December 18, 2009

A Very German Christmas posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken Many of our beloved Christmas customs originated in Germany--the carols, the decorated tree, and everybody who went to my school in the 1950s knows the story of Hans Gruber and the mice in the organ and how "Silent Night" got written. Although I love traditional family Christmas "stuff", I have always been drawn to Germany. When I had to research and write about a country in 6th grade, I chose Germany. That was before the two sectors were walled apart. I would never have remembered this, but my mother kept that report and gave it back to me when I was packing to go to Germany for my junior year from the University of New Hampshire. (Yeah, Mom kept stuff, but it's not like she was a candidate for "Hoarders" or anything.) I spent that junior year in the old city of Marburg an der Lahn, about 90 kilometers north of Frankfurt. It was before the days of email and cell phones and instant communications, and since I was a scholarship student, I couldn't fly home for the holidays. Some of my fellow UNH group also stayed in town for Christmas and we decided to make the best of it. We planned a special meal for Christmas eve, forgetting that everything would have to be prepared on a hotplate. I was astounded that one of my friends, albeit not known for her culinary skills, managed to screw up the add-water-and-make-cream-sauce frozen peas and onions. I bought a little live Christmas tree and had to get it across the city to a friend's room. It rains a lot in Germany, and Christmas Eve afternoon was no exception. It absolutely poured. (I used to quip that the cities were built on hills to facilitate runoff from the torrents.) I also didn't realize that the buses would stop running, so I was lucky to get on one of the last ones with my tree. The Germans never could figure out what to make of us Americans, and that evening was no exception. We all managed to gather, set up the little tree and decorate it with a few ornaments and, in the German tradition, with little candles that clipped to the branches. We put a few gifts under the tree and finally found enough courage to light the candles. Painfully aware of the fire danger, we admired the lovely sight for maybe twelve seconds, took some pictures, and (I swear I could hear a little crackling noise) blew out the candles before we caused a conflagration. After dinner and our tree ritual, we went to a midnight service in a medieval church in the old city, up on the hill. The rain had stopped and as we passed a wing of the castle, we watched a man decorating a huge tree in his living room, and a light snow began to frost everything. It was magic.
DECORATING THE TREE Posted by Sheila Connolly (Sarah Atwell does only cactus) I had to go out and buy new Christmas tree lights this week. That shouldn't be a big deal, but it really brought home to me how much lights have changed since I first became aware of them. I have pictures of every tree my family had, starting in 1950 (left). I won't bore you with them all (unless you really, really want me to), but they are surprisingly consistent. We always had real trees, and we always decorated them the same way. We resisted (and continue to) artificial trees, including those trees pre-wired with all the lights. We resisted "theme" trees in single colors, especially pink. I'll admit we did for a time use tinsel (that strand-by-strand kind), but eventually abandoned it. Our tree-decorating was a tradition, and each year we would gather as a family, pulling each ornament out of the boxes (some of which are as old as I am), commenting on when and where we got them. My mother would sit back and supervise, dictating where each one should go, and how to balance the color distribution for the lights. It's a tradition I've tried to uphold ever since I officially left home, starting with the tree I had in my first apartment in Cambridge (right in the nice bay window in the front, facing Harvard Street), and the memorable tree in a later apartment for which my roommates and I enlisted the help of friends and neighbors at a party–which may explain why there were plastic molars (yes, teeth, from the orthodontist who lived upstairs) and carefully strung potato chips on that one. But I was going to talk about lights. My parents had twinkle lights long before they were common–the string even had its own transformer, and the bulbs were hard to find, but at least they lasted. Then they invented lights that twinkled without help, although they give out pretty quickly. More than a decade ago I found a string of "programmable" lights that did all sorts of things. This year I plugged them in and they refused to do half of their tricks, and I didn't like the ones that were left. I've found an all-white one that is close but not quite the same. A couple of years ago I found a fabulous short string of lights that actually changed colors! I love those, but I can't find any more of them, and I've already broken one of the fragile bulbs. So I was left with one string of standard bulbs that I bought in 1972, which looks just like the string of standard bulbs my parents bought in 1950. Obviously it was time to go shopping. I was surprised to find that there were pretty much only two choices: those (@#$%&*) little white/colored things (I have plenty of those, and I don't like them) and the more recent LED lights. I don't want to think of myself as a Luddite, so I bought a few strings, round and pointy (does that pointy form have a name? Does it think it's a pine cone? A flame?). And I'm going to grit my teeth and give them a try this year. I could go on and on about the ornaments. I was even going to give you a forensic analysis, zooming in on the pictures of the trees from the 1950s and demonstrating that, yes, I'm still using some of the same ornaments; a few have survived and are now semi-antiques–as am I, I guess. Of course new ones have been added over the years, so many that there's no longer room for all of them on one tree. My sister and I usually give each other at least one new ornament each year, which keeps increasing the collection. And this year we have two kittens who have no idea what a treat they're in for (we introduced Dexter to snow today, and he's quite confused), so I'm guessing we'll be using the indestructible wooden and plastic ones this year, rather than the heirloom ornaments. But I'm hoping I can get my (small) family to join in the decorating, and to remember the happy times of Christmases past. There's something magic about a twinkling, glowing tree covered with memories, isn't there? What's your favorite ornament?

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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