Something made me feel slightly off balance as I shopped for my groceries, something that I caught from the corner of my eye, but I was too busy and rushed to take time to put my finger on it. Only when I had paid and was leaving the “coin fell” (fiel der Groschen). It was the end of October and I had walked past the first stacks of Christmas foods in the stores. In good human fashion the things that should not be there my conscious mind had tried to ignore, but my subconscious had picked up the signals and pointed.
It felt as unexpected as snow in June (at least in these parts) and I didn’t have the Christmas appetite yet for the delicious Lebkuchen (Ginger bread) hearts coated with chocolate, the Spekulatius (spiced cinnamon cookies), Marzipan in golden wrappers and Weihnachtsstollen (cake with dried fruits and coated in sugar). Although I always regret that the moment Christmas is over these goodies disappear without a trace (not even a sale!) from all the shops, yet displaying them earlier and earlier feels wrong and I purposely refuse to buy any of these goods until December.
Comes the 1st Advent and the 6th of December, Nikolaustag. Bakeries offer a special edition Nikolaus-Weck (a sweet bread Nikolaus) and this officially starts the season. Christmas Decorations follow the foods and the festive mood can begin. The advantage of waiting a little before indulging is to avoid piling on even more seasonal kilos than necessary.
Butter cookies are sold and many a German produces his special home made cookies, which they generously offer at every occasion. If you are planning to save some for after Christmas, do not open the bag, because once you do you won’t stop till you’ve finished them all.
One of my sisters organized a Cookie Baking session a few years back. We all prepared different mixes and had a great time preparing our Christmas cookie rations. Our children were also present and the younger ones were quite enthusiastic for the first hour. Fortunately there were still many hands to finish off the work and so it was a fun activity—for one time. No one suggested we repeat this every year and maybe we will do it again someday, but none of us feels compelled as our German peers seem to.
I remember my father disappearing into his cellar office to work on his multitude of Christmas Cards two months before Christmas. Although he sends fewer nowadays, he still gets to work on them two months before. He takes great care in choosing a picture and message and I am sure he enjoys the activity. I do suspect though that he feels obliged to send these messages. I don’t. I have had years in which I designed, made and distributed many Christmas cards (before I had children!) and I really enjoyed it, yet now that I don’t have the time I don’t feel any guilt at not sending them. I would love to get in touch with family and friends more frequently, but I have to spread this contact out over the year. Waiting for Christmas only means making it impossible or stressful, due to it being such a busy season.
One thing I have not done yet is to write a Christmas Letter. I spoke to several Germans about this recently. They had heard of such letters and even received one or two from American acquaintances. They wanted to know if it was really normal in the States to write a letter like that—a kind of mass mailing—to family and friends. They could not imagine writing one themselves, although when I encouraged them to use it as a writing exercise they were eager to try.
But could it become a habit or rather duty, like Christmas Cookies? I have not noted many Christmas Cards in German houses. My parents received as many as they would distribute. These would regularly become part of the Christmas decorations, displayed on shelves or strung up on strings.
Like so many times, when thinking about a simple tradition that at times borders on obsession there are more layers and an entire history to explore and understand. I am still at the beginning of this road and as I answer one question I discover another ten to ask. I intend to enjoy this exploration and the occasional exercise of such a tradition.
In the meantime have a cookie.