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.

My Opa, mom’s supplier, came most years to visit for the Winter months. I can still see him at the airport in his brown suit and hat, surrounded by 4 suitcases and plastic bags crammed with goodies. (How he managed to get it all through customs is still a mystery….) Somehow we got it all home!

Celebrating a German Christmas in California

german christmas

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!

And December 6th, St Nicholas day, was extra special, because we found chocolate Santas in our shoes!

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!!)

german christmas

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?

german christmas

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.

german christmas

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.

german christmas

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.

german christmas

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.

german christmas

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 music (some sing, some hum), and we stand together as a family to admire the tree by candlelight.

Frohe Weinachten…

german christmas

14 thoughts on “Celebrating a German Christmas In California- Childhood Memories

  1. It is a nice website. But why you talking about Herrnhuter Stars and the link goes to a fake one . It is not the original Herrnhuter Star by Amazon. I know this exactly , because I’m selling the stars from Germany in Canada. Sorry for this.

    1. Can you please supply me with a better link? I would love to get this right

  2. Thank you for your lovely remembrance of the German Heilig abend, I also have kept up this Tradition, now with my Children, Grandchildren and Great Grandchild, we did replace the Bunten Teller with Christmas Stockings, for years I was going to let some of the others take over this tradition, but they beg every year for me to continue…at 75 it gets a little overwhelming, but with the help of my daughter I got through another year of the Christmas Eve Tradition

  3. I grew up in Colorado so we occassionally had a white Christmas. My mother was a Sudetendeutsche who landed in Bavaria after the Vertreibung and came to the States with an american to marry. She kept up the tradition of the Advent wreath, Weisswurst and presents on Christmas Eve, and a Goose with Blaukraut, Knödel, as well as some american trimmings like stuffing and yams (for me mostly) but that was it. The tree went up a couple weeks before Christmas and presents went under the tree as they were bought and wrapped. Both of my parents are gone now and I am all alone, but I have kept up with the Advent wreath, opening presents (when there are any), going to church (not only on Christmas Eve), calling family in Germany on Christmas day and cooking a Christmas dinner of roast duck, Knödel, Blauekraut and a vegetable. I eat by myself and my leftovers last forever, but it reminds me of better times and at least some tradition.

  4. Vielen Dank für die Erinnerungen an Heiligabend! So war es auch bei mir zuhause in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Nachdem ich in USA wohnte, habe ich noch einmal Kerzen mit den besonderen Kerzenhaltern am Baum angebracht, trotz der Warnungen von meinem amerikanischen Mann, denn ich wollte meinem Sohn einen “richtigen” Weihnachtsbaum zeigen. Frohe Weihnachten!

  5. What a lovely piece – truly a tribute to your parents. All the best – and get the lead figurines ready for Silvester to predict a wonderful 2020!

  6. Thank you ever so much for bringing back those treasured memories. As an immigrant I still remember our first Weihnachten in New York. We invited our landlord to view our Weihnachtsbaum complete with real candles. Our landlord almost had a stroke. how were we to know that real candles were not allowed. We switched to electric lights but we always kept one real candle on the tree.

  7. I still put up a advent wreath. Bin in the USA since 1965 have traveled many times to Germany. Still have 2 sisters there. Really enjoy your group.

  8. Frohe Weihnacten Karen und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!
    I enjoyed reading your advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas day memories. It brought back many memories from my childhood. Well done!
    My parents were very similar in many ways

  9. Weihnachten is now behind us but I just got around to reading about your celebrations which has brought back so many memories. I am in my 80th and have only my son left but like you we celebrate Christmas eve or a much smaller version of it. Karen I love all your writings, they make me very happy. As a Berliner I have walked through the arch of the Brandenburg Tor many times until the wall went up which happened on the day I got engaged. Also got a kick out of reading about Max und Moritz, hoppa hoppa reiter and so much more, you take me back to my youth before I came to the US in 1961. Reading it I feel like I am back “Home” if just for a few minutes. It Is a great gift you have making us older Deutsche very happy and a little homesick.

    1. Gloria, Thank you so much for your kind words about my writing. I’m delighted that I can make you happy. Wishing you all the best. Karen

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