Old-fashioned Christmas in Germany

The Christmas star

The Christmas star

Really? You want to know how Christmas was celebrated in the ‘good old days…’ in Germany? Let me go back about seventy-five years. And when I tell you how my family celebrated it, be assured it was the same way with all the families I knew. We lived in Pomerania and since Germany had many different parts or provinces it may have been a bit different in East Prussia, or Bavaria, or Holstein, or the Rhineland! Believe it or not, the people in Bavaria didn’t even think the northern Germans were Germans at all – and vice versa. The spoken dialect was (and still is) different and therefore the traditions with Christmas might also have been different. I wasn’t aware of it as a small child as my world was also small.

The exciting time started with an ‘Advents Kalender’ – a calendar with little windows for each day. Each window was marked with the date. We were allowed to open one window each morning and enjoyed looking at the picture behind the little window blind. It was hard not to open more windows to find the one gift we hoped to get at Christmas. You couldn’t open more windows because it was then damaged. On Santa’s list, it counted as being a ‘bad girl or boy’. We received this special calendar from one of our grandmas on the first Sunday of Advent.



The four Sundays before Christmas were special. Different Christmas cookies were baked each day and the house smelled wonderful. A few days before the First Advent, Grandma would take us to the forest. We would look for small pine branches to take home and make an ‘Advents Wreath’. The wreath was decorated with pine cones and four red candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas. The wreath would be hung with red ribbons over the main table or placed directly on the table. On the First Advent, only one candle would be lit, on the Second Advent, two, then three until, on the last Sunday before Christmas, all four candles would be lit. By now, they were all a different length! Each Sunday we would sit around the warm tiled oven at dusk with our cats in our laps and listen to our grandma telling stories from her childhood or rekindling memories of our own Christmases past.

Shoe shineAnother part of the pre-Christmas time was St. Nicolas night celebrated with cleaning all our shoes, including Mom and Dad’s, on the evening of the 5th of December. St. Nicolas would come when we were sleeping, check the shoes and put some sweets into the shiniest pair. During the war we were told just to put one pair out to save St. Nicolas precious time. Most kids didn’t even have more than one pair of shoes anyway.

Christmas in the stores didn’t start before December. Christmas trees were sold just a week or so before Christmas. To look for and pick our perfect tree took some time. The tree was usually kept in a cold barn or shed. We children would never see it again until Christmas Eve. The parents (oh no, oops, I mean Santa!) would decorate it just the night before Christmas Eve. Even then, we still had to wait until late afternoon on Christmas Eve after the church service with the singing of the wonderful old songs, and the school children acting out the Nativity. The worst was that we also had to eat dinner with that, by now, knotted feeling in our stomach before we could even see our decorated Christmas tree. Dinner on Christmas Eve was always potato salad and wieners, or fried fish. Each family had their own special way of decorating their tree. Ours was always full of angel hair, tinsel, cookies with colorful sprinkles on them and twelve white candles. The tree was always placed on Dad’s desk. Our cousin’s tree also had tinsel but lots of colorful, different size shiny ornaments and different colour candles. No electrical lights – just real candles! They were lit with long matches and the parents always kept a close eye on the tree. There were times when Santa was too busy, so he had dropped off the gifts and they were all under the tree. Before we could touch anything we each had to sing a song or recite a poem we had learned for this occasion. It was so difficult for us children to finally arrive at the Christmas celebration.

Christmas Eve was the real Christmas for us and we could stay up past our bedtime. We would all sleep in on Christmas morning, even our dad. Poor Mother had to get up and look after the farm animals. She would also heat up the stove and the ovens to make sure it wasn’t so terribly cold when we got up. Pails full of water from the pump were kept in the kitchen and sometimes there were thin layers of ice on them. We were allowed to play with our new toys before we got dressed. We always received something for the body (socks or sweaters we needed anyway!) and something for the soul, toys or books.

On Christmas Day, we would either have relatives visiting for a noon dinner consisting of either carp with white parsley gravy or goose and red cabbage. If the relatives didn’t come to us, we would go to their house. Either the visitors or we would stay for coffee and cake, munch on home baked special Christmas cookies or crack nuts. Each child also received a “Bunter Teller” for Christmas. That was a colourful plate with cookies, candies, nuts, apples and oranges which we could eat without asking if we could.

My signature tree

My signature tree

Boxing Day was what we would now call “open house”. It was a day when friends and relatives just dropped in for afternoon coffee. Since all our Christmases were white, we children would be out with the sleighs to pull them up the mill hill to race down screaming “Bahn frei” – warning kids coming uphill to keep clear.

I don’t think kids nowadays would be happy with this kind of life. Do you blame me if I kept to some of the traditions during my adult life and am still dreaming of ‘my kind of a white Christmas?’.


The Weeping Angel

In this video I read a Christmas story found in my latest book – “Forget Me Not – A Bouquet of Stories, Thoughts and Memories” which I hope will be generally available to all my blog followers early in the New Year. I will be sure to post further details in due course. In the meantime I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Giselle Roeder

Giselle Roeder

Saint Nicholas Day

Children in Europe get very excited on the evening of December 5th. They do something their parents for once don’t have to remind them of:

Shoe shineThey clean their boots and shoes! And polish them until they shine.

Why would they do that? Only on this particular day, December the 5th? It is a tradition. Once upon a time, way back in the fourth century, there was a kind Bishop with the name Nicholas. He was the Bishop of Myra, now called Anatolia in Turkey. He had the gift of bringing children back to life or cure terrible ailments. He loved children. He gave them little gifts or secretly dropped coins into their shoes. After he died on December 6th 346 he was canonized and became a Saint, a Saint to protect the children. The people had revered Bishop Nicholas because he was so kind to their children. They celebrated his life on that day. To keep Bishop Nicholas, who was now Saint Nicholas, ‘alive’ in the minds of their children they would put little gifts or sweets into their cleaned shoes. If the children were unruly or had not been good they would put some dry branches or a stick into their shoe to remind them of a forthcoming punishment from Saint Nicholas. But Bishop Nicholas had never punished the children. The dry branches or the stick were the invention of the parents.

The tradition for children cleaning and polishing their shoes on the evening of December 5th has lived on, especially in Germany, Austria and Poland. Saint Nicholas is known by other names, – in German speaking countries it is Sankt Nikolaus; in Switzerland it is Samichlaus; in the Netherlands it is Sinterklaas and there are many more. The American Santa Claus or the Father Christmas in the UK is derived from the good old Saint Nicholas. For commercial reasons they now turn up at Christmas, Christ’s birthday. He is depicted a little differently in each country where the morning of December 6th is anticipated by the children and they look forward to find something in their shoes. They do what children have done for hundreds of years:

They clean their boots and shoes and put them outside their door. Some children are told to just put one shoe out in order not to look greedy. I can tell you from my own experience that we always put both shoes out to show Saint Nicholas how well we have cleaned them. But it is true there was only something in one of them. I remember, later in life, when I had no small children around and I would slip into my shoes or sometimes even my slippers in front of my bed my toes would touch something unusual: A wrapped delicious piece of chocolate or nougat and the warm rush of surprise would be flooding my body.

Did I believe it was Saint Nicholas who brought it? Yes, naturally. Sometimes I had taken over Saint Nicholas’ deeds and sometimes I think my teenagers had also been hired as helpers. Saint Nicholas’ Day is not replacing Santa Claus at Christmas at all. Not in most countries.

Give it a try. Tell your small children about Saint Nicholas and have them put their cleaned and shined shoes out on the evening of December 5th and enjoy their excitement on the morning of the 6th! It is magic to find something in one of your shoes…especially when you are not anticipating it.

Have Fun!

A NEW Christmas Song: “White Christmas “ #Christmas

By Giselle Roeder, – Melody – ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star…’

The Christmas star First group sings:

“What beats Christmas in the snow?
Jingle bells and forty below?
Boots and parkas, scarfs and mittens,
Cozy homes and cuddly kittens.
Sitting ‘round the fire place,
Happiness for every race?”

Second group sings the answer:

“A beach snow white and sun aglow,
turquoise waters, people slow…
Suntan lotion, bathing suit –
crystal-symphonyA big white ship and lots of food:
Tell me, is that not a scheme
Against your ice cold Christmas dream?”


Both groups sing together:

IMG_2064“But you miss your friends at home,
I see you run to ev’ry phone.
You think ‘Christmas’ – and go shopping –
Drown your thoughts while barstool hopping.
And in all the glittering light






A Christmas Fairy tale: “The Weeping Angel.” #Christmas

snow angel joeyBig tears were welling up behind his eye lids. He tried very hard to blink them away. He was flying within a large flock of fellow angels, wings spread wide, arms stretched out as if ready to embrace someone. You see, this angel was new at angel-ling. He could not yet hide his feelings behind an angelic smile.

He couldn’t take his eyes of the planet earth: There it was, hanging in the atmosphere, slowly, ever so slowly turning around and around. Because of this, our angel could see many different countries, many different people, and they were all doing many different things. It was Christmas time, the time when humans on earth celebrated the Lord Jesus’ Birthday, different ways in different countries, even different dates. They do so every year, have done so for more than two-thousand years. Now, once again, they were singing of love and Peace on Earth, giving presents to each other, thinking more than usually of helping and sharing with the less fortunate and the poor. Our angel wondered: Why didn’t they do this all year ‘round? Didn’t the Lord say, “The left hand does not need to know what the right one does”? Wouldn’t this mean they should not have a reason for helping but just do it? Why wait for Christmas? Couldn’t it be like Christmas all year ‘round?

Oh, our angel thought, there is so much trouble down there. The humans are trying to destroy each other, and their beautiful planet in the process.

It was not the fire from the deep bowels of the earth, spit out by angry boiling volcanoes, which was trying to reach way up into the sky. No. No, it was fire made by the humans to destroy other humans, burn each other’s cities and kill each other’s people. They call it “War.” There seems to be war in many countries, on many continents. Where neighbours destroying neighbours? Our angel spotted a prison camp in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t escape from there. A barbed wire fence was built around it anyway. Watch-towers were on the four corners, and several heavily clad soldiers on each of them with machine guns pointed to a large group of shivering men in the middle of a square. Many had no shoes, just old rags wrapped around frostbitten feet. A well-dressed commander stood before them. A huge flag on a pole beside him did not move. It was twilight, the time between the parting day and the rapidly approaching night. Frost crackled in the air. The breath of the men, coming like tiny puffs of smoke, suspended over and around each of them. What an eerie scene, useless in the big picture of history, but still already part of it.

Wait! What was that? Sounds of music? Was that a sound coming from a single, shy voice in the wintry night air? The sound got louder, stronger, steadier, as all the men in the middle of the square joined in, despite the warning shots fired around them, bouncing off the hard, frozen earth. Loud and clear it rang up to the sky:

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…”

The flock of angels slowed their flight, even descended a little. They were allowed to do that if they saw something unusual, you know. A magical night it was. A wondrous feeling was evoked by this chorus of men in the middle of nowhere, kept in a camp from which there was no escape, even if the barbed wire fence and the guns would not be in place. The angel saw they were lost but there was hope against hope.

Is there still a chance for “Peace on Earth”? Maybe. Maybe all isn’t lost yet, thought our angel. Now, what was that? All the armed soldiers put down their guns. They joined the singing in a strange, guttural language. As our flock of angels moved on they saw and heard it happen in many countries as they passed over the slowly, ever so slowly turning planet earth. Soldiers came out of the trenches and shook hands with their enemy, even gave each other little gifts and kicked a ball around. Tomorrow is another day; they may have to shoot at each other again.

The tears behind our angel’s eye lids welled up mightily. No blinking them away anymore. Large and hot, they silently rolled over his cheeks and dripped down into the atmosphere. They froze to tiny icicles, falling, falling and falling until they reached warmer air, melted slightly, changed their shape and turned into snowflakes. They drifted down to planet earth, a few at first, then more and more, and still more! You see, all the angels had started weeping, just as all the men had joined the singing in all those languages, after one had had the heart to start the song. The angels flapped their wings to hold them steady in the air, and because of all the flapping, a wind came up.

The wind made the snowflakes dance, up and down, around and around. Soon the air was filled with snowflakes, closer and closer to planet earth they came. They fell on the upturned faces of the singing men, they fell on people who had lost a loved one; they fell on children who had nothing to eat or didn’t even have a place to call home. The snowflakes mingled with all the tears. Soon you wouldn’t know which of the drops, rolling down young and old cheeks, were tears and which were melting snowflakes. The cold dark night, the endless loneliness of a faraway but star filled sky filled the hearts of all people with a longing so strong that it hurt. How they wanted to be with their loved ones, oh, to have a bed again, a warm room and a warm coat, and hot soup to fill the belly. But mostly, they were longing for Peace on Earth!

Flock of angelsAnd so it was, and so it is: When you see a single snow flake drift down, look up for others. Because, angels fly in flocks you see, and when one is sad and sheds a tear, it is never over a trivial thing. Therefore, all the other angels will be kind and supportive and compassionate, and soon, they cry too. During all the commotion, they will lose height and will have to flap their wings, just like birds, to stay in the air. And that is the wind that makes the snowflakes dance. You can count on it. The angels are just overhead.

You don’t believe me? Go out on a snowy winter night at Christmas! You will see it for yourself.


Christmas 1947 in East Germany

 Father was back home

gulag-guard-towerMy father, after two years prison camp in Siberia, of all the people of our village aged between 16 and 60 who had been rounded up in February 1945 and taken away was the only person to return.

Christmas 1947 was the first Christmas after his return.

For the German people Christmas Eve is the start of Christmas. The tree is decorated by all in the family. At dusk a visit to the church follows to attend the special Christmas service with the reading of the Christmas story and the acting out of the nativity by the children and to sing the old favorite Christmas carols put everybody in the mood. The companionable walk home in the sparkling night with millions of stars on a dark velvety sky and the crunching snow underfoot will forever be one of my treasured memories.

After an evening meal of potato salad and fried fish, we each got a present of colorful homemade socks and mitts, the wool unravelled from old socks or sweaters. The Red Cross must have had donations of used toys because my sisters, little Edith, Ingrid and Christel each got a doll. The girls looked like Christmas angels, their little faces glowing with joy. I received a used book Gisela and Ursula and a scribbler. I had started to write poetry and I still have the faded, yellowed little booklet, more than sixty years later. I had discovered that my Granny’s father, who was born in 1855, had written quite a number of songs for the Evangelical Church Song Book and I tried to follow in his, my Great Grandfather’s, footsteps. My poems were not religious and perfect like his but full of longing for our lost Pomerania homeland and even the welcome relief of death for many older people.

On Christmas Day, we went to Aunt Tutti’s for a Christmas noon dinner. She, Uncle Fritz, their three boys, Lisa and Irene, Tutti’s and my dad’s younger sisters and the six of us made it a big celebration, not just of Christmas but that we all were alive and together again.

At teatime, when everyone was relaxed, Father mused about his first Christmas in Siberia and no eye remained dry.

“My prison camp was in the middle of nowhere. Escape was impossible. They had built a barbed wire fence all around the compound anyway with watchtowers on the four corners. Heavily-clad guards pointed machine guns towards us at all times. Before we retired at night, we had to line up and they checked how many of us were there because sometimes some had died during the day. Many of us had no shoes but just rags wrapped around our feet and with the Siberian cold, we were shivering. A Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle logo was on a high pole and a warmly dressed officer stood beside it during roll call. It usually happened during the twilight hour, between the parting day and the rapidly approaching night.

 Silent night“On that day, Christmas 1945, a bitter frost crackled in the air and our breath came in puffs like smoke, it was suspended over and around us. I heard a shy thin voice starting to sing, the sound got louder, stronger, steadier as all the other men standing in the square joined in, despite the warning shots fired around us, bouncing off the frozen earth. Loud and clear, it rang up to the sky, ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…’

 “You can’t imagine what it felt like. It was an eerie scene, useless in the big picture of history but already part of it. We were lost. We knew we would most likely die and still thought of Christmas and sang with thoughts of our loved ones and home on our minds; hoped against hope for peace on earth and many a tear froze to an icicle on the lashes. But the big surprise for us was when the guards put down their guns and joined the singing in their strange guttural language.”

Dad sat there, lost in his thoughts and memories. My mother took his hand.