Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas is for the Child

I delayed posting this piece because it didn't fit with the sadness I felt. But Christmas will not wait. There are many children who are eagerly anticipating the day, so I am thinking of them now. After all, Christmas is about the birth of a child.

Germany trip 047
Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas store.
Talk about eye candy!

“The Germans invented Christmas,” my friend Sam pointed out to me when we came back to the UAE from our Germany trip. What she meant was that they invented the Christmas tree. According to German records, in 1419 a Christmas tree was decorated with apples, wafers, nuts, and gingerbread by a bakers’ guild in the southeastern town of Freiburg im Breisgau near the French and Swiss borders. Soon they were adding paper flowers, sugar canes, sausages and cheese, which they allowed the village children to swipe. After all, Christmas is for children.

aes old006_edited
Believe it or not I was once Mary
in the Christmas tableau at midnight mass.

Over the centuries, the tradition caught on and spread. By the end of the 19th century, people had become more affluent, and families began decorate their Christmas trees as an expression of their social standing. In my family, we always waited until Christmas Eve to put up the tree. It wasn’t proper to put it up sooner, while it was still Advent. We decorated the tree to celebrate Jesus’ birth, and took it down the day after the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men, or Maji, delivered their gifts. We always put an angel on top, which is a German tradition.

No photos were allowed.
This is from the website.

When we were in Germany, I paid a few euros to visit the Weihnachtsmuseum, or Christmas Museum, in the basement of the Kathe Wohlfhart store in Rothenberg. As I first stepped in, I fought a twinge of disappointment after the riot of color, twinkling lights, and heaps of decorations in the retail store upstairs. I was there to take a trip back in time to see how my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers once decorated their Christmas trees.

The museum gives you the feeling that you are at your grandma’s house. Or, maybe even more so, in her attic.The trees are the old-fashioned artificial kind, the glass ornaments are tarnished, the paper decorations are yellowed, and everything looks a little … shabby.

But that’s the charm of it. Nearly everything in the museum is from the collection of one woman, who must have lovingly packed away each piece every year. I thought of the ornaments that my sister Mary and I made with our mom when we were girls. Mom ordered kits that we chose from a catalog, and we pushed sequins and beads on pins into styrofoam balls. I packed them away carefully each year, but now the sequins are turning black, some 45 years later. They look very tired, but I still hang them. Each day, their beauty grows in my eyes until I am sad to put them away for another year.

glass santa
I will always have one of these
on my tree.

There is a lot more to the Weihnachtsmuseum than just looking at the decorated trees. Each tree has ornaments of a certain type, from a certain era or even from a geographic region. Click on these links to read the history of each type of ornament – glass, paper, cotton, pewter, and tragacanth, a type of resin. My favorite has always been the delicate glass. This Santa is just like the one I remember from my childhood – my favorite.

And speaking of Santa, I also learned that there’s a darker side to the story. When I was growing up, we were told that if we were bad, Santa would leave us no toys, and only a lump of coal in our stocking. What kind of heartless Santa would do this?

St Nick Krampus
It was not our family's culture to be scary,
so we didn't really know about Krampus.

It wasn’t actually Santa who originally doled out the coal. The story has its roots in Krampus, a furry creature from pre-Christian Germanic folklore. Krampus is a creature with cloven hooves, the horns of a goat, and a tongue like Gene Simmons, who scares and punishes bad children during December. Krampus was eventually incorporated into Christmas tradition as the counterpart to St. Nicholas the gift-giver, but because he was so evil and scary – he carried chains and whipping branches, and would sometimes even cart children away if they were naughty enough – Austrian governments eventually deemed him inappropriate.

Some Krampus traditions still remain, such as Krampus greeting cards featuring the creature menacing children or women.

Interesting Christmas traditions and decorations developed country by country and region by region, but one of the most interesting stories, to me, is Erzgebirge. When the mining industry there declined in the 16th and 17th centuries, people developed creative and resourceful ways to earn income. Men made wood carvings, and women made lace. Traders sold the goods. The Erzgebirge products feature light, probably because it was so important to the miners, who spent most of their lives in darkness. Some of their designs have become symbols of Christmas.

Germany trip 159
Even with fall decorations,
the displays evoked Christmas.

It’s Christmastime year-round in Rothenberg, where there are piles of toys and treats in every window, and every kind of ornament imaginable is on display for sale on dozens of decorated trees in the Kathe Wohlfahrt store. It was so tempting to just grab a basket and start scooping up ornaments. What I really wanted was to find that special one. But it was impossible. There was too much. So I grabbed a few delicate lace snowflakes to put on our two houseplants in Abu Dhabi. I learned, in the museum, that many of the earliest Christmas trees were shrubs like boxwood. It doesn’t have to be a cone-shaped fir.

No photos allowed in the store, either.
But the saleswoman let me sneak one in
for the record.

Yet I had to spend some money there, so rather than buy a suitcase full of ornaments, I bought some small pyramids. These are the charming revolving towers with candles around the base and blades on top, typical  of Erzgebirge. The heat from the candles creates an updraft, turning the blades and rotating the figures in the pyramid. To me, the pyramid lights are a symbol of the light of Christmas and the spirit of love, giving, and renewal that the season should bring to us, no matter what our beliefs.

Mark and I are again spending our Christmas in the land of gold, frankincense and myrrh in Oman. We’ll be exploring the mountains and historic ruins around Nizwa. For our 13th anniversary this year on Christmas Eve, we will return to As Sifa, the beach where we spent our wedding anniversary last year. And we will visit Oman’s capital, Muscat. Maybe this time, I’ll follow Arab tradition and add to my collection of gold.
We’ll be in the USA for a visit in January, to celebrate three birthdays with family – Mark’s mom Angie will be 92, my son Brian turns 30, and I will be … 56. And, we will be at our home in Nevada together for the first time in a year and a half!

Our Arabian Christmas tree.

Merry Christmas
Frohe Weihnachten (German)
Miilaad Majiid (Arabic)

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