Today my post is by a guest author, sharing first-hand memories of what Christmas was like for the children of Germany two generations ago.
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One of us always wanted to be the first to pull the 30th of November off the calendar, because Dec. 1 marked the beginning of the Christmas season.
The Advent calendar was taped on the window pane, the Advent wreath was hung around the kitchen lamp, the stores were suddenly full of wonder and magic and angel hair, and children began to write their Christmas lists.
Mama would say, “Remember, Sankt Nikolaus is keeping books on everything.” Every time she reminded me I tried very hard not to commit the slightest infraction of the rules and never say, or even think an unkind word. To my sister, the angel, that came natural, and the baby had no rules and couldn’t talk. To be quite honest though, I was always tempted to test Sankt Nikolaus’ omniscience – (or mother’s memory, which I suspected of being an able and willing informer). The only thing which kept me from being tagged incorrigible was the thought of Sankt Nikolaus’ fearsome companion, Krampus, who was known to lack understanding for temperaments such as mine.
I suppose the underlying idea which was being instilled in us was that “You can’t have what you wish for unless you earn it with virtue.”
On the evening of Dec. 6, (Sankt Nikolaus Day), the children in Germany eagerly await, or dread, the “hour of judgment.” Mothers prepare a festive table with Spekulatius and Pfeffernuesse (the traditional Christmas cookies) and lighted candles as a welcome for the honored visitors. Father is, for different reasons, always out until after “it’s over,” and wide eyed, fidgety children sit humbly on the living room floor. (But no matter how hard you try to look humble, you appear to be holding your breath and jump at the sound of the doorbell.)
Our Sankt Nikolaus was a tall, slender, awe inspiring, yet gentle, figure dressed in a white robe trimmed with gold braid. He wore a tall, pointed bishop’s hat set above kindly eyes and a resolute mouth made softer by the white, wavy beard. With a faint smile and soothing voice, he read from the list of nice and naughty things we had done, and he was surprisingly accurate.
“Well, I will see you all again next year, and I trust I will have nothing but good things to say. God bless.” He patted us gently on the head, winked at Mother and slowly disappeared into the hall.
Then suddenly Krampus appeared in the door. My little sister’s eyes widened, and she gripped my arm. And Krampus did look fearsome! Dressed in black from hood to boot, he carried a switch torn from a tree and a rope in one hand, and a sack flung over his shoulder in the other.
Without saying a word…his kind doesn’t talk…they just get physical…Krampus struck the floor with his switch as he aimed for my legs. At that point I thought I would faint. But then he turned on his heels and quickly left the room. How I wished Papa had been there to see such cruelty to helpless children! But fathers are always out of the room then because they have such important things to do.
Mother, who always had that twinkle in her eyes (a mixture of understanding and gentle reproach) looked at us and said, “Now, remember, you have time to make amends; so be good and keep praying for Christkindl to come.”
Every day until Christmas Eve was a new delight. Every morning we would politely take turns at opening a new window in the Advent calendar, would listen with both ears when Mama or Papa spoke, and were grateful for every encouraging note contained in the 24 little drawers of the Christmas House.
Frau Holly, the fairytale lady in the sky, was shaking her featherbeds and pillows just at a time when the layer of snow wore thin under the sleds, or the frozen leaves clung to the boots when we played in the nearby woods.
Frau Holly, you see, would shake the bedding so hard that the seams popped and all the feathers and down spilled out and made the sky white. We would catch the gaily dancing feathers and watch them melt in our hands.
And our little Bavarian town, surrounded by dark, dense, whispering pines, was the loveliest place on earth.
A day or two before Christmas, Papa would cut a fresh tree in the woods so tall that the star which adorned its tip would touch the ceiling. No one was allowed in the living room; all the hoping, the wondering, the preparing, was done in the family kitchen. At 6 o’clock on the dot, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of baked fish was served. The magic hour of 7 o’clock seemed an eternity away.
With pounding hearts and flushed faces and deep faith in Christkindl, we’d wait for Papa to ring the bell from the living room. Then we would all rush to the door at once, and there, in the opposite corner of the room, stood the Christmas tree, decorated with white and silvery balls and angel hair, white candles lit to bathe the room in shimmering light, and Wunderkerzen throwing off sparks reflected in children’s eyes.
As Papa passed out the presents, the excitement melted into a warm and sublime feeling of happiness and love.
And I quietly vowed, from that day forward, to always be good and kind and forgiving … just like Christkindl.
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Thanks Mom! I can never hear this story too many times. I love you!
For a first-hand telling of my own–rather humorous–childhood Christmases, showing the strong German traditions even while growing up in the U.S., you can read my article here.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoy hearing it. Merry Christmas! And may the Christ child, the Savior, Emmanuel, be with you always.
Photo credits: The photo of St. Nikolaus and Krampus is courtesy of Terrie Schweitzer at Flickr, “St. Nicholas and Krampus”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/terriem/11285200115/. The gorgeous advent calendar is courtesy of Richard Ernst Kepler [Public domain], https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Ernst_Kepler_-_Im_Lande_des_Christkinds.jpg. The lovely winter scene is courtesy of MaxPixel CC0 Public Domain “Snow, Snowfall, Lantern, Lights, Light, Christmas, Mood” https://www.maxpixel.net/Christmas-Snow-Lights-Lantern-Light-Mood-Snowfall-1782614 . The above black and white photos are from my mom’s scrapbook, and the last color photo is from my camera.
6 thoughts on “A German Christmas”
Thank you for this delightful window into the innocence and social training of Christmas in Germany. Being good is hard work, but it makes life happier than a tree full of presents!
“Being good is hard work…” What a statement–can I quote you to my German mother and relatives? No doubt, they would give their hearty agreement!
Very interesting traditions and shared in the best way – from a child’s point of view! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks so much, Cynthia, I’m glad others can enjoy it too!
Such a fun post to read!
So glad you enjoyed it, Marcia, it was fun to hear my mom tell about her childhood.