Christmas tradition by Debra HollandDebra Holland
When I was a girl, my family used to attend Christmas Eve candlelight service, and it was always my responsibility to sit next to my grandmother. I was the oldest granddaughter, and my “Omi” and I had a special bond. Omi seemed to enjoy the service, singing the hymns in her rumbly, German-accented voice. But during the inevitable singing of “Silent Night,” she’d always start to cry. I’d squeeze her hand, wishing I could make her sadness go away. She’d take out a handkerchief, blow her nose, and squeeze my hand back. By the end of the service, her sorrow seemed to pass, and she’d return to her obvious enjoyment of the holiday.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and collecting her stories that I learned when “Stille Nacht” was sung, she became homesick for her Christmas past. She mourned loved ones long dead, a beautiful house that was destroyed, and a special time of celebration that only existed in her memory.
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Here is a description in (mostly) Omi’s own words of her childhood Christmas Eves:
In Germany, Christmas Eve is the most important time of the Christmas celebrations. Our family festivities started around 6:00 in the evening. Earlier in the day all the children had taken a nap so we could stay up as late as we wanted. Then we dressed in our best clothes and went downstairs to wait impatiently in my father’s study. Finally, we would hear a noise, as if St. Nicholas was just leaving. Full of excitement, we waited a few long minutes. Then my father unlocked the doors to the Christmas room, and we rushed in.
When we went into the room we would see a Christmas wonderland. The large, beautifully decorated Christmas tree first drew our eyes. It was lit with dozens of burning white candles in little gold holders, which clipped to the branches. From the branches dangled round glass bulbs, glass icicles, and silver tinsel. In addition to the glass ornaments, the Christmas tree also held special treats of marzipan shaped into flowers, fruit, and miniature bread loaves, different types of chocolate figures, and candy rings filled with sugary liquid.
Each child had his or her own little table piled high with their gifts. In those days we did not use wrapping paper and so it was often possible to immediately see that much longed for present. Also at each table was a “Buterteller” a colorful plate filled with cookies, exotic nuts such as almonds in the shell and Brazil nuts, as well “South Seas fruit” of bananas and oranges.
Before we could go to our tables we would sing Christmas carols. We started with singing to the Christmas tree. I don’t remember the name of our first carol, but the first line was “On the Christmas tree the lights are burning.” The second song was “Oh, Tannenbaum.” We sang several more carols and ended with “Stille Nacht.” Then each child would recite a poem about St. Nicholas. I had a difficult time being patient and waiting until we’d finished the singing and reciting. The whole time I would eagerly examine the tables from afar and try to pick out which one belonged to me. Finally the singing was over and my father or stepmother would lead each of us to our own table. We didn’t have much time to examine our presents because we were only allowed to choose one gift before dinner.
After each child had picked a gift, we went into the dining room. The table was festive with brightly lit candles, decorations of evergreen, and the best china and crystal. The traditional Christmas Eve meal always included a carp from our pond. A week before Christmas, my father had caught the carp, keeping it alive in a trough of water, so it’s system would be cleansed of pond water.
The entire carp, including the head and tail was beautifully arranged on a big platter. The carp would have a slightly blue tinge. One year I wandered into the kitchen to find out how the fish came to be that color. I was shown how the carp was prepared with vinegar in order to take away the sweet taste. It was the vinegar that caused the blue color.
After dinner we were finally able to spend time with our gifts. My father seemed almost as excited as his children. He would walk around and watch us play with our presents. He kept his hands in his pockets and jingled his keys. Occasionally he would say that this was all much too much--as if he wasn’t the one who’d arranged the lavish festivities.
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To this day, our family has retained many of our German traditions. Christmas Eve is always a wonderful celebration with extended family. Christmas day is spent with immediate family. Growing up, I always thought I was so lucky because I had TWO Christmas celebrations, complete with presents. My friends only had one.
What I didn’t realize until I became an adult was that the reason I was so lucky had nothing to do with presents, and everything to do with having a loving family who made the holiday special. And not just Christmas, but every holiday all year around. In my entire life, I’ve always had wonderful holidays--every single one.
My family is not a gift I take for granted. As a therapist, I hear a lot of unhappy holiday stories. This week, I’ve helped several people emotionally prepare for holidays with their dysfunctional families. I’ve also counseled the grieving friends and co-workers of a man who’d dropped dead at work of a heart attack. His family will mourn his passing this Christmas.
About six or seven years ago, I started taking a few quiet minutes on Christmas Eve to sit and appreciate the presence of every single family member. I absorbed the happiness around me into my heart and gave thanks to God for the special time we all had together. I knew at future holidays, some of these loved ones would no longer be present. When that happened, I didn’t want to have the guilty feeling: I didn’t appreciate what I had until it was too late.
Now, having experienced several Christmas Eves without my Omi or my father, I’m so grateful that I took those moments. And I will again this year. But as I appreciate my family, busy chatting with each other, playing with their gifts, or preparing a meal, I’ll also take a moment to thank my Omi and my father for all the love they’ve given me.
During this busy holiday season, I hope you, too, find a few minutes to appreciate all your blessings.
And also, as you celebrate this Christmas or Hanukkah, may the angels’ ancient blessing reside in your heart:
PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO ALL.