I wish so much time had not passed since I last posted here. It’s not for lack of wanting to, but rather… waiting. Yes, that is a key word in my life right now. During this season, many are celebrating another kind of waiting. Kids wait for Santa, and much of Christendom observes Advent, waiting for the celebration of Christ’s coming.
This Christmas season has also given me an opportunity to look backwards and reflect on the last year. Aside from some extremely difficult circumstances, I find myself looking back on a year full of blessing and new beginnings. I’ve decided to devote this Christmas post to sharing some of the joy I’ve found in incorporating German traditions back into my family’s celebration of Christmas (Weihnachten).
It seems now more than ever I’m discovering people who have a family appreciation for Old World traditions that their ancestors/relatives carried over with them, whenever they came to the United States. I never had that growing up. I knew my heritage was primarily English, German and Scottish, but other than my mom’s family’s pride in our Scottish heritage (we’re related to William Wallace (“Braveheart”)… and as I sit here, actually, I’m wearing my Wallace tartan flannel), there wasn’t much emphasis placed on any of it.
My English-speaking ancestors have been here since the 1600s/1700s. The Germans came over in the 1800s. They met, fell in love and got married. That was that. I didn’t really know much about my family’s German background except that it was there. I remember my Grandma’s collection of steins, and picking my grandparents up from the airport after they returned from traveling there one year. She had a special shelf built all around her kitchen for all those steins!
Let me just say that I am not pretending to be an expert in any of this stuff! I am new to this and therefore constantly having to laugh at myself, as you will see below. Still, I’ve been enjoying it, and what has blessed me more is that others have shared with me that they too are enjoying it!
One of the first things I discovered was that there was something we’d already been doing for years that hailed from Germany. Advent calendars! Growing up, none of my church traditions included Advent, and at home my understanding of the season was relegated to opening up doors on a little cardboard box filled with chocolate that was “just OK.” I still loved it though, so much that I bought real wooden Advent calendars for each of my children as soon as they were born. I fill it with the good stuff, and sometimes other little gifts, ornaments, etc.
For my personal devotions last December, I read God is in the Manger, a collection of excerpts on Advent from the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others. I also decided to make our scaled-down, 10-people-or-less (we had 7) Christmas dinner into a traditional German dinner. There was Entenbraten (roast duck), Kartoffelklöße (potato dumplings), and Rotkohl (red cabbage). I also made Stollen. Unfortunately, sometimes when I try to bake something special, my oven decides not to cooperate. Somehow, two loaves of Stollen were still devoured!
It was March when the inspiration hit to write Sani. In some ways, the book was just an outgrowth of rediscovering my heritage, and it also gave me a good opportunity to keep looking into things. My curiosity was piqued after writing the 1939 “Sitzkrieg” Christmas scene in Chapters 14 & 15 and I decided that I had to have my own Christmas pyramid.
If you look closely at the wax splattered all over the figure and his immediate surroundings, you can tell that I have had more technical difficulties with this thing than I care to admit. It’s OK, you can laugh with me, or at me! I can handle it. After blowing goop all over, I turned to my husband and said, “Somewhere in a novel, Friedrich Schmidt is laughing at me!” Which of course gave way to inspiration, and if I ever get around to chronicling the few short years of Frederick’s parents’ life together, I’m going to have to work this in somehow. These are the things a writer needs real life experience to be able to share. I can hear Friedrich (lovingly) laughing at Hannah as she too splatters candle wax all over the Christmas pyramid. He tells her to “let a real German do it…” At which point she steps aside, straightens her apron and informs him she’s going to make another batch of shortbread. (You see? Even my fictional Germans and Scots fell in love and got married.)
As an aside, if you want to read a little more about this sweet couple, I wrote a little piece back on Memorial Day about his departure for World War I. It’s more from her perspective than his. I just love them.
Along with the pyramid, I decided I wanted to make an Advent wreath this year. Partially inspired by a couple of posts I saw online, and Cate from International Desserts Blog‘s How to Christmas Like a German.
From what I’ve read, there are a range of Advent traditions even within the Church all over the world, and admittedly my wreath is non-traditional. I’ve included four candles, because the fifth is optional, although in terms of symbolism, the fifth is the most important one! I will likely modify it in order to add the fifth, or keep it somewhere close by.
For others like me who have little or no background in celebrating the Advent season, I’ll give a little summary of what I learned this year. The colors vary depending on denomination and tradition, but I’ve often seen three lavender, one pink and one white. There is a large outdoor display at a church nearby. The first four sit in a circle with the white candle in the middle. Beginning four Sundays before Christmas, the first purple candle is lit. It stands for the prophets and prophecies about the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. It also is called the Hope candle. The next Sunday, the first two purple candles are lit. The second candle is the Bethlehem candle. It signifies Peace. The next Sunday, the pink or rose candle is also lit along with the first two. It is the Shepherds’ candle, and signifies Joy. Then the Sunday before Christmas, the fourth candle on the wreath is lit. It is the Angels’ candle and signifies Love. The white candle in the center would then represent Christmas Day, and Christ’s birth. I haven’t looked into why this is “optional,” but I read that this tradition was initiated for children in an orphanage, who could not otherwise keep track of time and kept asking how close they were getting to Christmas.
As I said, in hindsight, I would like to include the Christmas Day candle because it represents the very reason Advent is celebrated. However, there are other ways in which I try to remind the children of why we are celebrating Advent. Moving aside from German traditions for a moment, another tradition we started last year is listening to Jotham’s Journey, which was highly recommended to me in a homeschool group on Facebook (up until this year I was a homeschool mom). Admittedly, we pretty much listened to it straight thru over a few days last year, but this year we’re going along with the Advent season. The story can get a bit scary in some parts but my children are enjoying it, and it helps us keep the focus on Christ’s coming.
Something new I added this year was Zimtsterne! Here is the recipe I’ve used twice already! I actually intended to make a third batch but life got in the way. Seriously, where have these little cinnamon almond cookies been all my life?! Notably, I had the same reaction to sauerkraut and schnitzel… but that’s a post for another time.
This year, we attempted to observe Sankt Niklaus day for the first time as well. The kids were very excited to come down on December 6th and find a few treats and toys stuck in their shoes. Sankt Niklaus had no scary counterpart traveling with him, however… and honestly “he” almost forgot entirely until “he” was busy packing school lunches that morning! There are some variations in the history of the legend of Sankt Niklaus, but we read a beautiful story a few years ago about a father and his three daughters. They were poor and had lost their mother. Niklaus, wanting to help the family, threw a few bags of money in the window of their small home, and they landed right in the girls’ shoes. It was a very sweet rendition of the story and I’m hoping I may be able to find it some day amongst all our old homeschool materials.
I also looked into the Christmas pickle thing… no, it’s not actually a German tradition, although mine was made in Germany. You can go here for the article I read, and a lot of others online say basically the same thing. It’s kind of funny at any rate. Perhaps they are humoring those of us who are a few generations removed… 🥒
Finally, it wouldn’t be Christmas without music, right? Here are two of my favorites, although I could add many more:
O du fröhliche, o du selige (traditional Christmas hymn with English subtitles!)
Freue dich Welt (a fun rendition of “Joy to the World” by German group Outbreak Band feat. YADA Worship and O’bros)
And now, I leave you with one more reason to laugh with me (or at me). I was very excited about painting this sign, and worked hard to find a font online that I absolutely loved, and then copy it to perfection… except that in my zeal I did not realize that I had spelled “Frohe Weihnachten” wrong when I input it on the computer. I considered making a game out of it the next time we have a Christmas gathering, the first person to spell Weihnachten correctly gets to take it home as a prize. I’m kind of attached to it now, though, and will probably keep it as a conversation piece!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my story of “Welcoming Weihnachten” into our home. As I sit here now, it will be Christmas Eve (Heiligabend) in 1 week, so I may have a few more stories to tell after we wrap up this holiday season. Until then, Frohe Weihnachten und Frohes neues Jahr!