A local paper recently published a request by the Department of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation (FMWR) for the Army Headquarters in Wiesbaden. The Department was asking German families to invite two American soldiers to their homes for Christmas.
The article surprised me, because American soldiers, families and military bases have disappeared from Frankfurt, Darmstadt and many other towns. We are getting used to their absence and the little article was a reminder of the remaining pockets of presence such as Wiesbaden, Heidelberg or Kaiserslautern. It is also a reminder that in this season there are people who celebrate far from home, in a country unfamiliar in language and tradition, despite the fact that many of them can claim roots in this very country.
I hope they don’t forget to tell the soldiers that the gifts are distributed on the eve of the 24th of December, that the two following days are holidays as well and the “Christkind” (Christchild) delivers the presents in Germany.
It is a commendable idea to allow soldiers, far from family and friends, to enjoy a few hours each day in a holiday spirit and I would like to make a recommendation to the host families. Why not get to know your guests four weeks before, at the beginning of the “Adventszeit”, a uniquely German tradition and time?
I only came to my “Adventskranz” (Wreath of Advent made of fir branches) when I had children of my own. As a child I could only admire it in the houses of friends, as my mother was not keen on adopting this tradition. Adventskränze where often left forgotten with their candles lit on dinner tables, and caused more than one dining room to burn down. But that Adventskranz is at the centre of a well loved tradition.
When my children were in Kindergarten, and after the Martinszug celebrations where over, Christmas “Basteln” (handicraft) preparations started. We parents were invited to create Adventskränze, to be sold at the Christmas Bazaar. It was fun to learn how to wrap the different types of fir around a straw circle, tightening it all down with a fine wire and then decorating it as tastefully as possible, finally crowning the composition with four candles.
It was so much fun, I was glad to get a chance to make several “Adventskränze”. After all the years in Germany I finally got my own Adventskranz and was initiated into the secret, but not so hard, art of preparing one and the smell of the firs was fantastic! (Of course I never left the candles to burn unattended when it stood on my dining table.)
Germans even have a little saying about Advent:
Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt.
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier –
dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.
Advent, Advent, a small light burns,
First one, then two, then three, then four –
then the Christkind is in front of your door.
Here is the cheeky version
Ein Lichtlein brennt
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei ,dann vier
Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür
Und wenn das fünfte Lichtlein brennt
Dann hast Du Weihnachten verpennt
and when the fifth light burns
then have you Christmas “verpennt” (overslept)
The children baked cookies during Kindergarten hours and packed them into little plastic bags decorated with Christmas motives. The cookies themselves were shaped like bells, or Nikolaus (NOT Santa Claus) or stars and hearts with the help of cookie cutters. These cookies then went on sale with the Adventskränze. Christmas smelled of fir, shared learning and butter cookies.
So why not ask your soldier guests into your home four weeks before Christmas as you assemble around a festive table, decorated with a birthday wreath of green and four candles that take four weeks to light (one more on each Sunday). Maybe even ask him to help you make the wreath and let your guests light the first candle which heralds the anticipation of Christmas.
Some of the guests have the chance to restore a tradition to their cultural memory. Heritage is valuable to a human being because it gives confidence in who he is and why. Others might not have the same heritage, but will appreciate that they are invited to share the serenity and beauty of a ritual that celebrates peace.
And when your guests return on the eve of the 24th of December, they come home to friends and traditions; most precious gifts to receive at Christmas.