On Christmas Eve morning my sister and I would awaken to find a large bed sheet covering the entrance to our living room. “No peeking” my mother would say. “You want Christkind to come, don’t you?” Not wanting to risk losing out on presents, we’d try and occupy ourselves with play—that was tough to do when we were bursting with excited anticipation. According to my parents, the angels were working their magic in preparation for the arrival of Christkind (Christ Child), the bearer of Christmas presents.
As soon as it got dark (that’s pretty early in Montreal on December 24th) we’d start badgering mom and dad: “Has Christkind arrived?” Unlike Santa, who children see in parades, and at stores and parties, the Christkind is never seen in person. While the figure was deeply meaningful to me, I don’t remember having a clear vision of its physical characteristics, just a vague sense that it resembled an angelic young child.
After what seemed like an eternity, a loud bell would ring (duty of one of the angels) and dad would remove the bedsheet to reveal a nativity scene and a Tannenbaum (Christmas tree/or just a fir tree at all other times of the year) surrounded by heaps of presents.
As young children, we adored this Christmas tradition. We unwaveringly believed that the angels decorated our living room and that Christkind lavished us with gifts. I’m still in awe of how my parents pulled it off. Of course these days with open floor plans it would be much more difficult.
We always started with prayers in front of the nativity scene. My mother was (still is) deeply devoted to her Catholic faith. My dad (never a church-goer) lovingly built the manger out of tree branches and bark. He even added electricity for a lantern that illuminated the scene and a mock fire to keep baby Jesus warm. I loved the beautifully carved wooden figures. The camel was my favourite. To this day, I still set up that original nativity scene that must be 60ish years old (and I always think of my dad who passed away seven years ago). It has become very rickety and I can’t get the electricity to work (sorry dad!)
We’d then sing traditional German Christmas songs led by my mother who has the voice of an angel. Stille Nacht (Silent Night) was and still is one of my favourites. It stems back to 1818, written and composed in a small Austrian town. Take a listen to Stille Nacht as sung by the Dresden Choir in the clip below. It’s magnificent. Who says German is harsh-sounding!
Finally, we’d get to the Bescherung (the giving/opening of gifts). But not before my parents carefully extinguished the candles. Yes, we had real candles on the tree. The Christmas tree, as we now know it, is believed to date back to 16th century Germany when Protestant reformer Martin Luther, awed by the twinkling stars in an evergreen forest, erected a tree inside his home and adorned it with candles.
As I got a little older I still loved our German Christmas tradition, but I also felt the sting of being different. It was weird that Santa, the elves, and the reindeer didn’t play a role in our Christmas. I don’t think I ever tried to explain the Christkind character to my friends. It felt odd that our tree was not up until Christmas Eve (but stayed up until mid-January). It was strange that we didn’t open our presents on Christmas morning like everyone else (and we didn’t have stockings). It was unusual that we ate goose while everyone else was chowing down on turkey. And, I still remember the disapproving looks of some of our neighbours when they saw real candles on our tree.
My parents were steadfast in keeping our German Christmas traditions. They even continued to cover the living room entrance with a bed sheet for years after my sister and I had figured out that mom and dad were working the magic. I’m grateful for this.
While I often think back to the Christmas of my youth at this time of year, I find myself particularly nostalgic this holiday season. I suspect it’s the heightened emotions of a COVID Christmas. My son won’t be home and I’ll only get to see my mom at her care facility for 20 minutes, 2 metres apart. I’m grateful though that Alex is in the company of good friends and my mother is lovingly cared for by wonderful staff. As a result of restrictions, I have a little more time on my hands. Christmas this year is a simpler affair. I have stayed away from the mall. I have less to plan. Less people to cook for (just Mike and me). No parties to go to. I will embrace it for what it is.
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, we all have holiday traditions that are near and dear to our hearts. Is there something that stands out for you? Are you thinking more about traditions this year?
Frohe Weihnachten! Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Here’s to wishing that 2021 will bring back some semblance of normalcy (including travel for all you who’ve been missing it this year). One of my travel wishes is to visit some of the great European Christmas markets.