A Christmas For Grown-Ups

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About
a week before Thanksgiving I stopped at my favorite coffee shop
on my way to work to get my weekly sweet mocha when I noticed that
a Christmas tune was already being played over the speakers. The
first thing that came to my mind was "Oh no! Is it time already?"
The Holiday Blues was trying to make its presence known by reminding
me that for the next month everybody will be driving themselves
crazy at the shopping malls. I despise shopping malls, and won't
set my foot in them unless I have to see my hair dresser.

I
wasn't in the mood of having to deal with crazed shoppers in goofy
Christmas sweaters and untangling Christmas lights. I try to tell
myself that it is not the meaning of Christmas, but still the madness
of the season goes on each year.

My
homesickness always hits the hardest around Christmas, because it
was the most precious of all the holidays for me as a girl in Germany.
The feeling I've had over the past 20 years during Christmas here
in America has always been bitter-sweet, since I missed being around
my family in my little village, and trying to accept the American
version of Christmas.

The
German word for Christmas is Weihnachten and means Holy Night.
I truly used to feel the holiness during the month of December.
This sense of reverence can barely be found any longer in our world.

"Holy"
means spiritually pure and sinless and deserving reverence and adoration.
These are virtuous qualities of a new-born child, and Christmas
should be an enjoyable time to find that lost innocence that adults
have forgotten in the clutter of making things way too complicated.

For
most of my childhood years the start of the winter season slowed
life down. There was no field or garden work; all the preparation
for the winter was finished, food was stored away, the wood piled
up in a dry place for the long winter months, and more time was
spent indoors to get away from the cold. It was a natural way for
man to repose and be around home and hearth.

My
Christmas used to begin with the first Sunday of Advent, a tradition
still known in the Catholic Church but forgotten in our modern world.
Advent ushers in the coming of the Lord and is symbolized by four
candles, with one being lit on every Sunday until Christmas Day.
My mother would decorate the evergreen wreath with red bows, four
candles, pine cones and mushrooms and place it on the table or sometimes
even hang the wreath on long ribbons from the ceiling. Every Sunday
morning one of us kids was allowed to light the appropriate candle.

When
I was a little girl, I was not aware of the symbolism so much. I
was more fascinated with the candle. I loved the candlelight, especially
in the winter. Our days were shorter and darkness crept in early.
During the Advent season we may already have had our first snow
fall and the flickering of a candle with its soft glow made the
harshness of the seasonal change seem less cruel.

Advent
also signaled the start of the popular Advent calendar that all
of us kids would get from our parents. The calendar usually showed
a Christmas scene and has 24 little windows to be opened each day.
Behind each door was a chocolate treat. The biggest piece of chocolate
could be found behind the door of the 24th — Christmas Eve — which
usually had a picture of baby Jesus lying on straw. It still amazes
me how easily kids get excited over the taste of chocolate, when
it is the only treat of the day.

My
mother was always present for the big ceremonial event of opening
a new window after supper (probably to make sure we don't get into
more than just one window each day, and which we sometimes secretly
did by putting the empty wrapper back in the spot).

On
December 6th the mythical figure of St. Nicholaus made his appearance
with his servant "Knecht Ruprecht." He was so real to
me and my brother, because he actually came and visited us one night
when my parents still lived in the southern Bavarian town of Freising
near Munich. We had our little chairs set up in our room, patiently
waiting in our pajamas for St. Nicholas' knock on the door.

Sure
enough, he came through the door with his servant. He looked like
a priestly bishop with a white beard and long coat. We both had
to stand up being in the presence of such a "holy" man so we could
answer his questions. He mostly asked us if we were good and what
we've done throughout the year. Naturally my brother and I were
so stunned that all we could do was utter "yes" and nod
our heads while our mouth dropped open and our eyes got bigger.

We
always kept an eye on "Knecht Ruprecht" though, because
we weren't sure if we were out of trouble yet or not. There was
a big sack in his hand, and he may have received an update of the
recent trouble my brother and I had gotten into. There was still
that possibility of ending up in that sack. Well, it never happened.
St. Nicholas rewarded us with a bag full of oranges, walnuts, chocolate
(and not a stack full of expensive toys).

St.
Nicholaus represents a 4th century bishop near Asia Minor, who showed
generosity toward children. His feast day was celebrated on December
6th and has become Santa Claus in North America.

We
understood his reputation quite clearly. We knew of the difference
between right and wrong, and knew that we were being watched by
this all-knowing man. The generosity of his giving — even if we'd
gotten into a few troubles — showed us unconditional acceptance
during the Christmas season.

In
later years he also came to our Kindergarten. I remember Sister
Bertha lighting a candle that mingled with the sweet smell of oranges
and evergreen. We'd have spicy ginger bread cookies and milk and
when St. Nicholaus left the room he left behind a sense of wonderment
in us kids.

The
time spent from St. Nicholaus to Christmas Eve was enjoying the
snow with our sleighs and making decorations. I used to make straw
stars and snow flakes out of shiny paper to put into our windows.
Sometimes I got to go to the Kristkindel Markets and look at all
the arts and crafts, but paying more attention to the sweets.

It
was not our custom to put a lot of electrical lights on houses.
There were a few pine trees in people's gardens that had some lights.
For the most part there was darkness outside and only the houses
had the glow of Christmas in their windows.

I
enjoyed sitting in the warm kitchen while my mother was baking cookies.
Sometimes I got to grind the walnuts or measure the sugar. There
were at least four different kinds that she made and carefully placed
them in a tin container (so she could hide them from us kids). There
was a strategy involved for hanging around the kitchen table during
baking time.

Ah,
the hunt of finding that tin can! We knew she'd put it somewhere
in her bedroom, and going after a secret bite of a cookie was like
looking for the Easter egg. German lebkuchen (big round spicy cookies
made in famous Nrnberg) covered in chocolate or icing was our evening
treat, and they left their evidence very visibly above our mouth.

Christmas
in Germany is the time of poetry and music. Almost every organization
will have their annual Christmas celebration. I joined the local
band when I was 10 and started playing the clarinet. On our first
Christmas we gathered for a concert in the only tavern of our village.

The
festivities took place in a large room above the guesthouse that
was used for local dancing. Everyone came out to hear us play including
the elders of the village, our parents and grandparents. I had to
stand up in front of everyone to recite a Christmas poem. I was
so nervous that all I could do was stare at a candle light near
a table. My heart pounded so fast and I blushed so much, I must
have glowed like a light bulb. I was so glad when I could sit back
down in my chair again, and play my clarinet to the notes of Silent
Night. There is nothing better than to disappear into the harmony
of the orchestra.

Every
year we went around the village on Christmas Eve playing Christmas
music. It used to be so cold that people would pass out hot tea
and a shot of Schnapps for the grown-ups. Half the band was quite
happy by the time they got home. I'm sure the notes came out a bit
off as well. However, the snow made things soundproof so the cows
and dogs didn't go too crazy when we passed by.

Christmas
Eve was the holiest night of the season. Even the shop owners closed
down early in order to get home to their families. My father was
sent out on his most important assignment of the year to find "the
perfect" Christmas tree, with final instructions from my mother.

Children
were not allowed to see the decorated Christmas tree until that
night. The anticipation of entering the living room seemed just
endless for a little kid.

Oma
and Opa used to come into town by train when we still lived in Freising
and that diverted us for a while. My mother spent the afternoon
in the living room putting the final touches on the tree until finally
we were called for supper, a sign that the presenting of the gifts
were near. Trying to sit quietly through dinner eating the goose,
red cabbage and dumplings was just torture and then we heard the
bell ringing. The Kristkindl has arrived!

What
I felt the moment the door was opened has never changed over the
years — all lights were turned off and in front of my brother and
me stood the most beautiful tree illuminated in candlelight and
sparklers – "Aaaahhh!!"  Everything was quiet
and it took us a moment before we saw the wrapped gifts under the
tree.

My
brother and I felt the magical presence of Kristkindl. All we could
do was look at that tree. Everything looked so different in the
room with the contrasting play of shadow and light. We were brought
back to reality when my mother started singing “Silent Night.” We
usually made it through the second verse until my dad took over
the tune of “Oh Tannenbaum.”

We
stood there for several minutes with folded hands praying to the
Christ Child, when finally my mother made the move to pass out the
gifts that Kristkindl left under the tree. For the rest of the night
we stayed busy playing with the new toys, which was mostly under
the living room table, while the adults sipped their wine and did
their grown-up conversation.

This
family tradition hasn't changed much over the years when we moved
in with my grandparents on the farm or into our new home in the
early 70's. We were never allowed to see the tree until Christmas
Eve. The tree stayed up until the feast of the three kings (Epiphany)
of Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, an unknown tradition in the West
where altar boys dress up as the three kings that visited Jesus
and brought him gifts. They bring special blessings into the house
using incense and myrrh.

The
whole house would smell like "church" and I always thought it was
so exotic and made me think of distant lands. The custom is to write
the initials of C, M and B with chalk over the front door including
the "ano domini." These initials are Latin words and mean "God bless
this home."

The
final crowning of Christmas Eve was going to midnight mass with
the entire family. It was the best ending of the day, because after
mass the lights are turned down with only a few candles burning
at the altar and around the nativity scene. The congregation knelt
down at the sound of the pipe organ and we all sang Silent Night.

It
never failed that I would get teary-eyed during this song. I never
asked myself why that happened, but that song was just so moving,
because it really spoke in words what we all felt that night: a
family coming together during a silent night welcoming a new born
babe. The innocence and purity deserved reverence and adoration.

Well,
yesterday I got home from work and set on my couch wondering if
I should get my Christmas decoration down from the attic. I really
wasn't in the mood for it. All I wanted to do was put on my pajamas,
fuzzy shoes and curl up under a blanket on the couch and snooze.

Everything
was quiet in the house. My girls have left with their grandparents
for a five-day trip. And then something stirred (it wasn't a mouse);
something inside me woke up and said "let's do it, let's do
it!"  I had a vision of my girls clapping their hands
and bouncing on their toes with big innocent eyes full of joy.

I've
never gotten the Christmas tree and boxes down from the attic before.
For the past five years this was my son's job, but now he's off
in college and won't be home until Christmas week. Motivated by
this exhilarating feeling — quite familiar to my childhood memories
— I pulled down the ladder from the attic and started to enter the
darkness with a small lamp in my hand.

At
first I thought there is no way I can find the tree as I started
rummaging through the boxes. But after a few frustrating maneuvers,
it kind of became amusing to figure out in which box could possibly
be the tree. It made me think of my advent calendar and I grinned.

I
had to open almost every box to see what was inside, since I couldn't
read some of the markings (forgot the glasses). It almost became
a mystery game wondering what I will discover in the next box —
forgotten Christmas Cards, a broken ornament, arts and craft from
my son when he was a little boy, and forgotten decors that made
me think of the toys in the "Nutcracker" story.

All
the boxes are now sitting in my garage waiting to be unpacked and
their content to be used to bring that Christmassy feeling into
the house. Right now they don't look like much in their boxes. But
the potential is just waiting (so I'm hoping).

Later
on that night I sat again on the couch in my pajamas and fuzzy slippers.
I lit a candle and made a sigh knowing that in the next few days
I will have to get to work, and curled up under a blanket. 
It was again quiet.

I
was thinking how I want to surprise my girls before they got home.
I wanted them to walk in and see the tree and to be overcome with
that awe that I felt as a little girl. I know they will be, because
I can remember the same awe that I had walking through the living-room
door on Christmas Eve many years ago with my parents and grandparents.

I
sat there for a while and closed my eyes and rolled through the
memories of Christmas Past. I began to be thankful that I can still
remember and that I listened to that little voice. Maybe it was
a knock rather than a stir that I felt.

It
changed my attitude. And before I blew out the candle to go to bed,
I knew the meaning of a Holy Night. I crawled under my fluffy covers
in bed and felt at bliss. I felt warm and cozy inside, like I did
when I saw the candle light on the advent wreath. I had no homesickness.
And before I drifted off to sleep, I thanked God for letting me
come home through the vision of a child.

December
9, 2003

Sabine
Barnhart [send her mail]
moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with
her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for
an international service company.

Sabine
Barnhart Archives


        
        

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