When you are the child — or grandchild, like me — of immigrants, traditions from the old world permeate your everyday life, your overall upbringing, and, most notably, your holidays. Growing up, I quickly realized that kids could be turned off by the ways that my family’s cuisine or celebrations were different from theirs — like when I told my fellow fifth graders that I ate kibbeh nayeh (or Lebanese raw beef), only to be met with gagging sounds. Sometimes, however, those childhood judgments were born from jealousy — like when I announced to a room of fellow first graders, moments before holiday break, that I had two Santa Clauses in my life. That’s right, two. And that’s not even counting Pelznickel. This is because I grew up celebrating Christmas with my German grandmother.
I grew up living down the street from my Oma (German for grandmother), and she was part of our immediate family. She picked me up from school, taught me how to bake, served as my style icon, and was one of my dearest friends. She also taught us about adversity and strength, as she had survived World War II in Germany and then moved across the world as a war bride with her Lebanese-American husband.
While I am not proficient in German, my Oma read German books to us when we were small, like Struwwelpeter (if you had an Oma too, you know this is terrifying). She sang us “Schlaf Kindlein Schlaf,” and made a delicious Weinachten dinner every Christmas Eve. We had all of the classic dishes like blaukraut, beef rouladen, gluhwein, sauerbraten, marzipan pigs (for good luck in the New Year), and Lebkuchen. Our table was also heavy with Lebanese food made from family recipes on my grandfather’s side, like kibbeh and tabbouleh, and Louisiana dishes — given that the celebration was being held in New Orleans, and my grandmother had been cooking Louisiana dishes like jambalaya since the early 1950s. After dinner, we would go stargaze and look for Santa’s sleigh in the night sky over Lake Pontchartrain. The drive home was slow and peaceful as we would snake through subdivisions and gape at the illuminated houses covered sparkling in red and green, or iced in white.
When we returned to my grandmother’s house, the back
door would be open, and there would be gold packages beneath the Tennenbaum (Christmas tree). Christkind had
come! Christkind was the female angel present at the birth of Jesus, who brings
gifts to good Bavarian boys and girls. Many German towns cast a teen girl to
play the coveted role of Christkind at Christmas markets, or
Christkindlmarkets. Every year, Christkind made special stop in the American
South for two little girls who loved her dearly.
Though Christkind was a welcome guest, there was one holdover from the old country that my Oma did not impart — Pelznickel. Many of you may know that on Sankt Nikolaus Tag in Germany, Saint Nick fills children’s shoes with candy. What many people do not know is that this leaner, sterner Santa is accompanied by Pelznickel — a mean Santa in furs and animal skins, who, as my Oma told it, would put bad children in a sack and drown them in the river. I was glad that, unlike Christkind, that guy didn’t travel overseas. I was afraid he could, though, so I needed to be extra good, just in case.
It was only when I started going to school that I realized that not everyone had a Christkind. My mother explained that every culture has a different Santa, so people who didn't have an Oma’s also didn’t have Christkind. The jolly fat guy still made an appearance at my house, too, though. After a night at Oma’s with Christkind, we would wake up in our home to find that Santa had come. But Santa went to everyone’s houses. Christkind was special.
Our last German Christmas with Christkind and Oma was in
2012. We had the biggest, most beautiful dinner in all of the years we
celebrated Weinachten. Cooking the elaborate meal had been hard on my 87-year-old
Oma. And we knew that next year, we would have to insist on making the entire
dinner in our home, and expected that Oma would be a guest. Less than one
month later, we lost Oma, and that last Christmas proved to be even more
significant than we had realized weeks before. We did carry on her dinners. But, having
no children in the family, Christkind had become a thing of the past.
And tradition continued to change this year — my first married Christmas. I got married over Thanksgiving, just a few weeks ago — a lovely idea, except for the fact that it used up all of our vacation days. This year, it is just me and my husband, alone together on Christmas in Seattle, while our families are across the country in Louisiana. So, when I opened a package last week to find a metallic-wrapped gift inside with a tag that said “To Caroline, from Christkind,” I began to cry. I had not seen those two names written together in years. And I wasn’t sad or happy — I simply felt love through an old tradition. No matter how far away I am, the spirit of Christkind can find me.
My husband and I have been trying to start our own
traditions, like baking gingerbread men and decorating a Washington fir tree
with cinnamon baked ornaments. I am also planning on cooking my first
Weinachten dinner, with spaetzle and fleischkuekle, a modest version of the
feast Oma made. But just like Oma’s dinners, I hope that ours will expand in
time too, as loved ones begin to visit us and our own family may grow.
But this year, it is just us two, marrying memories from the past and dreaming of Christmases in the future. We are taking the old and making it new again.
Images: Wikimedia Commons; Caroline Gerdes