waiting for “our” Santa to arrive. What do I mean by “our”? You see, friends or family members would dress up as Santa Clause to give the children their presents. We would usually see two or three Santa Clauses walking up or down the street and with each sighting our excitement would rise. Would it be the ONE?
As I got older I could usually figure out who was playing Santa Clause but it never seemed to matter. I still enjoyed the ritual of eagerly waiting and then reciting a poem or song per Santa’s request before receiving my presents.
Most of what we knew about Santa came from our imagination. Back then we didn’t watch Christmas movies or visited Santa at the mall or read books about him. The magic came from within and it brought so much joy. We had no desire to question any of it.
When our daughter was 4 months old we went to Germany for Christmas. The moment Santa stepped into my mom’s living room that Christmas Eve, I was filled with the same joy I felt when I was 7. The only difference was that nobody in my family had any idea who that Santa was. Everyone was accounted for (unlike during my childhood when my uncle always happened to step outside when Santa came). We had a hunch that it may have been our neighbor’s son but not one person thought to look out the window to see where this mysterious Santa was heading to. We all wanted to believe and so the magic lived on.
When our daughter was born, my husband and I decided to celebrate Christmas the German way. We knew we would have to create a mix of German and American traditions eventually when our kids would get older and learn about Santa coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. We thought this would be the year. Both of our children, now 3 and 6, know about Santa dropping off presents overnight. But when I asked my daughter when she thinks Santa will come this year, she was certain he would stop by on Christmas Eve as he always has.
And so the tradition continues for at least another year.