1. Over the course of nearly 40 years, my experience of Christmas has shifted from OMG PRESENTS!!! to Omg family dramaz :-((( to Omg intercontinental relocation = escape from Christmas, win!!1! to How does one in fact Christmas??!? to, finally, Omg we are responsible for our children's Christmas, no pressure *sob*.
2. The final stage has been severely complicated by clashing Christmas cultures. Christmas is a very specific sort of festival. This is Armin's German Christmas:
– Advent wreaths are brought out from the fourth Sunday before Christmas and one candle per week is lit. This tradition is sacrosanct though not especially religious. Also, folksy advent calendars with little pockets for small, parentally devised surprises every day of December are typical, rather than commercial chocolate or toy calendars.
– Lebkuchen and stollen are consumed throughout December. Also glühwein.
– Children are dispatched on afternoon of 24 December for a walk or other distraction. They return to find that, astonishment and glory! the Christkind has swooped in to bring a fully decorated tree, complete with real candles, and a whole heap of presents.
– Christmas dinner is had (no particular menu; if in Switzerland it is more than likely to be Fondue Chinoise, which is festive and requires little kitchen labour, very sensible) and presents are opened that same night.
– The 25th is a holiday of no particular import, much like Boxing Day is in the English tradition.
This is my South African (Catholic-ish)/English Christmas:
– The tree is put up and decorated in early December. Presents are gradually added to the pile underneath the tree as the month progresses. Such anticipation!
– Mince pies. Christmas cake. Glühwein.
– The evening of the 24th may or may not include Midnight Mass. If it does, then one or two presents may be opened after mass (so, in the early hours of the 25th).
– Presents are to be opened first thing in the morning of the 25th.
– The rest of the 25th is more or less given over to a vast amount of fairly specific food: roast turkey and/or ham, Christmas pudding and/or trifle, etc etc.
My experience is that English Christmas is notably more food-centric than German, with a rich panoply of absolutely essential Christmas foodstuffs; also that it's more concentrated on the day of the 25th, with less emphasis on Advent (unless you're religious). So the major conflicts to be resolved have been (1) which actual date constitutes Christmas, when the tree goes up, and when presents are to be opened; and (2) what do we eat, given that Christmas cake and pudding are not available, I'm too lazy/disorganised to make my own, and Armin would prefer to avoid a meat feast.
At this point our syncretic tradition goes:
– Small wooden advent calendars are brought out, which look adorable but don't really fit anything behind their cute little doors, so filling them is a challenge. (This year, that challenge was resolved by hiding things elsewhere and leaving clues in the actual calendar. Treasure hunt!)
– Lebkuchen and stollen are consumed in moderation, since the kids don't really like them.
– Tree is bought on the weekend before Christmas (a bit too late for decent choice, but manageable) and decorated en famille on the 24th.
– Fondue chinoise happens with the in-laws whenever we're invited – could be any time between 24th and 26th, according to convenience.
– Unless we're invited out on the 25th, I roast a chicken for dinner. With Christmas pudding, if we can find one.
– Presents are opened first thing on the 25th. This is, frankly, a problem, since it means overexcited children waking us up way too damn early. And yet: rules is rules. Presents are for Christmas morning. Finish en klaar.*
3. This slightly cobbled-together Christmas has been a source of minor anxiety for me. Christmas is such a thing. It comes with overpoweringly vivid images of family and feasting and lavishness and very specific forms of coziness. And a weight of Ritual and Tradition – but we don't really have our own rituals and tradition. And while the great relief of escaping family pressures is still very much with me, and while we are not in any way believers, Christmas (or if you prefer, Yuletide celebration) is really quite important to me. As a midwinter festival it is utterly magical and comforting. Without either religious trappings, or those of an extended family all participating in the same ritual at the same time, it's been hard to imagine how we might make that magic happen. I mean. Trying to do a proper Christmas roast for a family of four when three of them honestly don't care (and two of them are tiny and eat less than half portions) is a bit ridiculous. And while Armin doesn't really understand this, to a large extent Christmas IS the food.
4. I also find myself out of step with the traditions that seem to be more important over here, and indeed to Armin's mother in Cape Town. She texted me at the end of November to remind me that that Sunday was the first of Advent, so I needed a wreath and to do my Christmas baking.
I ignored this. Because I didn't really want a wreath (I am not at all sure about having candles on the coffee table with a Maximenace on the loose) and, being only slowly on the mend from Mystery Fever of Doom, I certainly wasn't up to doing any baking. Besides, I thought the last thing we needed was more cookies in the house.
Of course I was entirely missing the point, baking wise. The cookies are not for eating. They are for distributing. The Swiss have a firm ritual of the "mitbringsel": a little something you bring along when invited anywhere. A hostess gift. But whereas an English or South African guest might bring a hostess gift to a formal party, or to a more casual gathering, a "contribution" (a dessert or a bottle of something to be enjoyed by all comers during the event), the mitbringsel is (a) equally necessary for a casual visit or a big party, and (b) always, always for the enjoyment of the hosts alone, never for sharing. (We seemed to cause our guest great distress, one time, by insisting on offering her some of the luxemburgerli she had brought.) So: Advent cookies seem to be a festive relation of the mitbringsel. Anybody you see socially during December, however fleetingly, may be presented with a bag of homebaked Güetzli. It's pretty much impossible to avoid a cookie avalanche.
I won't say that failing to participate in the Great Güetzli Giveaway has marked me forever as an uncivilized Auslander beyond all hope of civilization. But it's probably not good.
5. Despite all of the above – the muddled planning and preparations, the uncertainty over what is enough or appropriate or right, plus my general sense in recent weeks of being less than thrilled with myself – right now, at the tail end of Christmas Day, I feel entirely happy. It all went off beautifully. It felt like Christmas, only less stressy. We failed utterly to buy candles for the tree, but the tree was beautiful anyway. There were Christmas songs and dancing and Christmas foods and presents (not too many, not too few) and cuddles and candles and viewings of The Snowman and The Gruffalo and an absolutely beautiful bike ride in amazingly mild sunshine and – pretty much the point of it all – exquisitely happy children.
I hope yours has been every bit as satisfying. Zum Wohl, liebe Leute.
* "That's the end of it." Afrikaans.