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A German-American Christmas: Then and Now (Part 1)

One of our favorite things about Alphabet Garten is that we get to know our wonderful customers like Eleanor O, who shares her love of German traditions, culture and language with her granddaughters, extended family, and friends. Eleanor graciously shares her Christmas memories from the 1940s in the first of a 2 part series “A German-American Christmas: Then and Now”. 

Christmas in my family began before Thanksgiving. Most of the family get-togethers  around holidays like Easter, and Christmas were at our house but Thanksgiving, that  wonderful American idea of a holiday was dispatched to my Aunt’s house because our kitchen was already taken over by baking. My mother had the skill and the patience to  make a dozen varieties of cookies that everyone waited for year after year. We started  with the Springerle, they had to “cure”, to soften a bit. There were Spekulatius, Ausstecherle, Vanillkipferl, Pfeffernüsse, Zimtstern that had to have their meringue-like  glaze painted on with the tip of a paring knife, Anise Tröpfchen and her specialty, Spitzbuben made with almond paste that she bought in five pound tins from a German baker nearby. Over the years she added American cookies to her repertoire, Lemon Dream Bars, Pecan Toffee Bars, Double Chocolate Fudge Bars and, of course she made chocolate chips for me.

Most of these cookies would get divided amongst paper plates with a poinsettia motif,  wrapped in white tissue, tied with red & green crinkle-tie ribbon and brought to neighbors and friends. But there were still enough left to last until February, at least. Since this was the United States the exchange of cookies would yield babkas, and other kinds of Christmas breads, bottles of home-made wine, often made from cherries, and all manner of sweet crunchy things, deep-fried and dusted with heaps of sugar.

If we had any other chore on the week of Thanksgiving, it was finding greens to make an Advent wreath. Not as easy as it is today because the Christmas season did not start in the stores and flower shops until the Thanksgiving leftovers had been put away. We used red candles back then.

All this preparation led to a crescendo of excitement that culminated in Christmas Eve. Like every other little child in the Sunday school I had to memorize a “piece”. Dressed in my new Christmas dress, with neatly braided hair, new ribbons tied at the ends and brand new patent leather Mary Janes, I took my turn to recite my piece before the whole congregation. The church was always packed on Christmas Eve. The youngest went first and it always ended with a reenactment of the first Christmas. Eventually I graduated to the pageant. My greatest role was the Angel who appeared to the shepherds. I was allowed to undo my long braids and wear my hair loose. I was squirreled away in the pulpit and had to remain there–quietly–throughout the entire evening. On cue I jumped up in the pulpit and shouted “Fear not! For I have brought you glad tidings of great joy. . .” Even my parents, who knew I was supposed to appear at some point were startled. Fortunately none of the elderly parishioners suffered a heart attack. I retired after that.

After the service Santa Claus arrived and gave each child a box shaped like a house, made of old Christmas cards and laced together with red yarn.This was a specialty of the Ladies Aid Society. They must have produced hundreds and hundreds of them over the years. One side of the roof lifted up and inside was one tangerine, and a nice assortment of hard candies, nuts and a few chocolates and caramels wrapped in foil. Eventually we figured out who in the congregation played Santa. The Christkind did not figure into this tradition. After all, one never saw the Christkind. It came while you were away in the evening visiting Oma or going to church. When you came home, It had been there. The Christmas tree that we had trimmed on the fourth Sunday in Advent was now sheltering a pile of presents.

We would come home from the Christmas Eve service to discover that Santa Claus hadn’t forgotten. As always he came to our house early because he had so many stops to make. Pity the poor children that had to go to bed and wait until the next morning! The Christkind, it was explained, was busy in Germany and it was difficult because there was a war going on and the people were very poor. I was lucky to be in America I was told, and I should remember the little German children in my prayers–which I did.

Christmas Eve was always finished off with a huge midnight “lunch”. The Pieçe de Resistance was my mother’s Brat Herring, fried a week earlier in the cellar so as not to smell up the whole house and carefully pickled. All the dishes were cold, the salads and the cold cuts and the great German breads and Brötchen that we drove across town to buy just for this meal.

No rest for the weary, we had to be up the next morning for another church service but it was anticlimactic. Sure, we wore little bits and pieces of stuff we had received for Christmas but the festiveness and and the anticipation of Heiligenabend was over. On the way home from church, we always visited the same friends and dropped off plates of cookies.

Copyright 2013 Eleanor O., Used by permission.

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2 comments to A German-American Christmas: Then and Now (Part 1)

  • Joan Stallard

    Great Christmas story from Eleanor O. My Mother also baked for weeks ahead and prepared loads of cookie plates for lucky friends and neighbors. I tried it one year only and was exhausted from the effort.
    Joan

  • How wonderful to read Eleanor’s recount of Christmas from when she was a child. It brought back many memories, some similar to hers, and others not.

    I always find it amazing how food brings memories to the forefront. Isn’t that one of the reasons we keep certain foods for certain holidays? It helps one recall the occasion. There’s just something ‘wrong’ with having Lebkuchen and Stollen anytime other than Christmas. But bring them out a couple of weeks before Christmas, during advent, and there’s excitement in the air: Christmas is on its way!

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful memory! Looking forward to the next part!

    Blessings and,
    Frohe Weihnachten!

    Gerhild Fulson

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