Christmas with the Atheists
So the last month or so, I took a long, lovely break from writing this website, and, in fact, from just about everything. My last semester was the busiest one I've had, and I needed a vacation. So when the last grades had been turned in and my prospectus draft was finally done, I put away my dissertation plans, shelved my comprehensive exam books, put the website on hold, and took a holiday.
Taking a holiday doesn't necessarily involve physically leaving - I can sit on my own couch reading Asimov's Foundation series or watching all the episodes of Twin Peaks ever made. But this time, it was December, and that meant I was heading off to Michigan. Because I always go home for Christmas. Always.
My mom once told me that after my dad proposed to her, and before they got married, she let him know that she would always go home for Christmas, and that that was simply part of the deal if he wanted to marry her. Lucky for me, he agreed, and I remember when we were kids spending Christmas with my mom's family in Gronau and New Year's with my dad's parents in Köln.
Even after we stopped going to the grandparents' for Christmas, it was still an event of paramount importance - which is kind of weird, because my family is not what I'd call Christian. We're a bunch of atheists and agnostics, and I was raised an atheist, which is cool by me. I went to church with friends on rare occasions, so I had some idea what that whole thing was about, and in high school I read the Bible so I could better argue with the evangelical Christian folks, most of whom hadn't taken the trouble to ever really read what they wanted us all to believe in, but I never much believed in the whole God thing, let alone the Jesus thing.
And yet. Christmas.
Christmas is a big thing for us, for the whole family. Not because of the presents - though those are nice. It's because it's tradition (while we're atheists and agnostics, we are still culturally Christian). And perhaps more importantly, it's also because we're immigrants.
My folks came to the US from Germany in 1969. I was born here, but grew up speaking German and visiting family in Germany fairly frequently. I still speak German to my parents and brother - and I also speak it to my cats. We always had strong ties to Germany, familial and cultural - though I must also say that German nationalism and certain kinds of German cultural celebration make us all nervous (justifiably, given where it's gotten us in the past.).
Two weeks ago, my friend Anja, in Berlin, asked me about our Christmas, and so I described it to her. On the 24th - the day we celebrate Christmas - we bring in the Christmas tree, a live spruce we cut down a few days earlier at the tree farm we've been going to for 20 years.
My parents get the Christmas ornaments from the basement, and my brother and I, with help from our partners and any friends who might drop by, spend a couple hours decorating the tree, weeding out the ugly ornaments, placing the treasured ones just so, and figuring out where the best places for candles are.
Yes, that's right, we put candles on the tree - and no, we're not afraid the house will burn down. My dad's in charge of actually putting the candle holders on the tree, and as long as you pick sturdy, horizontal branches, and make sure there's nothing hanging over the candle, you're just fine. (You don't ever leave the candles burning unattended, but that's just common sense. Plus, a fresh, live tree wouldn't go up in a 30-second puff of smoke anyway.) We hang some tinsel on the tree - not a ton, but enough to reflect the candlelight - and it's not just any tinsel, but really old-fashioned, heavy tinsel that still contains lead; it hangs on the tree differently, and doesn't sway around so easily, and we have to import it from Germany. (And even there, it's getting hard to find.)
While we're decorating the tree, we usually have Kaffee - and that's not just coffee, but a whole event, sort of like afternoon tea, with cookies and cakes and hot chocolate and candles and ornaments and the whole nine yards (or meters). The German Christmas season is all about the food, and here my mom's cookies and cakes, and the goodies my uncle sends from Germany, are central: Stollen and Lebkuchen, Nußsterne, Anisplätzchen, Springerle, and pepperkakor (the latter are actually Swedish, and became part of our tradition after we spent a year there when I was a kid).
Once the tree is decorated, and we're all stuffed with cookies, we retire for a bit of last-minute present-wrapping and arrange the presents under the tree. Then, because it's been a good hour or two since we've last eaten, it's time for dinner.
Mmmm. Christmas dinner. The centerpiece is the goose - and my mom makes a damn fine goose - and it's accompanied by Kartoffelklöße (potato dumplings), Rosenkohl (brussels sprouts - in browned butter), Rotkohl (red cabbage), green beans, gravy and stuffing, and vegetarian alternatives where necessary. We eat, we drink (what would a German holiday be without some fine alcohol?), and then if we still have room, we have dessert. (And if you were wondering why I gained 7 pounds over break, well, wonder no longer.)
After dinner, we go into the living room, where the tree is. There, we assemble, seating ourselves facing the tree, and we turn off the lamps and light the candles on the tree for the first time. There's no way to describe how magical that moment is, but I'll try anyway. We've just had a fabulous meal and we're there in our holiday best, happy to be home and with the family. The whole house is dark; we're sitting close to each other, and the only light is coming from the candles on the tree, fuzzy tinges of light reflected in a thousand fragments on the tinsel, lighting up the tree and our faces. The room seems to glow a little, and then we start singing Christmas songs, not too many, just our old favorites, O Tannenbaum, Stille Nacht, Alle Jahre wieder, and maybe Ihr Kinderlein kommet or Adeste Fidelis. Because we only do this once a year and we don't necessarily remember all the verses, we have to hum a bit sometimes; if you've ever seen South Park's Cartman singing O Holy Night, well, we know the feeling.
When the songs are over, we turn to each other and hug and wish each other a merry Christmas, and watch the tree for a moment longer, softly shining.
And then it's time for the presents; the candles stay on but the lights come up just a little, so we can see what it is we're opening, and everyone opens the presents in order of age, youngest to oldest, one at a time, until we're done - or until we think we're done and then someone remembers a present that for whatever reason did not end up under the tree, and then we continue a little bit longer.
So I described all this to Anja, and Anja said, "Wow, ihr seid ja deutscher als die Deutschen!" - "You're more German than the Germans!"
And it's true; we are, at Christmastime. The traditions are more important to us than they are to folks in Germany. They represent a connection that we have to make an effort to maintain, something that's effortless if you're actually living in Germany. It's the classic immigrant story, immigrants who maintain traditions that the folks back home quit doing years ago.
But it's not just about the place, about not being in Germany. The place stands in for something else, the central part of these traditions, and that's family. The reason we're so aware of being German is because my parents maintained family ties with great care. We spoke German because if we didn't, we couldn't talk to our grandparents, or to our cousins, and we knew them and loved them and couldn't let that happen. And we celebrate Christmas the way we do because it reminds my parents of the Christmases they spent with their parents, of traditions the families handed down without even realizing what they were doing.
And the traditions change with us, too. Our Oscar the Grouch ornament, made by my wonderful first-grade teacher Mrs. Gaede, has a place of honor on the tree every year; and every year, my brother and I argue over the place of an ugly ornament he made when he was eleven and should've known better. And our family's changed, too, grown to include my partner and my brother's partner, who sometimes participate and sometimes - especially when it comes to tree-trimming - watch us with bemused smiles, planning either an anthropology paper or a way to escape. Because they're with us, and we're with them, and because we all keep growing, the traditions will keep changing, little pieces here and there.
But the heart of the traditions has stayed the same, and at the risk of sounding incredibly, terribly cheesy, I'm going to say that the heart of those traditions is the family, is our family - not just who we've come from, but who we are now. The heart of what we do is the fact that we're doing these things together. It's one of the only times we can count on all of us being together, and that, more than anything else, is what makes our family Christmas something I treasure.
January 17, 2003
last updated 17. January 2003
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