“Why don´t you have a Christmas tree yet?” Francesca asked, looking around my living room. “In Germany we don´t put up a Christmas tree before Christmas eve”, I said. Only when Francesca looked at me as if for the first time she doubted my authority in everything German, I started to think about what I just had said.
Of course, from late November on, Christmas trees sprout in cafeterias, shops, offices, all public places. Like in my son´s daycare center. Awkwardly, it stands in the middle of the entrance hall, surrounded by racks filled with dirty wellingtons. For days, I haven´t even realized that it was there, till yesterday, when a branch caught the strap of my rucksack. Feeling the pull I turned around and saw a green spiky something, manhigh, falling toward me. I grabbed the stem before the needles could scratch my eyes out and tried to push it back in place. But an invisible force worked against me. The tree fell to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, back to the right, in widening circles, till it crashed on the floor. I found myself bent over the tree, hands still holding the stem, pieces of lametta on my arm. I blushed, coughed, and picked the lametta from my coat. I tried to understand what had happened. Finally I saw it, the “Christbaumständer” that gave the tree the momentum I struggled against. “Of course” I thought when I looked at the iron weight to hold the tree: “The old troublemaker. How could I forget”.
The Christbaumständer of my youth had four screws to hold the tree. To mount the tree, my father had to crawl on the floor, crouch under the tree and adjust the screws one after the other while my mother gave directions. If my father were a philosopher he would have mused about every thing being interdependent. Maybe chaos theory was inventend under a Christmas tree. “More to the right”, my mother said. He turned the left screw. “Stop, hold on, now more to the left”. My father turned the right screw. “Not that much”, my mother cried.”Didn´t I tell you to take it easy?” He loosened the right screw. The tree fell to the right, pricking his neck. “Can´t you make your mind up”, he shouted, “left or right, right or left”. “It would be much easier it you didn´t always choose such a crooked tree in the first place”, my mother retorted.
This invariably happened on December, 24th, at three a clock in the afternoon. We children would press our eyes and ears to the keyhole till my mother would cover the keyhole to keep the proceedings secret. When finally, around 5 o´clock, the silver bell rang to tell us that “Christkindl” has brought the presents, we rushed in the room and stood in awe in front of this elegant tree in his best clothes. Our eyes went down to the presents that awaited us beneath. They had to wait for much longer, as now one of us had to read the bible :” Und es begab sich zu der Zeit, dass Josef von Nazareth …”, the whole Christmas story of Mary and Josef looking for shelter and finding it in a stable. After reading, we had to sing “O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie grün sind Deine Blätter ….” and “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht …”. Then, at last, the presents: Bescherung.
The traditional German Christmas dinner is surprisingly simple and basic. More often than not it is “Kartoffelsalat mit Wiener Würstchen”–potatoe salad with frankfurter. Maybe our ancestors knew that nobody could concentrate on eating after all the exitement. Or the women decided to enjoy this day, too.
Funnily, this part of the tradition has changed most. Whereas not to put up the Christmas tree before Christmas eve ist still a must. At least in German families …. in most German families … ok, maybe not so much in Frankfurt.
But then, in Frankfurt, Germans cross the street when the traffic lights says “Don´t walk”, too.
But this is another story.