Germany has long been on the forefront when it comes to Christmas traditions. From composing Silent Night (“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht”) for the guitar, to the Advent Wreath, these ancestors of mine seemed to be very good at celebrating. I know that my mother never passed up an opportunity and that lead to quite a colorful childhood. This post is written in an effort to share some of our personal Christmas Traditions with you.
Of course any discussion of Christmas begs the introduction of the preceding season of Advent. Without the waiting, the culminating event would be less sweet! In a previous post – I touched on the fact that Advent and Christmas are two separate, yet linked, Seasons in the Church Calendar. It is a season of penance, preparation, prayer and hope, sharing the liturgical color of purple with Lent. As we spend the days between the four Sundays of Advent it is with an air of anticipation for the Coming of Jesus, in the humble form of a human child. As such there are many outward practices that we can utilize to bring home the true purpose of the Season. As our priest pronounced during his homily on the first Sunday of Advent,
‘The world will tell you it’s Christmas.
What to do then, with our children or ourselves, as the rest of the world puts the cart before the horse and forgets the sweetness of anticipation so uncommon in our instant world of today?
The Advent Wreath is one of the oldest means of tangibly illustrating the waiting aspect of this period before Christmas. Our family crafts an Advent Wreath with the children on the days leading up to the season. It may be made of greenery gathered in the Kentucky landscape or an arts and crafts project such as the one I shared in a previous post – ADVENTuresome Family Fun. As Thanksgiving comes to a close and the tinsel and lights begin to beckon, we use this circle of green as reminder that we are counting down to something B I G! Our Advent Wreath remains on the kitchen table and we light the appropriate number of candles, during meal time, as the days progress. We also add a new line to our customary blessing said before meals.
Bless us oh Lord, for these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from Thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord. Amen!
Come, Jesus, Come!
Some families also create a Jesse Tree with biblical references for Advent. Our family has taken a different tack. We have an Advent Tree (three-year-old Simon calls it the ‘Waiting Tree’) that is placed on a pedestal table in the living room. It stands no more than two feet high and has fiber optic lighting. Several years ago, our daughter, Erika, purchased an Advent Calendar that holds tiny books for each day of Advent. Entitled ‘The Story of Christmas’, each book is numbered and shares one fact or scriptural reference to the coming of Christmas. Since these tiny books hang from golden threads, we hang each one on the Advent Tree after it has been read. As Christmas draws nearer, the children gain a bit of knowledge leading up to the final, largest book which represents Christmas Eve and the birth of Jesus.
The Christmas tree in our house waits for a time closer to Christmas but we do have some winter type of display to fulfill the desire for a bit of special decorating. This is certainly not a drab time for us but a time of metered joy and anticipation. We call this decorative endeavor ‘pre-tree’ and it’s just that. The décor is in the style of winter, with boughs of greenery and pinecone candles holders. There is certainly an air of anticipation but it reserves the arrival of Christmas for the actual day.
No German would omit the great bishop, St. Nicholas, when preparing the way for Christmas. This great saint was the predecessor of today’s Santa Claus (St. Nick). While his Feastday is celebrated on December 6th, the traditional observance begins the evening before on the 5th. The children place their shoes under their beds, hoping that St. Nicholas will fill them with gelt (chocolate coins), tangerines and other small treats. Those who have been naughty, however, fear that their shoes will hold a lump of coal the next morning! There are many ways that St. Nicholas can be incorporated into the tales of Santa Claus so as to instruct children in a more spiritual way. The story of how he gave away all of his worldly possessions, so that he could give to alms to the poor, can inspire children to be givers rather than focusing on receiving.
IT’s ALMOST CHRISTmas
Now we are nearing the culmination of all of that anticipation and preparation. Christmas is fast approaching and time is short. We tend to follow the decorating timetable that our parish church does. Our Christmas tree, itself, is reserved for the weekend before Christmas Eve. At that time we put up the tree – sometimes a live tree that is planted in our garden later and sometimes an artificial one. As the handful of remaining days dwindle we first place the tree, then the lights, and finally (right before Christmas Eve) we do the actual trimming of the tree. Again, my German heritage comes into play, so we add not only strings of tiny glowing white lights, we also add acorn-shaped brass candle holders and small white candles.
The décor is a combination of spiritual ornaments and ornaments depicting nature. We have various types of angels, glimmering snowflakes, and my treasured collection of Roman Millennium ornaments, portraying the Blessed Mother and her Holy Infant. Our Nativity scene also makes its appearance during these last days of Advent – minus the figure of the infant Jesus.
Our first order of business is a brief period of gathering and greeting. As everyone settles in, the ‘program’ or ‘liturgy’ as one priest friend calls it, begins.
- Readings: years ago our dearly departed mother put together a set of readings for this occasion. She wrote the names of those who would participate in the margins and we still use scanned copies of these pages to this day. They are spiritual, in nature, and invite us to focus on the Reason for the Season. As we find our places on sofas, chairs and the floor, we face each other and begin. Turns are taken until the final word has been shared. As children become older, they join in the reading and others step aside.
- One of the children now places the infant Jesus into the manger as we acknowledge that He for Whom we have been waiting is here.
- Songs: we have several musicians in the family so there have been guitars and flutes in the mix. There are also some pretty decent vocalists, so there are booklets of songs passed around and we sing! The songs are traditional and spiritual in nature and the children join in with enthusiasm. Every year the final number is Silent Night and we always dedicate one verse, in German, to Marie-Luise Annerose Susanne Fingerhut, my sweet, feisty German mother, who instituted this entire celebration and founded this family. And what a bunch we are!
- Meal: now is the time for feasting! We begin by praying together and then dig in. There is plenty of food and the menu varies little from year to year. Some dishes are traditionally German and yet there have been American additions. These all meld into one delightful party for your tastebuds.
- Time for the children to each open one gift. On Thanksgiving, we hold a drawing, and each child is assigned a recipient for their gift. The monetary value is not excessive and the thought behind the gift is sincere. As the children open their gifts they not only delight in their own, but also those gifts that they have given. The children now settle in to play in community with the offerings brought forth by those brightly wrapped treasures from under the tree.
- Silly Santa: years ago, we decided to minimize the gift giving for Christmas. In fact, Rick and I no longer exchange gifts at all. At first we adults drew names – like the children do. Now, we have decided to each buy one small item (something we wouldn’t mind taking back home – so no trickery!), wrap it and play a game of Silly Santa (aka ‘dirty’ Santa). The sparing and tactical schemes keep us all entertained for a while and then we just settle down to visit, graze at the food buffet, or simply observe the dynamics at play. With 10+ children, most under the age of 7, and many adults, there’s never a dull moment!
- ‘Midnight’ Mass: This Christmas Vigil Mass used to be held at Midnight but sadly, with an aging priest and mission status, our parish now celebrates at ten p.m. most years. Much of the family will bundle up and join us at our small, rural parish for the Holy Mass of Christmas Vigil. Husband, Rick, and I along with daughter, Erika, and her husband, Andrew, make up the choir under the direction of our devoted choir director/organist who we share with a parish 20 miles away. We still sing up in the choir loft at our parish and so, many family members join us in our private setting with a birds-eye view.
As the last Hosanna is sung and we wind our sleepy way back home, we share an inner glow.
This family KNOWS that it is Christmas.
We can FEEL it down in our hearts and souls.
This is a SPECIAL day when our Lord Jesus Christ came to us in a humble stable to bring to us not only salvation but His BODY and BLOOD to share! There is no empty let down feeling. No sad little tree set by the curb on the 26th. Instead, the feeling is one of fulfillment. We have lived the seasons and have shared in both the waiting and in the humble, yet triumphant Coming!
There’s more! As the season of Christmas continues, our tree and manger remain. Again, we follow the Church Calendar. Christmas has just begun! The Christmas Season will continue through the feast of Epiphany which celebrates the extension of salvation to the Gentiles by the visit of the Three Wise Men. In this feast, all peoples are made aware of His coming and invited to claim Him as their King! Epihany traditionally falls on the 12th day after Christmas (January 6th) but has been transferred to a Sunday (in the U.S.) and will be celebrated on Sunday, January 8, 2012. As the final feast in the series of Christmas celebrations, The Baptism of Our Lord signals the end of the Christmas season.
In observing the entire Season rather than just one day, we find the full story: 1) Christmas – the birth of our Savior as a humble infant. On this day He becomes human! 2) Epiphany – His manifestation as our King through the visit of the Wise Men who proclaim Him to all peoples and 3) His baptism – Almighty God’s exhortation of his perfect yet fully human Son, on the day Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist! What a rich treasury our Church provides! There are so many reasons to celebrate and so many wonderful traditions to be shared.
Merry CHRISTmas to you and yours!
2 Replies to “CHRISTmas Traditions: keeping Jesus at the center”
Thank you so much for this post! I am German, and though my family doesn’t do many heritage-related things, I love trying to incorporate them. You’ve saved me the trouble of searching the internet for common German Christmas traditions!
God Bless you and your family!
Thank you, Arafea, for the kind words. I also remember a couple of little traditions from my childhood in Germany. One was, that we would sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve while the angels where ‘helping’ baby Jesus decorate our tree and lay out our unwrapped gifts. When it was time to enter the magical setting, one would hear the tinkling of a little bell, calling us to enter.
My mother used to also tell me that the reason the evening sky was so colorful with its vivid pinks was because the angels were baking cookies for Christmas. May you and your family have a Blessed Advent and Christmas!
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