Rather fortunately, my very first Northern Hemisphere Christmas was white. Thick, marsipan-like snow, covering everything in sight has been such a wondefullybizarre novelty, that I almost forgot to observe the other ways in which Christmas in Germany differs to Christmas back home and, frankly, I would have let it all pass me by in a haze of gluehwein, slippery pathways and pink cheeks if not for being (gently) reprimanded for wishing someone a Merry Christmas too early. Swept up in the general cheer of the moment on Christmas Eve, at around 5pm, I grabbed my German Mama and said, somewhat effusively, ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ to which she responded, ‘not yet …’ I asked when I would be able to bestow my wishes upon her and she said ‘after church.’
It was then I started thinking … haaaaang on a minute, I haven’t really heard anyone say Frohe Weihnachten at any stage to anyone for the entire month – a month in which, at home, Merry Christmas is thrown about with gay abandon, particularly by shop assistants (not necessarily with great pep, but said nevertheless). Could it be that Christmas just isn’t as merry in this part of the world? Surely not, I have been haunting the (very large and very merry) Christmas Markets for an entire month and drinking the volume of the Pacific Ocean in mulled wine. Advent wreaths and beautifully decorated trees were well and truly in place by December 1. Men in ill-fitting Santa Claus suits have been pacing up and down Prinzipalmarkt ringing bells. There has definitely been merriness.
The way Germans celebrate Christmas is the way in which they do most things; without excess, with sincerity and with a respectful adherance to tradition. There isn’t the commerical emphasis placed on the season, the way there is in the English speaking Western countries. Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely aspects of commercialisation (Santas suits and the like) and the retail sector benefits tremendously because Germans love to give presents – but overall, Germany’s Christmas retains this feeling of it really being about one, precious night, not a six week shopping frenzy to the soundtrack of a celebrity’s carol stylings.
That one precious night is Christmas Eve. The Germans do everything on Christmas Eve including the big Christmas dinner and exchanging gifts. There is no Christmas Day visit from Santa Claus – in fact, there isn’t really Santa Claus at all. There is the Weihnachtsmann (who is, in effect, Santa Claus) but he’s not really of any great significance. By Christmas Eve, German children have already been visited by Nikolaus (St. Nicholas). He leaves treats in little boots or socks the children have put out for him, and checks up on them to make sure they are behaving. And he, daringly, does it when the children are awake. They just always happen to miss him.
Christkind (Child of Christ) an angelic little figure, delivers the presents on 24th, also usually when the kids are awake. One minute there are no presents under the tree, the next there are. The kids have once again blinked and missed the gift-bearer. The German parents are evidently more cunning than their English speaking counterparts, who at least have the darkness of the night and safety-net of slumber.
As we all burst out of the church service (no rousing renditions of Oh Holy Night, just the traditional Oh Come All Ye Faithful) into the snow, and wished everyone a Frohe Weihnachten, in a rush, it felt like Christmas. The moment, which I experience multiple incarnations of during the festive season at home, had arrived. It felt like the month of markets and mulled wine and tasteful city decorations was not Christmas itself, but a gentle nod towards what was to come – that moment where you all sit down to dinner, the tree watching over piles of presents and finally wish one another a Merry Christmas … because, now, at around 7pm on the 24th of December it is really Christmas.
It’s more than sand versus snow, Santa Claus versus Nikolaus, Christmas ham versus fondue. We celebrate differently, with varying emphases on different periods of time and individual moments. It feels like we celebrate for longer in Australia, with Christmas being an overarching season with a three day eating/drinking/gift giving frenzy; our Christmas Eve has an entirely different feeling to it than the German Christmas Eve – one precedes the culmination, the other is the culmination.
Both Christmases feel good. Both involve food and family and gifts. One retains a greater focus on tradition at the expense of commercialisation, the other has embraced commercialisation and almost woven it into its tradition. But both have, at their heart, a table of loved ones and food and that’s all you can ask for.