Celebrating a German Christmas In California- Childhood Memories
I grew up in a suburb east of Los Angeles where my dad owned Nursery. Eighty-degree sunshine and palm trees are vastly different from Germany in December. Sure, the weather was great for plants, but I know my parents were homesick for snow and family. In the 1970s, travel was expensive, German Products exotic, and International phone calls were a big deal. Somehow, my mother managed to give us a German Christmas.
Celebrating a German Christmas in California
The Christmas season started on the first Advent. Mom would set the Sunday breakfast table with extra care, and in the middle, there was a green Advent Wreath with 4 candles. (But we would only light one that day!) Then on the first of December, my sister and I would open the first door of our Advent Calendars. We were the only kids on the block with one, so it was a very big deal, especially years when we found chocolate behind the doors!
I remember being puzzled that some American friends already had their Christmas tree up right after Thanksgiving. Stranger still were plastic trees! Our tree did not arrive until days before Christmas Eve. It was always a Noble Fir, because you need hanging space for the ornaments. The worst for my mother was the lights. Fire hazard meant real candles were verboten, but she absolutely REFUSED to use colored lights! We had white lights with little crystal covers on them, and of course Lametta (tinsel) carefully hung strand by strand, we didn’t DARE throw on handfuls! (And for the next few weeks, every time I walked by the tree… strands would catch on my clothes, and I’d have to carefully return it to the tree!!)
Finally! Christmas Eve. My American friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t play all afternoon. Inside we had last minute preparations. Mom cleaned the goose for dinner the next day, and we children had to tidy our bedrooms, including dressing up our dolls and lining them up on the window. Then we had to take a nap, because of the long night ahead.
The clock moved so slowly, it didn’t seem possible.
Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) dinner was always Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, and Mashed Potatoes. When I was young, finding “good” bratwurst was tricky, so it felt special. Plus, it’s quick to make, and clean up after, so we could get to church on time.
Our Lutheran Church had a short choral service, ending with Silent Night sung by candle light. At this point, I was coming out of my skin with anticipation. Had the Christkind come?
You see, the Christkind made a special early visit to our home in America. My sister and I would wait in the car while Mom and Dad checked to see if everything was ready.
And when we were called in…. MAGIC.
The only light in the house came from candles on the tables, and the lights on the tree. German Christmas Music came from the record player. Then our family would stand together and sing.
That moment, standing in the entryway to the living room, surrounded by my parents, my Opa, and my sister, was Christmas to me. While we sang, I would look around the room… the presents piled under the tree, individual Bunte Teller loaded with Lebkuchen, Schokolade and other sweets waiting for us, the flickering candle-light that made the tinsel on the tree shimmer even brighter. We were in a bubble of our own. Maybe we weren’t in Germany, but it didn’t feel like California either.
When the final notes of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht faded out, mom would give us all a hug and kiss, then proclaim “Frohe Weinachten!”
The spell was broken.
Then presents, food, Cognac, Glühwein, cookies and chocolate, German friends came, and there was more food.
But to me, the best part, the most memorable part of our German Christmas in Southern California was that moment together, singing in the Candlelight.
The next day our friends would come together again… for a mid-day Christmas dinner of Goose, Klösse and Rotkohl. There would be Coffee Kuchen and Plätzchen. We children would spend the afternoon playing with our new toys.
And it was lovely, but nothing compared to the magic of Heiligabend.
As I got older, we continued the tradition. My sister and I would wait for the Christkind with a wink and a nod… Opa passed away, and with him, we lost a voice and things started changing. In my teens and 20s, I fought with employers over taking Christmas Eve off, but I stuck to my guns. We kept Heiligabend special.
Later, I married an American who wanted to celebrate the American way. I gave in a lot of things, but not Christmas Eve. We celebrated together with my parents, maybe there isn’t as much singing, but there is always togetherness in the doorway by candlelight.