One of my aunties emigrated from Switzerland to Australia in the 70s, drawn there by my uncle (who she met when her father gave him a job as a shepherd in Switzerland) and his tumbling blonde locks and form-fitting flares. She was around the same age I was, when I moved to Germany. Out in Oz, she added English to her stockpile of languages, including the key phrase at the petrol station, ‘fill ‘er up, mate’, and had two kids, a girl first, and then a boy. (Strangely, I always thought of my auntie as Italian, because I was told she could speak it, and then my cousins learnt it, and as a child, I had little to no concept of Switzerland, with its various official languages and ethnicities. I was also suitably impressed by the fact she could speak Italian, yet had no idea she could speak German until an embarrassing amount of years later. I think in many ways, she was just a very exotic European to my young eyes.)
Since I emigrated from Australia to Germany, there have been so many times I have thought of my auntie, doing the reverse of what I have done, decades earlier. The culture shock, the language barriers, the Heimweh. Now that I have kids, first a girl and then a boy, I have started wondering how she navigated the playgroups and playgrounds and giving her children the culture and language she grew up with. I also wonder how she managed to keep in touch with anyone without the internet.
One way my auntie brought her Swiss-ness to us Aussies, was through food. Every Christmas she would arrive with a huge platter of her famous biscuits. (That is genuinely what they were called.) Chewy, spicy little stars, glazed hearts, jam filled discs. They were the way we finished off every Christmas lunch, and if we were lucky, we would have some leftover for the next few days of idle gluttony.
Those biscuits, I came to learn a couple of years ago, were Plätzchen, special Christmas biscuits this part of the world bakes and consumes by the ton come November and December. They were Zimtsterne and Plätzchen mit Erdbeermarmelade, little bites of tradition that were part of my Australian Christmasses because my auntie was there and now, of course, my German ones, because I am here.
The first Christmas after die Lüdde was born, one of my then-new mum friends invited us round to bake Plätzchen and drink Glühwein. We did it again this year, this time with sticky toddler hands ‘helping’ and eating the decorations. We’ll do it again next year, with more sticky toddler hands and a hell of a lot more Glühwein. Our Plätzchen will take a while to reach the polished, nigh on professional heights of my auntie’s, but we’re working on it. I even had a crack of (packet mix) Vanillekipferl a week or so ago, and they weren’t half bad.
In this time of life, and particularly at this time of year, I am so aware of family traditions, both making new ones and continuing those of old. And I am also so aware of how the traditions we make for our children will and should fuse two hemispheres, two countries, two cultures. Somehow, through the twists and turns of fate, baking Plätzchen does just that.
Isn’t life funny.