Many countries around the world celebrate Christmas. In general, the celebrations are similar, but when you get down to the details, things can get very different. To me, it’s those differences that make the various Christmas celebrations interesting and unique.
Half of my family is German and when I was younger (a long, long time ago), we used to spend every Christmas with my relatives in Germany. Naturally, we adhered to the German Christmas traditions. In fact, my family never once celebrated Christmas the American way.
The biggest difference comes when you open the presents. In the US, we open presents on Christmas morning. The drawback is obvious. You have to somehow get your children to go to bad and worse, to actually go to sleep, when the only thing on their mind is tearing open those presents. Then they wake up earlier than they ever will again in their entire lives, so they can get at those presents as soon as possible.
In Germany, you open presents on Christmas Eve. This eliminates that problem and sounds like a great idea for both the kids and the parents, but there is one big problem. Imagine what happens when you give a kid a whole bunch of new toys, let them play for a few hours, then tell them it’s time for bed. How do you think that goes over? Not well, let me tell you. Nevertheless, I prefer the German way.
Another big difference comes in decorating the tree. In the US the whole family decorates the tree together weeks in advance of Christmas day. The presents sit under the tree for several weeks as well.
In Germany that’s not the case. The tree stays bare until Christmas Eve. On that day, about two hours or so before the presents are opened, the kids are taken out of the house. We used to leave with one or two adults and go for a walk. I always liked this walk. Obviously that was largely because I knew what was waiting for me when I returned, but I actually liked the walk itself, too.
It was usually very cold with snow on the ground. I’ve always liked snow. After an hour or so of walking in the cold, we would hear Christmas bells. That was the adults who stayed behind signaling that it was time to return. We were told it was baby Jesus ringing the bells, but no one ever believed that. I mean, the bells were hanging on the wall all year round. How stupid did they think we were?
When we got back to the house, all the lights in the living room would be off. It was warm, hot even, from a fire in the fireplace. Candles provided the only light, most of them on the Christmas tree. Apart from the candles, all kinds of decorations covered the tree from top to bottom. A Jesus figure adorned the very tip. Presents wrapped in multiple colors sat beneath the tree.
That’s right, while the kids are out walking around in the cold, the adults stay behind to decorate the tree and put all the presents under it. The children get their first glance of the finished tree on Christmas Eve, shortly before they get to open the presents.
Some families tell stories or sing songs before they start opening presents, but that’s just torture for the poor children. In our family, our grandfather tried to get some songs going. That’s what his family did when he was a child and he wanted to relive those memories. Unfortunately for him, the rest of us put a stop to that real quick. Our family suffers from a complete lack of musical ability in our family. We also hate singing and there was no way they could have gotten us to merrily sing songs, while staring at a Christmas tree with presents piled underneath.
I vaguely remember a few poems or something, but I was mainly focused on the presents. And soon enough, they let us at them. Once they were all open, we spent the rest of the evening playing, until it was time for bed. It was always way too early for that, but somehow they got us to go to sleep. They may have laced our drinks. I have no other explanation.
The thing I remember most from these Christmases is actually the walk. That’s right, it’s not the first glance of the tree with all the presents and it’s not even opening the presents or playing with them afterwards. I remember the walk out in the snow. I don’t get many chances to do that anymore these days, so that’s what I miss the most. I would have laughed if you tried to tell me that back then.
So what do you think about the German Christmas eve tradition? Do you think you would prefer it to the American tradition or do you like opening the presents the next morning and decorating the tree together with the children weeks in advance? Let me know in the comments below.