Every year around this time I start thinking about Christmas in Germany. In Germany, our Christmas tree was always small, with short needles and plenty of space between the branches to hang the decorations. Every year it was decorated with clear, glass balls that were tied to the branches with little bits of red ribbons. Most of the ornaments were stars woven out of stiff, gold-colored straw, or tiny wooden figures painted with glossy paint. My favorites, though were the tiny angels made out of a little wooden ball for a head and a ring of fluffy white feathers forming a gown. There were strings of white lights, but on Christmas eve the sparkle was provided by dozens of little red candles clipped to the branches with pewter clips shaped like pinecones.
The first weekend in December, Oma would bake an assortment of cookies -- sugar cookies cut into shapes and glazed with egg or sprinkled with powdered sugar, vanilla and chocolate spirals, meringues, almond cookies and (an addition picked up in the States) Pecan Tassies. Every sunday we would celebrate the Advent by lighting a candle and having "Kaffee und Kuchen," the German version of Tea.
The weeks before Christmas also brought the Christmas Market to town. Despite the cold and usually dreary weather, everyone would visit the old center of town to shop at the stalls selling handcrafts, knick knacks, and Lebkuchen, and to drink hot spiced wine.
It became the tradition to have fondue for dinner on Christmas eve. After dinner we would sing carols before finally diving into the pile of gifts, a happy confusion of searching for presents, ripping paper and exclamations of surprise and thanks.
What a change when I first began spending Christmas with C's family. There, the tree is as tall as the ceiling, plump and bushy. It is covered with a layer of sparkling painted glass ornaments, tinsel, lights, and lovingly-preserved kids crafts. Lights twinkle around the whole house, inside and out, lighting up Christmas pictures, dishes, towels and figures in every nook and cranny. In the kitchen C's mom would be dressed in a Christmas sweater, wearing tiny, tinkling sleigh bells for earrings, cooking dinner or dessert. Christmas eve, after the kids were in bed or gone home, would be spent drinking wine, decorating the tree and wrapping presents, late into the night.
To the dismay of the little ones, this would delay breakfast and consequently the Opening of Presents in the morning. No running down the stairs and ripping open presents, here. First, everyone would assemble in the living room (not an easy feat in itself) and one person was designated "Santa" (usually C or his brother). "Santa" would pick a gift from the mountain of presents bulging under the tree, read the tag ("To Gramma, from C") and hand the gift to the recipient. Everyone watched the unwrapping, and when all admirations and thanks were expressed, the next gift was announced. As you can imagine, this process could take many hours, and the Opening of Presents often had to be interrupted for lunch, and sometimes even for dinner. Sometimes, when the mountain of presents began to seem a little thin, Gramma or Grampa would disappear, only to return with more bags or "big presents", too big to be wrapped.
Christmas with C's family was always fun, warm and comfortable, but I often missed my own family traditions. At first, Christmas didn't seem quite right without the candles and the Christmas market and cookies. I felt like I was missing something, but I didn't realize that I was gaining something, too. I don't know when, exactly, but at some point, the H family tradition became my traditions, too. Suddenly, I didn't want a Christmas without the "Santa" and the endless, one-at-a-time, unwrapping. And yet, I still missed the German cookies and Advent wreaths and candles.
It's only now, with two little boys to focus things, that I'm starting to let go of that It Has To Be The Way That It Always Was mentality. Now I see that the meaningful things that we do are becoming our traditions -- baking a gingerbread house, cutting a tree, Christmas eve party at the Clapps, Christmas day in Maine. I want to give the boys happy memories; I just hope they don't spend too much time trying to recreate The Way It Always Was someday.