From my living room window as I write, I can look out across the broad front lawns of our farm like a lovely picture postcard of wintery New England. In my fireplace, the good cedar logs are burning and crackling. I just stopped to go into my gleaming kitchen to test the crumbly brown goodness of the toasted veal cutlets in my oven. Cook these slowly…
Obviously that statement isn’t entirely true, and if you’re an old movie lover like me then you’ll recognise that it’s from the movie Christmas in Connecticut. While I didn’t have Christmas in Connecticut with a sailor, I did have Christmas in Heidenheim with my great German friend, Anna.
My family doesn’t have too many Christmas traditions, so it was a lot of fun to be able to witness/participate in the many traditions that her family has. These include watching a movie called Der Kleine Tannembaum (the little Christmas tree) on the 23rd in the evening; and then on the 24th we went out into the forest
and found a sad little tree to decorate, just like in the movie. While we decorated our little Christmas tree, Anna’s mom decorated their Christmas tree. The catch is though that no one but the parents was allowed to see the tree before the evening, so there was a big screen that they pulled down in front of it to prevent anyone from seeing it.
In the evening we went to the Christmas Eve service (which was an excellent children’s musical) and then when we returned home we had a special dinner. After dinner while us kids cleaned up the table and kitchen, her parents went and made sure that the tree and presents were all ready.
Now if you think that that’s the end of the traditions you would be wrong. And if you think that people in this house just tear into their presents all willy nilly you would be double wrong. And if you assume that these presents are just thrown together and wrapped haphazardly you would be incorrect on all accounts. Christmas spirit runs deep in the Seidel family and you can see it not only in the way that they prepare for the holiday, but also in the great traditions that they have and the stories behind their conception.
The rest of the night unfolds like a modern Charles Dickens book. The kids wait out in the stair well for their parents to ring a bell that signals that they can come into the living room. Upon entering the living room you are greeted not only by a wonderfully decorated tree alight with real candles and beautifully wrapped gifts beneath it; but you are also greeted by the sound of German Christmas songs being sung by her mother and father.
The children sit down and join in the family chorus. In between the songs there is a smattering of Christmas stories and laughter (and some English for my benefit). Once the songs are sung and the tales woven, the time has finally come for the opening of the presents.
It is as this point in the night that I encountered a tradition that I believe is entirely unique to the Seidel family. Instead of passing out presents or having everyone open them at once, they play a game of memory. Each gift is labeled with a picture, and when you find that pair in the game you go over and retrieve the gift. Then whomever the gift belongs to gets to open it (this is also the moment when I learned that if you ever want to win a game of memory you should never play with Anna, since she remembers where everything is!).
The unwrapping of the presents is just as precise as the wrapping of them. Everyone takes great care to not rip the paper, and to unwrap the gift as carefully as possible. The Seidel’s are more concerned with the giving of the gifts (many of which are hand-made) than the receiving of them; and it’s this attitude that makes for such an amazing atmosphere on this Christmas Eve.
The next morning there is a Christmas Day church service that we attend (and that was translated into English for me). It isn’t until you are singing in a church surrounded by another language that you can fully realise just how amazing it is that God can understand so many hearts and so many tongues. And while I didn’t always know what I was singing, it didn’t really matter because I was worshipping none-the-less. Once the service was done we returned home to eat another giant meal (I thought that I could eat a lot, but when it comes to Germans I can barely keep up). The rest of the day was spent playing games or just being together as a family.
Something that I am eternally grateful for is the fact that I felt like family during my entire stay with Anna and her family. There’s always a degree of awkwardness or discomfort when you have a guest over, especially when they are staying over a holiday such as Christmas. However I didn’t feel out of place or ostracized in the least. If anything I felt welcomed and like part of the family. This feeling made it okay to be away from my family over the holidays because I was still with a family.
I am so thankful for the hospitality Anna and her family showed me, and for all of the fun times that I had while I stayed with her. From making gingerbread monsters….uh I mean houses…
And now I’m off to the Netherlands for a week and a bit (in fact I’m writing this from the train, which is a whole other can of worms to talk about…), and I’ll let you all know how that goes. For now, stay warm and dry, and enjoy this time of year.