Liv Hambrett

Germany + Australia + Culture + Motherhood + Home

Essays, Life

Remember What Was & Who Went Before

I have never really given much thought to Totensonntag, Sunday of the Dead, which falls every year on the Sunday between the 20th and 26th of November. It seems like there are so many religious holidays in this country, days that belong to the Protestants or the Catholics and are marked in the calendar but not necessarily observed. Or, observed insofar as a day off for some states. Totensonntag is so close to Christmas – and just after Rememberance Day – and so it has always just slipped quietly by, disappearing into the icy-aired cheer of the Christmas Markets that officially open the following day. 

Totensonntag this year falls on the 25th of November. It is the last Sunday before Advent begins, another tradition with its roots in religion that pops up before Christmas and has become something the non-religious observe too. Or, observe insofar as a beautiful four-candle wreath is purchased and dates to eat Plätzchen are made for each of the Sundays leading up to Heiliger Abend. Traditionally, people wait until after Totensonntag to decorate and the Christmas Markets wait too, as if acknowledging those absent from the time of year most about family.

It struck me, recently, how lovely a notion that really is. I am not a religious person, and so choose to see Christmas as a time made sacred by the deliberate celebration of family and friends, as a time made special by giving to one another – time, more than anything, and perhaps a good book – and eating together around the same table after a long, full, busy year. How lucky I am, I know, to choose to see Christmas a certain way, and celebrate it accordingly. Growing up, our Christmas Day was spent with the whole family – Nanas, Pas, cousins, aunts, uncles – from 11 o’clock in the morning, when the first champagne was popped, until the last one standing. Despite my sister and I going yearly to a Catholic Mass on Christmas Eve (for no other reason than our childhood best friends were Catholic and we found it all rather interesting) and despite Nana getting a few of us along to church every so often, Christmas for me has always simply been about that one, exceptional time a year, when we were all together.

It has been a year, nearly to the day, that my Pa died. He died three days before Totensonntag last year and was followed by his wife of forty years just three weeks later, and then two weeks after that, by my cousins’ Oma. Three family stalwarts of our loud, noisy Christmasses gone by, gone. At the time, I realised how entwined grieving the loss of elderly loved ones, was with grieving the door closing on our own past. I see those Christmas Days, now, through a window. The table as it was then will never be again – it has lost and gained and will do so until the end of time.

Perhaps it is a mark of getting older, perhaps as much with children as with loss comes a sense of newness and thus the need to acknowledge the old. But before the advent calendars are strung up and filled with chocolate; before the decorations come out and the market dates begin; before we look to who will be around the table this year, it feels right to think about who will not. To remember what was and who went before.


  1. Christie | A Sausage Has Two

    21 November, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    I’d never heard of Totensonntag before you (or someone else?) brought it up on Twitter the other day. (Is that even where I heard about it?) I think it’s a truly lovely thing, and am going to fully embrace it myself. Sending you hugs for the loss of your three noisy stalwarts.

  2. Jo Hambrett

    21 November, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    I think Totensonntag is a marvellous custom at a perfect time of the year.
    Remembering those who have gone before us and now are no longer with us.
    A journey we all are destined to follow and we hope that there will be someone somewhere to remember us; and what better time to remember loved ones gone than just before the celebrations of Christmas when families get together to celebrate …. a Family.

  3. Heidi Adam

    24 November, 2018 at 4:26 am

    Again, what a marvellous way to express it. Here is a young Australien woman explaining Totensonntag and the meaning of it, to us sometimes ignorant Germans, who often don’t even know the meaning of this tradition. Thank you Liv, you make it a special day for me and all my beloved ones, who went before me.

  4. Renate Barreras

    25 November, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    This time of the year miss being on Sylt I enjoyed how you wrote it thank you.

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