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Would you impose your holiday traditions on your children? An American-German Dilemma
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The many layers integrated into bicultural marriages can easily become sources of conflict. For example, language, communication styles, food, family culture, annual celebrations, and even religion can all cause rifts. The latter can especially be a cause for arguments during the holidays. Thankfully, I (a US-American) married someone as non-religious as I am and so we fortunately never had to struggle with what to tell our future children about our belief systems.

However, about a year after we got married, we had to have a little pre-emptive “come to Jesus meeting” (Editor’s Note: no pun intended, the author means it in the sense of it being an unpleasant but much needed and important discussion) about how we each celebrate Christmas.

This much necessary discussion was prompted by an incident that occurred a year or so after we had arrived in Berlin, my German husband’s hometown. One day I was catching up with a good American friend. Her son was 7 at the time and was in his first year at a local German school. On the 6th of December, his class celebrated the typical “Nikolaustag” named for Sankt Nikolaus (Saint Nicholas). He came home that day demanding to know who on earth this Nikolaus character was and what he had to do with Santa Claus and “real Christmas.” My friend said she froze for a second. Her son still believed in Santa. How could she explain Nikolaus without fully unraveling the Christmas narrative she had carefully woven for him all these years?

How could she explain Nikolaus without fully unraveling the Christmas narrative she had carefully woven for him all these years? Click To Tweet

“Wait, so what did you tell him?” I asked her.



She grinned sheepishly and said, “I told him that Nikolaus only comes to children in Germany and since he rides around on a donkey, he just isn’t able to make it all the way to the U.S. We totally took advantage of the fact that he didn’t speak German that well yet and he believed us.”

I told him that Nikolaus only comes to children in Germany.

The incident with my friend’s son and Nikolaustag occurred years before my husband and I had our own child, and certainly well before we would need to craft our own Christmas narrative, but I still started to panic.

My husband is German (actually, East German at birth) and I’m American. We had already had several Christmases together with each other’s families and I knew that while his very German Christmas was nice, it was definitely not the same as my glorious American Christmas. There were in fact a number of issues we would have to sort through.

While his very German Christmas was nice, it was definitely not the same as my glorious American Christmas. Click To Tweet
Charlie Brown Christmas

The author’s paternal grandparents’ Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in the US. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sorting through the Issues

The most glaring of these issues were about when we would celebrate Christmas and what we would eat on that day. Let me explain.



Imagine the culture shock I experienced when I first learned of this! On one of the biggest festive days of the year, Germans eat what Americans would normally serve at a summer picnic!

Germans (and the Spanish and French) celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December in the evening. German Heiligabend, or Christmas Eve, is not even a holiday for most working adults. Many people work a half-day and then rush home to prepare a quick dinner of Wiener Würstchen  (basically long hot dogs, or as a Canadian friend describes them, “those finger sausages with a dent in one end”) and Kartoffelsalat (potato salad). Imagine the culture shock I experienced when I first learned of this! On one of the biggest festive days of the year, Germans eat what Americans would normally serve at a summer picnic!

 

Würstchen  (long hot dogs) and Kartoffelsalat (potato salad).

On Heiligabend, or Christmas Eve, many people in Germany eat a dinner of Wiener Würstchen  (long hot dogs) and Kartoffelsalat (potato salad). Photo courtesy of the author.


To be fair, they do have a proper labour-intensive meal involving some kind of roast beast, dumplings, cabbage and potatoes on Christmas Day, but the day itself is called “Erste Feiertag” (First Holiday) which then makes the 26th, the “Zweite Feiertag” (Second Holiday) which in my opinion, gives the whole affair a bit of a clinical vibe.

 

KS Traditional German Holiday meal

An Erste Feiertag or First Holiday Christmas meal in Germany (Photo courtesy of the author)


The next issue was regarding who would bring the presents. Is it the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) or the Christkind? Some of my, albeit super informal and unscientific research into this matter, has revealed somewhat of an East/West Germany divide here. I have yet to meet a former East German who received presents from the Christkind, and I know of only one former West German who was visited by the Weihnachtsmann, but from what I have read, this divide used to be religious. In this day and age, however, the regional distinctions have gotten increasingly blurred with the commercialized juggernaut of Americanized Santa Claus steamrolling both points of view.

I was also unclear on Christkind. When I first heard from some West German friends about, um, it (?) I translated the word directly into English from German and thought: “Christ Child? The Christ Child brings presents in West Germany? Why? Isn’t he getting born? How? Isn’t he too small?” It turns out that the Chriskind is neither Christ nor child, but is usually depicted in real life as a young girl or woman wearing white robes and a crown (not unlike the Swedish St. Lucia).


“I mean what lie were you fed about Santa? Who brought your presents? Where were you when the presents were put under the tree?”

Understanding, Negotiating, and Merging our Traditions

When my husband and I finally talked about how to merge our Christmas traditions, I tried to keep an open-mind. I did suppose that gift-giving in the evening is pretty cool. It reduces that obscenely early morning Christmas rush to the tree that is likely with an Anglo-American Christmas. As a new parent, I should be excited about this, right? We could all just celebrate German-style and then go to bed late and not wake up before dawn to delighted squeals.

I then asked my husband what his Christmas narrative was.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean what lie were you fed about Santa? Who brought your presents? Where were you when the presents were put under the tree?”

“Oh, we just took a walk and then…”

My mind slammed shut and I transformed suddenly into a raging cultural chauvinist.

“A WALK? Seriously?”

He looked offended. “…and then we got home and someone rang a bell and that meant that Santa had just left. And then there was Bescherung (exchanging gifts).”

“Ok, sorry, but there is nothing more magical than waking up to a load of presents that have magically appeared overnight. It’s like a dream come true! Going for a walk, it’s just…I’m sorry that really just doesn’t sound fun at all.”

He glared at me and rolled his eyes. “Trust me. It’s fun.”

I continued to stew in the possibility that my child might never know the magic of a Christmas morning. Click To Tweet

I continued to stew in the possibility that my child might never know the magic of a Christmas morning. We were in Berlin and it looked likely we would still be there when we had a child. Whether we would be there when our as of yet un-conceived child would go to school and celebrate Nikolaustag was still unclear, but it still made me think.

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I did want my future half-German offspring to fit in culturally in Germany. Not only that, it wouldn’t work very well if we were one of the few families to celebrate Christmas on a different day. How would I explain that one? “German children get a visit from Santa on the 24th around dinnertime, but you’re special and you get it on the 25th in the morning?” This seemed likely to either turn my child into some kind of a Christmas narcissist (ahem…) or just ruin the fantasy altogether. I started to think maybe we should just celebrate in the local way to be based on where we were at the time.

Ultimately, my very forgiving and sweet husband offered an olive branch.

Ultimately, my very forgiving and sweet husband offered an olive branch and said he’d like to take some of the traditions he’s experienced with my family, and we came to a rather nice idea of what we want our German/American Yuletide to be. We’ll have a very German Heiligabend with the Weihnachtsmann (hopefully played by my husband’s grandfather who dresses up in a completely 70’s Santa outfit complete with a curly-haired white wig). On Christmas Day, we will have stockings and brunch like my family did, when I was growing up.

My son’s Christmases and indeed his life are his, not mine. Click To Tweet
First Christmas

The author’s son’s first Christmas. Photo courtesy of the author


In retrospect, I realize that my previous hostile attitude was due mostly to a fear of my childhood traditions being left out. My son’s Christmases and indeed his life are his, not mine, but prior to having him I was definitely incredibly concerned with making sure he understood where I was coming from in this bicultural family, and that included how I celebrated Christmas as a child. Now, I am ready and excited to celebrate our first hybrid Heiligabend/Christmas Day as a family, and I can’t wait to see how it evolves once my son is old enough to understand and influence it.


Kerry SchorrKerry Schorr is an American hobby linguist and foodie who lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She genuinely enjoys a good roast beast dinner, singing carols, and unpacking her Christmas morning stocking. You can find her, mostly not being a cultural chauvinist, on Instagram @kdarnot.

 


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