The month of December seems to magnify the distance between my current home in America and my childhood stomping grounds in Germany, but whenever I am overcome by wistfulness, carrying on some of my childhood customs is a comfort, and intertwining traditions from my two worlds an enrichment.
Our festive holiday season in Colorado typically commences with the flickering of the first of four advent candles. In Germany, we used to have advent wreaths, braided from coniferous boughs, with tall wax columns, but ever since my best friend from France presented me with a brass version, we burn votive or tea lights, which gives my husband occasion to rekindle his skills as candle maker. The stellar shape sits on a doily fashioned by my mother many years ago, and I console myself with the thought that she would be pleased with the knowledge that we cherish it, while we remember and miss her.
The daily surprise hiding behind a door of the advent calendar between December 1 and 24 has always been one of my favorites, usually because it involved chocolate. Lately I have preferred the chocolateless variety, and look forward to being greeted by a sweet critter from behind each flap, instead of the stale Easter-bunny-turned-into-advent-calendar-morsel of cacao.
December 6 used to be anticipated with some trepidation. It is the day Sankt Nikolaus makes his rounds with his assistant, Knecht Ruprecht, with a sack of goodies for the good kids over his shoulder, a switch for the bad ones in his hand. Even though I usually deserved the latter, somehow my parents always put in a good word for me, and I escaped a spanking. Nowadays, next to fruits and nuts, I get to enjoy my mother-in-law’s scrumptious sandies and date bars.
I no longer have to wait until December 24 for our Christmas tree, as was our wont in Germany. Many American families decorate theirs on or shortly after Thanksgiving, but we tend to acquire and adorn ours a week or two before Christmas, and keep it until January 6, known as Epiphany. On that day, in many countries, children dressed up as the 3 Kings, Wise Men, or Magi parade through the streets, collect donations for a good cause, and conduct a blessing of the house and its inhabitants, by writing the initials of their names (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar) on the lintel above the entrance, together with the year (e. g. 20+C+M+B+17).
In recent years, the procurement of our own tree starts with a visit to the local National Forest Office in Colorado Springs to purchase a $10 cutting permit, followed by the one-hour drive west on Highway 24 to the Pike National Forest outside of Woodland Park which offers sweeping views of the north face of Pikes Peak.
Within the designated cutting area we park and peruse the perimeter of our chosen circle for Ponderosa, Lodgepole, or Limber pines, Engelmann spruce, or Douglas fir. It’s a win-win situation: we get to select our own affordable arbor and help the Forest Service thin out the sylvan growth, thereby lowering fire risk, a constant threat in the drought-stricken West.
We are only allowed to take trunks measuring up to 6 inches and it helps not to expect symmetry. Despite the theoretical benefits, severing a healthy stem from its roots always creates pangs of conscience which we allay by thanking our chosen tree for its involuntary sacrifice. After we carry it back to the car and trim enough branches to make it fit, we chauffeur it home, with the radio tuned to the Christmas music station. My repertoire of seasonal songs has definitely become more sophisticated. How I ever lived without hearing the Chipmunks sing Jingle Bells is a mystery to me.
Long ago I gave up any hope of a color-coordinated conifer. The storage box from the basement disgorges an eclectic collection: primeval baubles from my husband’s grandmother, antediluvian globes accumulated over the course of decades by his parents, and hand-made ornaments from his elementary school days, and each piece continues to be honored. At least I was allowed to replace tinsel with straw stars and painted wooden figures. Fire danger finally convinced my husband to replace the ancient light string, even though a battered star from a different epoch still crowns the arboreal pyramid each year. The possibility of fire also rules out open flames on the tree, a favorite practice in Germany. Instead, paraffin in a variety of shades and shapes and sizes is spread throughout the rooms and provides a festive glow during this, the darkest month of the year, thanks to the candle creator in the family.
As every child in Germany knows, the Christkind brings presents on Christmas Eve. Here, I have to show patience because Santa Claus, who takes over the job, makes everybody wait until Christmas Day, on account of his traveling on a reindeer-pulled sleigh, and the expectation that he savor cookies and milk at every chimney stop. To be fair, he has never overlooked me, and delayed gratification is probably a valuable lesson for me.
Whatever my faith, or lack thereof, my fondness for the holiday traditions endures. Whether we celebrate Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, may our beliefs and rituals fill us with joy, and all of us with Peace on Earth!
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