My German Christmas Tradition

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.

Categories: Germany | Tags: , , , | 64 Comments

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64 thoughts on “My German Christmas Tradition

  1. I like the Christmas market, hope I can join the event this year ^0^”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a beautiful tradition. Enjoyed the read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, earlier I had read the story of Christmas in a history book, between the German soldiers who were young, between ice and bullets, ——- I could not forget that painful story for many days today Read the story of Germany again, completely different. A GREAT POST WITH WONDERFUL IMAGES GOD BLESS YOU

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m happy that this was an uplifting post for you. Yes, I’m sure there are many painful stories about Christmas (and other special days of all faiths) during the turmoils of war.
      Your comment about the German soldiers made me think of a happier story (at least momentarily) of the 1914 Christmas truce where German and British soldiers on the Western Front laid down their arms and celebrated together. Maybe you know this story: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914

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  4. Caroline this post is so full of heartwarming nostalgia and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Love that your parents created such personal and meaningful traditions around Christmas as a way of preserving their German heritage. Real candles on the tree sound quite incredible ~ must have been beautiful!
    Wonderful post and happy new year to you both!

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Peta! I’m very grateful that I can look back with such fondness on our family’s Christmas tradition. The candles on the tree were a source of delight and horror. As a young child, I didn’t think about it much, only that the candles looked pretty. Later, I remember getting quite panicy with thoughts about our house going up in flames. Thankfully, my parents were super cautious.
      It was nice to get you email and see that your blog is alive and well!

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  5. As someone who also didn’t have the normalized American holiday tradition as a child growing up in the US, I understand that sting…and I regret that what mattered to me back then was some illusionary standard of normal. This year and for much of 2020 I too have been thinking a lot more about tradition and continuity and also about the sort of authenticity that is courageous enough to honor what is within without needing to denigrate another’s. Wishing you all the best in 2021 and sending so much gratitude to you for your friendship and encouragement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments Atreyee. I contemplated about whether to add that paragraph about feeling different. Overall, I had a wonderful childhood in the Montreal suburbs, but there is no doubt that being of German heritage caused me some anxiety while growing up in the 60s and 70s—much of it self-inflicted. It would be nice to return to those days with the confidence and gratitude that I’m acquiring later in life.
      It sounds like 2020 has been a contemplative year for you as well. All the very best to you as you continue to navigate this interesting life journey!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a beautiful, nostalgic entry, Caroline. I had no idea about German Christmas traditions and am now curious if my German brother-in-law grew up with the same sort of practices. His family history is like the reverse of yours. He was born in Kazakhstan and his family returned to Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall – apparently their ancestors migrated to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great!

    Sadly, gift-giving has become less and less of a feature of family Christmases back in Hong Kong. I remember waking up extra early one Christmas Day when I was nine or 10 to unwrap a Lego set of a pirate’s hideout complete with rowboats and little cannons that could “fire” miniature cannonballs. My mom made it a point for us to sing carols with our cousins during Christmas dinner at my grandparents’ place each year (something Bama took part in several times).

    Up until a couple of years ago my family would spend an afternoon assembling and decorating a plastic Christmas tree with the usual baubles and tinsel and Santa-themed ornaments. Then there was the food! Apart from roast turkey with stuffing, other unmissable treats for us include Italian sweet breads like panettone and pandoro (which we would often eat for breakfast). Sometimes relatives would also gift us with a Christmas cake topped by an edible Santa’s house or a little castle made out of chocolate, fondant, and gumdrops.

    Although Alex couldn’t be with you this Christmas, I hope you still managed to enjoy the low-key celebration at home. Happy New Year and here’s to hoping you and Mike get a chance to go on your next overseas cycling trip in the not-too-distant future!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi James! Thank you for your lovely comments. The history of your brother-in-law’s family sounds fascinating. I’m sure he has some interesting stories and traditions that span multiple cultures.
      I can hear the delight in your voice about that Lego set you received when you were a child. Miniature cannons that really “worked”–how cool! I think carol singing figures prominently in many people’s Christmas traditions. As much as I enjoyed this, I remember getting impatient with my mother after she suggested yet another round of singing before we finally got to the presents.
      You had quite the over-the-top Christmas feast. I’ve tried the delicious panettone at a friend’s house. May I ask what the Italian connection is for your family? I know some of your family ventured out to Canada, and I believe Europe. Just curious.
      Funny you should mention the overseas cycling trips. Last night, Mike and I were reminiscing about our trip to Brittany/Normandy and wondering whether we might be able to explore another region via bicycle later this year. I’m not booking anything yet, but it’s nice to start thinking it could be possible.
      All the very best to you in 2021!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Caroline! Funny thing is, there isn’t actually an Italian connection – my mom is a bread fiend and we’ve been having panettone at Christmas for years despite having no real ties to Italy. The treats are seasonally available at neighborhood supermarkets in Hong Kong and elsewhere around Asia (I’ve even spotted them here in Jakarta!). As for pandoro, that was something my brother introduced to the family after finding it in a specialty Italian store one winter.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Jaguar Holle

    Hi Caroline: Once again I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog mostly about your German Christmas traditions while you were growing up.. You are such a beautiful writer, that I can visualize “in my mind’s eye” just how things unfolded in the Helbig household in Beaconsfield and Tyandaga Park Drive in Burlington. I’m certain both your Mom and Dad would be justifiably proud of you.. I wish you and yours a GREAT 2021 and please wish your Mom the same thing for me… JIM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you and your family, Jim! Thank you so much for your lovely comments.Those Beaconsfield years are so long ago now, but some of my memories, like our Christmas tradition, feel like yesterday. I’m really grateful for the friendship and kindness you’ve shown my parents all these years.

      Like

  8. I grew up in a a rural community in Saskatchewan that was primarily made up of German immigrants. We always opened our presents on Christmas Eve but after midnight mass if you can imagine. Somehow the presents arrived while we were at church. I have no idea how my parents did it. My Grandam used to sing Silent Night in German. It’s one of my favourite childhood memories. Thank you for the description of your youth. It brought back a flood of my own memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You guys could last until after midnight mass! And the presents miraculously appeared! That’s impressive! When we were little kids, my mom would go to midnight mass herself (gave my dad a good excuse to stay home). She’d then go again with us on Christmas morning. I have fond memories of midnight mass as an older child. I always loved the choir and singing the beautiful carols. I’m glad my post brought back some good Christmas memories from your childhood Sue.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I think it’s nice that your parents kept up those traditions. They seem similar to the ones that my dad grew up with. He didn’t carry them on with our family but rather started his own tradition of stringing garlands of popcorn and cranberries for our tree. By the time I was a teenager, I thought they looked pretty awful but I would faithfully join my dad every year, making numerous long strands. Despite countless repetitions of poking a sewing needle into my fingertips as I threaded the berries, I enjoyed the quirkiness of the activity and above all seeing the pleasure that it brought to my father’s face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is such a nice story Carol! I think it’s awesome that you kept up this tradition with your father through your teenage years and recognized the joy that it brought him. I’m sure doing this activity together was the best gift you could give your father. Thanks for sharing! Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. My German-Canadian partner hasn’t expressed any childhood problems of being different for German traditions which some are different than North America.

    Many of the traditional German Christmas’ practices are wonderful. He likes to carry through with many ..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jean! The German Christmas traditions are indeed wonderful and I’m grateful that they are part of my life. I’m glad your partner has continued with some of the traditions (I have too). Wishing you a healthy and happy new year.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. While it wasn’t your intent, your post brought tears to my eyes. So much about this year was different; whether we had similar traditions or not, many of us had to forgo those this year. Kudos to you for embracing the smallness and simplicity of this year. Happy New Year, Caroline!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You and me both! I started bawling when I wrote about my dad building the nativity scene. I’ve had a few good cries. Thank you for your kind words Lexie. Happy New Year to you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Caroline, A delightful read about your childhood Christmas traditions. Real candles on the tree- quite exciting. I always feel a pang of nostalgia and missing family who are gone when we pull out the holiday decorations, but at the same time happy for the new traditions that we’ve made. Wishing you a happy and safe new year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jane! Christmas for me is definitely a blending of the old and new. When you mentioned holiday decorations it got me thinking of our mishmash of baubles that hold memories from (and for) several generations. Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Jackie Frioud

    Merry Christmas, Caroline and Mike!
    We had candles on our tree too, though my parents adopted the Christmas morning/ Santa Claus tradition. Now Mark refuses to let me have the candles!
    xox

    Liked by 1 person

    • More real candle people, yeah! Mike was pretty shocked about candles on a Christmas tree. We don’t have them on our tree now but lots of them everywhere else.
      Hope you guys are enjoying a peaceful holiday and are able to share it with Sophie and Kieran. Best to you in 2021! Fingers crossed that we might be able to get together!

      Like

  14. Merry Christmas, Caroline. Reading this post really warmed my heart as I imagine the joy and excitement you must have felt as a child when Christmas Eve came. I wasn’t aware of any aspects of German Christmas tradition, and for a long time I thought that there weren’t too many variations from one European country to another. Wish you and your loved ones a peaceful and joyful holiday season despite the restrictions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Bama. There are definitely regional variations in how Christmas is celebrated in Europe. My Swiss and Austrian friends all grew up with the Christkind tradition and it extends to other countries, but certainly not all. Even in Germany, it is practiced more commonly in the south versus north. I know Christkind has also had a lot of competition from the Santa figure since my days as a child.In this post, I didn’t write about all the traditions in the month leading up to Christmas Day (Advent), which were big for my family (especially my mother). I don’t keep to all of them these days and have tweaked some of them. Maybe I’ll write about those next time.
      Wishing you health and happiness in the new year, and hopefully the ability to venture a little further afield.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Best wishes for a peaceful and joyous 2021 Caroline. Lyn

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pit

    Hi Caroline, nice to read your Christmas memories – as you know, I have almost exactly the same. It’s so long ago… Merry Christmas, Pit

    Liked by 1 person

    • Frohe Weihnachten Pit! I just noticed that I misspelled Weihnachten in my post (since corrected). How embarrassing! My spelling needs improvement in both languages. Glad you enjoyed the old Christmas memories.

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  17. thanks for sharing and Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. What a lovely story, and that nativity scene is beautiful. Maybe you didn’t know Francaphone families in Montreal when you were a child. They celebrate on Christmas Eve and eat tourtiere instead of turkey. Generally it seems the European tradition is all about Christmas Eve. I’ve always found it odd because having never heard of the Christkind tradition I wondered when Father Christmas (as Brits and those of us of Brit heritage call Santa) would deliver the gifts.
    My parents somehow managed to pull off similar subterfuge year after year and we would wake Christmas morning to a pillow case each filled with gifts at the end our bed.
    Merry Christmas to you and Mike and your family.
    May 2021 be better!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much Alison and Merry Christmas! I hope you and Don are cozy inside on this happy yet dreary-looking day.
      I think I was aware of French Canadian tradition, but we lived in such an anglo part of the Montreal suburbs (Beaconsfield) that I only compared myself to my neighbours and school friends who celebrated on Christmas Day. Of course I’ve heard the name Father Christmas, but I’d never though about your interesting observation. Will have to look up the origin of that name. I love your Christmas morning pillow case at the end of the bed tradition! That’s a new one for me. Is that specific to your family or is it a British thing?

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi. There are good reasons to believe that life will have returned to at least 65% of normal by next December. I’m Jewish, so I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I wish you and yours a very Happy Christmas.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Neil! Too late to wish you Happy Hanukkah, but I hope it was a good one (all things considered). Interesting number (65%) but if I had to guess that sounds about right.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Anonymous

    What a beautiful Christmas story Caroline. Memories like this are invaluable. Merry Christmas- Morag

    Liked by 1 person

  21. What a lovely post, Caroline. Your memories of your family’s Christmas traditions, and the way you’ve carried them on, warmed my heart. And that recording of Stille Nacht is sublime! You’re right, it’s a different kind of Christmas this year for so many of us. We’re having to be away from my mom in Texas, and it’s hard. I’m glad you get to see your mom, even at a 2-meter distance. Frohe Weinachten back to you, and here’s wishing you and your family a peace-filled holiday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Susan and John. I really appreciate your kind comments and I’m glad you liked Stille Nacht (it gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it).
      How tough that is for you not being able to see your mom (and sad for her). You’re right, 2 metre distance is better than no visits! I’m hopeful that 2021 will allow us to see all our loved ones who we’ve missed so much this year.

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  22. A merry Christmas to you, Caroline. I hope it is joyous even in its a toned down version. I love your childhood memories of Christmas. My only other Christmas experience in Europe was in Germany when I was 21 and worked as an au pair for a year. I loved it, as it was so completely different from what I were used to.

    The wood for the madeiro in our local town was sadly removed to prevent people from being tempted to flout the restictions I guess, so there was no Christmas fire this year. But the municipality did surprise the town with a firework show last night at 12am to replace the traditional madeiro. I luckily woke up, and as we have a view of the town at the top of the mountain, it felt like I had a front row seat. It was lovely, and something I will remember, because it was such a thoughtful gesture during this time when we all feel slightly deprived from so many of our traditions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahh Jolandi! What a nice and unexpected joy that firework show must have been. I’m picturing you above the town with a great view. It is these happy moments that I hope we’ll also remember from this troubled year.
      I’m glad you enjoyed my memories from childhood. It is interesting how the European Christmas traditions are quite different from other places (though I expect things may have changed somewhat in the last 40-50 years).
      Merry Christmas and best to you in 2021 as you continue your new adventure.

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      • Thank you, Caroline. I guess traditions change over time, but there is also an essence and nostalgia for the old traditions that will always remain, I think (and hope). Wishing you a happy 2021 no matter what challenges the lingering pandemic throws at us. Life is so short, we should make the most of every moment, even when they are challenging. At least this is what I keep reminding myself.

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  23. Merry Christmas! This was really interesting to read about German Christmas traditions, and I love the Christmas market photo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Merry Christmas to you too, Diana. Hope you get out for some snow play. I am so enchanted by European Christmas markets, and one year I’d love to travel the whole month of December and visit several of them (sadly, hubby is not as keen–I’m working on him).

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  24. What a lovely Christmas tradition. I like that you continue to set up the original nativity scene to keep the tradition alive. I’ve been feeling especially nostalgic this holiday season too. Even though we’ll be celebrating Christmas differently this year (no holidays parties or family gatherings), it’ll sure be one that we’ll remember forever. Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear that I’m not the only one feeling a little extra nostalgic this year. Undoubtedly, Christmas 2020 will be one we won’t forget. Best wishes to you and your family for a wonderful, albeit different, Christmas and holiday season. I’m also looking forward to catching up on your posts. I’ve got behind this month.

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  25. What a great story. I can imagine the two little girls behind the sheet waiting in anticipation. Did you carry on any of those traditions for your son, other than the nativity scene? Richard just told me the other day that when he was young, growing up in Poland their family got a Chritmas card from their uncle living in Canada. Richard’s family wondered why Canadians dried their socks over the fireplace! Although I know countries celebrate differently,it hadn’t occurred to me that this was not a universal tradition! Hope you and Mike have a wonderful Christmas!

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    • That is a funny story about Richard’s family being puzzled by the socks hanging by the fireplace. Now you’ve got me wondering where the stocking tradition comes from. My parents never adopted it and, interestingly, neither did I. Our traditions with Alex are definitely hybrid as Mike’s heritage is long-term Canadian with English roots. Maybe he had the best of both with Santa and Christkind bringing him presents! Merry Christmas to you and Richard! (Does he get a stocking now?)

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  26. jawatson852

    The website would not accept my comment, so…
    Nice post Caroline. Thank you.
    Best wishes to you and Mike.
    John

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  27. I’ve never heard of German Christmas traditions; they sound beautiful (and a lot of fun for the kiddos).

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I love reading about how people celebrate Christmas. I want Ericeira to have great family memories, and Christmas traditions are one of the most fun ways I can think of to create those memories! We still lit real candles on the tree, bake gingerbread cookies and feast on vegetarian dinner. Although this year is going to be very different, we are still determined to make the most of it. Despite the pandemic crisis, I hope the magic of Christmas fills every corner of your heart and home with joy — now and always. Merry Christmas, Caroline 🙂 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • Family memories and traditions are so important. It sounds like you are passing on these great gifts to Ericeria. Wow…I haven’t heard of too many people who use real candles on the tree. It looks so beautiful, doesn’t it? Despite the crisis and the very different type of holiday we will have this year, I am very much looking forward to the simple joys of sharing beautiful meals with my hubby and just taking it easy. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Aiva.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, we use real candles on the tree. I love the way they look, smell and glow. We still have candleholders that my mother-in-law used when she was a kid, they must be around 70 years old or so. It makes our Christmas tree even more precious! Take care 🙂 Aiva

        Liked by 1 person

  29. David Neasmith

    That Christmas nativity scene from Woodside Road brings back fond memories. Whenever we visited during the holidays I remember seeing it displayed prominently as an annual ritual. Hopefully we weren’t the neighbours that gave the evil eye 😉 It was actually neat for us and made our own Christmas Eve interesting because we knew next door you guys were having a special time as a family. Contrary to what you may think, you guys were actually the cool ones!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dave! It’s interesting seeing our tradition from your perspective. Haha…I felt about as far away from “cool” as possible. As a kid (especially around early teenagehood) I felt awkward around some of my schoolmates (fear of being different and German). Luckily, our dear neighbours were kind and accepting and I have such lovely memories of feeling very comfortable hanging out with our little gang. The neighbour who gave us the evil eye (not you guys) was also nice (but I do remember the look). Merry Christmas!

      Like

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