Traditions are an interesting thing, especially in mixed-culture families. Many people hold great value onto the traditions they had as a child, so when each parent has a unique experience, the blending of that can create a new tradition that is a wonderful mesh of all the best aspects of both worlds. Germans and Americans have a few similarities but also many differences when it comes to their Christmas traditions. When I was growing up in Connecticut, I remember many things that our German American family did that were unique from the other kids I knew from school, and those differences were something that helped define me as a person and build a sense of identity as I grew older.
Getting ready for our German American Christmas
The first thing I remember is getting the Advent bowl put together. My dad would go outside and cut some pine to fill the bowl, and melt the candles upside down to get the wax in the candle holders so they would stay put. This normally happened right after Thanksgiving. As Christmas drew closer, each week we would light another candle in the bowl.
I also remember putting my shoes outside of my bedroom door for St. Nikolaus on December 6th, and waking up the next morning to find them filled with candy.
Another thing we did each year was have an Adventskalendar. One of things I loved about the Advents Calender was that it had doors with chocolate behind them. So every day, you had one piece of chocolate as you got closer to Christmas (and invariably you could never wait to get to the last day because the piece of chocolate was huge!). We would always buy our Adventskalender at the German school that I attended on Saturdays.
Another unique tradition we carried on was “tagging” our tree (instead of cut it down). I wouldn’t even see our Christmas tree until Christmas Eve (Heilige Abend). I remember going to the tree farm and picking out just the perfect tree, and putting some ribbon on it; to make sure that the Christkind knew which tree was ours (followed by hot chocolate at Dunkin’ Donuts!). My father would always have a Schnapps with the owner of the Christmas tree farm, who was also a German.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
The best part of Christmas, though, was seeing the tree for the first time on Christmas eve. Our house had a somewhat open floor plan, so starting 2 days or so before Christmas Eve I would wake up and there would be sheets pinned up against the wall so we couldn’t see what was going on. My father always told me the Engeln (angels) were getting the tree ready for Christmas. There was always Christmas music playing (although admittedly it was typical American Christmas music).
On Christmas Eve, we would all dress up in nice clothes. The entire family would go to one of the bedrooms and we would wait for the Engeln to finish their work preparing the tree. We would eat shrimp cocktail and played some board games. The excitement my sister and I had was almost palpable. At some point, we would hear a bell ring – this indicated we could go see the tree for the first time. I’ll always remember walking down that hallway from the bedroom to the living room and turning the corner to see a tree (lit only with white lights) with loads of presents under it from the Christkind. It was also adorned with very old Christmas ornaments that had been passed down from generation to generation, including beautiful hand-carved wooden ornaments.
We also always had real candles on the tree (along with a fire extinguisher next to it , those candles were only lit when we were in the room!), which is definitely only possible for a fresh tree and for safety reasons I would have a hard time recommending anyone use real candles on their own trees.
Before we were allowed to open any presents, my sister and I had to sing a song. We had an electronic keyboard and normally did “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) while my father videotaped and took photos. After that, we were able to open up a few presents. My mother would always make a beautiful gingerbread house as well that we would nibble the candy from.
We never opened up all the presents right away, though. We would have dinner in between. I remember it varying but normally we would have either a nice fondue (I loved cooking meat in the fondue with the dipping sauces) or a nice steak (like a filet). It was quite a treat!
After dinner, we would go back and open more presents and exchange all of our cards and gifts with each other. We had stockings hanging on the mantle, but they were still empty.
After we went to bed, the next morning we would get up excited – because hey, we are in America and not only does the Christkind visit our house; but so does Santa! So we did the typical American Christmas the next morning – waking up our parents by jumping on their bed at 5:30 in the morning and then running in to find even more presents as well as our stockings stuffed to the brim. The rest of the day was spent playing with everything we received and continuing to eat more Gingerbread house parts.
Another great thing about our tree arriving in our home so late, was that it stayed later than everyone else I knew. Most of my friends had their trees already out of the house by New Year’s. Our tree would stay up until well into January. We would hang and light sparklers from the tree on New Years Eve. (Again, not so sure about how great that idea was in retrospect from a flammability perspective!)
How have you merged your Christmas traditions?
All in all, these blending of traditions, to me, created a unique experience that I felt very strongly about. I loved that my Christmas was different from my friends in America, but also that I was able to experience some of the same things (like Santa on Christmas morning) that my friends experienced.
What kind of traditions do you have in your house? How do you blend German and American traditions together for a unique Christmas experience? Visit our forums and discuss it with other I’m German members!