Two Christmases in one year? Impossible you say! I get two Christmases every year. Lucky old me! Of course, you want to know how that can be, so I’ll tell you.
My wife is German, so my children grew up bi-lingual. My grandchildren are also bi-lingual. Which helps to explain why we celebrate both German and English Christmas festivities.
As you know in Germany it is celebrated on 24th of December. Whereas in Britain it is celebrated on 25th of December. And there you have it; two Christmases each year. Not only are the dates different, but also the modes of celebrating are different. The basic differences are that whereas the German one is solemn and deep in its praise for the coming of the Saviour, the British one is jolly and festive. Neither mode should be criticised.
I’d like to tell you some of my personal early experiences of both.
Since I’ve already mentioned grandchildren, you would be right in thinking that I am referring to times long past. But before I do that, I would like to mention, how different modern times are. I am writing this in November and you could be excused for thinking that Christmas is already upon us, the way it’s already being advertised so heavily. In my younger days it wasn’t so.
My first introduction to the German Xmas (Xmas is often used as an abbreviation of Christmas) was at the same time as I met my future wife’s family. I was wide eyed and full of speculation as all these new experiences opened up and developed before me. The afternoon began by all the family getting changed into their ‘Sunday best’ clothes. Then there was afternoon coffee, immediately after which my future mother-in-law disappeared into the living room, from which everyone else was barred. At five o’clock came the tinkling of a little hand bell, upon which, everybody trooped silently into the living room and stood in a half circle at the Christmas tree, under which were the Xmas presents for later distribution. The tree looked truly beautiful. In front of the presents was, of course the obligatory nativity arrangement of figures and animals.
During this time the air was full of the fragrance of a fir twig which had been placed over the open flame of the fire place, intermingled with the suggestion of spice aroma from the kitchen. There followed bible readings, prayers and of course the whole family singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ to the accompaniment of the piano. I was so deeply impressed by the solemnity of it all that I was left speechless. The evening meal was potato salad with Frankfurter sausages. All new to me. You have never tasted anything so wonderful as that potato salad. Then, of course, midnight mass (in a Catholic church, and I a protestant!) More new experiences. Throughout the service I didn’t know whether I should stand, sit or kneel. So I just tried to copy the others. Nice to know that my future-father-in-law was at the organ.
And now, to my childhood English Christmas time.
First to note, is that the 24th was a normal working day (then, not now). Christmas began on the morning of 25th. Although, there was a hint of coming Christmas, when several weeks before, my mother would make Xmas puddings. Not the pudding you know in Germany. These were made of many dried fruits, suet, alcohol, and I know not what else. I do know that before it was steam-cooked for many hours everybody had to stir the mixture and make a wish. Later came the Xmas cake. A rich, fruity, big cake, which was then coated in marzipan, and topped with decorative icing. Before going to bed on 24th we would hang up a stocking on the foot of the bed. Some families hung their stockings from the mantelpiece of the open fire place. The story (in little children, the firm belief) was that Father Christmas would come down the chimney with his sack of presents, which he then put into our stockings. Our excitement reached its peak when we scrambled out of bed in the early hours of the 25th, to see what was in our stockings. Our presents were very modest when compared with those children expect and mostly receive in modern times. The mid-day meal was large usually with a goose as the meat part, followed by Xmas pudding all aflame. Later in the day there was a party with 10 – 12 children sitting around a table full of all the sweet goodies, special to Xmas, including the Xmas cake. There followed various forms of party games (no TV then).
It must be remembered that Christmas was mostly devoted to children. There were parties for the rest of that week in different neighbours’ houses. Somewhere on Christmas Day, most families found time to go to church to sing happy Christmas carols. During the preceding week groups of kids would go carol singing around neighbouring houses, hope for a penny or two. Also, during this week we would be busy making coloured paper chains to hang around the room. There would be sprigs of holly put on pictures, etc. No house would be complete without a sprig of mistletoe hanging over a door or the like. The custom allowed ‘he’ to kiss ‘her’, as a surprise, under the mistletoe.
December 26th is Boxing Day, usually a day of sports and hunting. The name originates from the days when the lord of the manor house traditionally gave each of his servants a coin, in a small box. This may illustrate to you the difference in our typical celebrations of the birth of Christ. The one serious yet happy, The other merry, jolly, yet framed in the solemnity of the occasion. I still read the relevant passage from the bible on the 24th, at the Christmas tree, to remind the children that Christmas is more than a commercial stunt. (They like it.)
Am I not lucky? Two Christmases every year and always with my children and grandchildren sitting around the table with at least three different languages flowing across it.
Merry Christmas to You!
Solemn: serious and earnest.
Saviour: in this context a word used by Christians for Jesus Christ. From the verb to save, meaning to rescue.
Jolly: happy and informal.
Christmas is already upon us: Christmas is already here.
Mother-in-law: your wife’s mother.
Tinkling: ringing – ususlly by a bell.
Troop: to walk in a line with other people
Nativity: the birth of Jesus Christ.
Fir twig: a piece of a branch of a Christmas tree.
Father-in-law: your husband’s father.
Suet : animal fat fo cooking