Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas & Frohe Weihnachten

It has always been said that the best way to understand a culture fully is to live within the culture. I think I can safely say I have lived in Germany long enough to understand and feel a part of the culture. The Germans have a word for things (most often words) that have been Germanized and I often refer to myself as "eingedeutsched." However, no matter how long or how Germanized I become, I odn't think I will ever forget my own holiday traditions. I was so excited to spend Thanksgiving with my family in 2011 for the first time since 2005 and that long weekend surpassed all of my expectations.

Since Germans don't celebrate Halloween or American Thanksgiving, Christmas is a season. Christmas candy starts popping up in grocery stores at the end of August and slowly takes over by October. In mid October, most shops have already put up Christmas decorations and you would be hard pressed to not find Christmas sweets in every grocery store. The large public celebrations of the season begin just about the same time as American Thanksgiving in the form of outdoor Christmas markets. All large cities and many small towns have Christmas markets where people drink warm alcoholic drinks to stay warm while socializing, eating and shopping in the stalls for the month before Christmas. Christmas markets set the scene for the season and serve as a general meeting place for colleagues, friends and tourists alike. This year a visiting Prof. asked me what Germas buy at Christmas markets and quite frankly, I think food and drink is the local favorite while the goods are consumed by maily tourists but my answer comes with the disclaimer that I am not actually German. The closest American comparison I can think of are church Bazars (sp?) but they are often only open for a weekend, most always indoors and usually contain at least 1 raffel or other game of chance, something you won't find in a German Christmas market. They are also sponsored by a religious organization and generally used as a form of fundraising for said organization (mostly Churches of Christian denominations). German Christmas Markets also have a religious element to them although they are not run by any religious organization. Here there is no seperation of church and state. Furthermore, Germans don't say happy holidays or seasons' greetings, it's Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas) and guten rutsch (literally translates to good slide but is more like the English "happy new year").
Back to the actual holiday, Germans celebrate Christmas in a way that I do not think I will ever fully be able to support. However, I do love the Christmas cookie tradition that takes place mid December where everyone bakes about 8-12 varities of cookies and shares them in homes and offices. I also like the tradition of the advent calendar which I have experienced as a recipient first hand this year and will have to let you know how I do with coming up with 24 gift ideas next year. The main Christmas celebration is universally on the 24th of December. The tree is often only put up on the 23rd or 24th. Traditionally there is a family meal. I'm still not sure if this is the meal that consists  of Goose, rot kraut and some form of potato or noodle or if that is served on the 25th. There is also a tradition I've heard of which involves eating a minimilistic dinner on the 24th in tribute to Mary and Joseph's struggles and then feasting on the 25th in celebration of Jesus' birth. My in-laws serve a completely different meal on the 24th which I much prefer so I have not experienced a Christmas goose. Christmas presents are also exchanged in the evening of the 24th. This is where everything is different. I may have ranted about this in year's past but for me, Christmas is the 25th. On the 24th I like to go to church with family (and take in the lights at LaSalette) and when I was a kid, spent Christmas eve with one side of the samily and Christmas day went to church in the morning and then spent the say with the other side of the family. As I grew up, I often spent Christmas eve with a friend's family prior to the tradition of going to mass at night with my family. In either scenario, Christmas was celebrated on the 25th with a gift exchange and a full family gathering at my Grandma's followed by a dessert party at my aunt's. These day's both dinner and dessert are enjoyed at my aunt's. However, it is always a buffet of dishes prepared and brought by everyone. My family is not very large but holidays generally involve 12-17 people in one place, eating, talking, watching TV, playing board games or cards and generally being loud and hanging out. There's always a sense of chaos and warmth that come with my family, and too many posed photos. I miss this when I spend holidays in Germany. A mature dinner on the 24th with 1 table, 6 adults and wine is enjoyable, just not my type of Christmas. Maybe I'm weird but I miss the chaos. This year, I hear my in-laws have a pre-Christmas plan to gather with the entire family on the 23rd. I am not so secretly hoping this gives me my fill of family and chaos and very vocally pled my case to add a dessert course which I volunteered to bake. Looksl ike I won't be participating in Germany cookie traditions this year as I have not had the time but I will hopefully make a nice simple chocolate chip M&M cookie tomorrow.

What is a key component of holidays in your family? Is this a cultural thing or something your family does?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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