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

After sharing her childhood memories in Part 1 of “A German-American Christmas: Then and Now”, Eleanor O. reminisces about her family’s current holiday traditions. She is passing on her love of German traditions, culture and language to her granddaughters, extended family, and friends. 

I met Elke through another Kindergarten parent. I had a five year old and a three year old, she had a four year old and spoke English with just a hint of an accent. Someone said she was from Romania. I knew nothing about Romania. We talked about kids. Shortly before Christmas, she invited us to join with a “few” friends to celebrate Christmas Eve. That sounded like a nice idea.

I will never forget walking into the festivities at Elke and Jeffrey’s that first time. There were about 30 people! The dining room table was covered from edge to edge with far more traditional German food than I had ever seen in one place. There was Fleischsalat and Herringsalat, potato salad like I remembered it, smoked salmon, shrimp with dill, great heaps of vegetable salads, great pumpernickel. Where did she find the Brötchen? But first there were “The Spoons”.

As soon as we arrived and gave up our coats we were all handed fairly large round pewter spoons. We stood around Elke and Jeffrey holding our spoons very level. Into each one a generous amount of very strong Schnapps was poured. The two of them recited a call and response poem in Platt Deutsch which none of us (including the two of them) understood. It ended with the toast, “Prosit!” then we all shout: “Prosit!” and toss back the Schnapps. The more faint-hearted among us shudder a bit. It is strong stuff. From then on we have a rollicking good time. As each group of guests arrives, they repeat the spoons. Some of us join in a second time. Some of us politely decline, because. . . 

There was a huge selection of things to drink but we did not get past the Feuerzangenbowle. In the early years, Jeffrey was a bit shaky at getting the thing lit but now, 35 years later, he is quite the expert. On every surface and end table, there were beautiful trays of cookies. Marching all along the plate molding of the dining room and the hallway were beautiful hand-painted cookies each one at least 10-12 inches tall.  There were noblemen in fancy Renaissance dress and ladies perched on horses with elegant saddles and bridles trimmed in frosting pearls and curlicues.

 In the living room was a huge tree decorated entirely with hand painted cookies, tiny apples, sugar ornaments, candy canes, foil covered goodies. and real candles! At a certain point the lights were dimmed, we all gathered around the tree and began singing carols. The children were each given a long match and sent forward to light the candles. The littlest ones were lifted up to light the candles near the top of the tree.

We started the singing with “Oh, Tannenbaum”. Those of us who remembered, sang it in German. We closed with “Stille Nacht”. For many years the children were sent upstairs to prepare a play. It was usually a take-off on St. George and the Dragon with corny elements of “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” mixed in. Some years the children prepared little musical presentations on the piano or played recorder duets. But the mummers plays lasted the longest until most of the children were in high school. The plays were finished off one year with a series of couplets in doggerel rhyme that said with a flourish that they hoped we enjoyed the show because it would never be presented again.

On the way out the door, each child was handed one of those giant cookies. The children  are grown but still come home for Christmas whenever they can. They bring their fiancées, spouses and children. Other than that the guest list hasn’t changed much. But modern children have bedtimes. They lead very busy little lives and do not have time to prepare a “piece” or learn a song. But once a year we all still experience the festivity and the solemnity that is Heiligenbend.

© 2013 Eleanor Oliver  (Used by permission)


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