Monday, December 19, 2022

Lessons from Santa and St. Nikolaus   

st nicholas

Back in the 1980s, when I was living in Munich with my German husband, our two young sons would start asking around the end of November each year if we were going to celebrate Christmas the American way or German-style that year. With a very American mother (where tradition is concerned) and a German dad, they experienced the traditions of both countries.

Most years, we took a vote. I always feared that “German-style” would win since it offers the obvious advantage of allowing them to open all their presents on Christmas Eve rather than having to wait until the next morning. I felt the need each year to hold a lengthy oratory about the excitement of hanging the stockings by the chimney with care, setting out cookies and milk for Santa, listening all night for the prancing and pawing of reindeer hoofs and creeping down the stairs while the house was still dark to get a peek at Santa. 

The boys are now grown, and American traditions are rooted in them just as deeply as the German spirit of Christmas is. We’ve come to both countries’ customs.

In the U.S., Christmas is a season to deck the halls and be jolly. There are festive parties, afternoons spent decorating cookies, making and wrapping presents and a general feeling of joy and good will. It means picking out and trimming the tree as a family, usually early in the month.

In Germany, Christmas is somber and serene. The main celebration is late in the day on Christmas Eve. In the afternoon, dad usually puts up and decorates the tree in the living room, with the door tightly shut, while mom entertains the children. When darkness falls, a bell rings, signaling that the children can enter the room. You can imagine their surprise and delight in their eyes when they see the tree, lit with candles (yes, real ones) and presents below—all magically delivered by the Christchild, who had rung that bell before disappearing back into the skies above. 

the author's sons celebrate christmas in germany

The author’s son Stefan and Toby in their lederhosen, and they got a guinea pig for Christmas that year.Photo provided by Ginger Kuenzel

Although I always missed the raucous American celebrations, I also grew to love the quiet German traditions. Though there is no Santa Claus, St. Nikolaus comes on December 6. Each year, we would gather with other families to await his arrival as it grew dark. After much suspense (along with plenty of hot spiced wine and punch for the kids), we would hear a rapping at the door and in would come a very impressive Nikolaus. He spoke solemnly with each child, complimenting them on the good things they had done during the year, but also mentioning one thing they could improve upon. The children were dumbstruck by how much he knew about them. The original St. Nikolaus, who was from Asia Minor, became the patron saint of children. 

Another wonderful German tradition is gathering for stollen and coffee on December Sunday afternoons to light one more candle on the advent wreath. On the last Sunday before Christmas, all four candles are aglow. I even grew to appreciate the solemnity of December 24. It was on those Christmas Eves—with stores shuttered, empty streets, families gathered in rooms lit only by the tree’s candles, and church bells tolling through the crisp night air—that I understood what Franz Gruber must have felt when he penned Silent Night in a church in the mountains of Austria.  

advent wreath

Today, I am back in the Adirondacks, and the boys are grown and living elsewhere. I am lucky to be able to combine German traditions with American ones, celebrating the heritage and customs of both cultures. What I learned from my 20 years in Germany is that biculturalism means more than just noticing that people in other cultures do things differently. It means taking the time to understand and appreciate their culture, remaining open to their ideas and traditions—perhaps even adopting some of them. In the end, this realization gave me not only a deeper understanding of the culture of my host country but also of my own. 

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Ginger Henry Kuenzel, a fourth-generation Hague resident, is a journalist, editor and author. She lived and worked in Munich, Germany, for 20 years and later in Boston and New York, before returning to the Adirondacks full-time. Ginger served on the Hague Town Board and is currently on the board of the Lake George Association. Her book Downtown is a collection of hilarious tales from a fictional Adirondack town. She also co-authored Lake George Reflections, island history and lore, as well as Stewards of the Water, profiles of past and present stewards of Lake George.


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5 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article and lessons for all of us!

  2. Worth Gretter says:

    Very nice, thank you!

  3. Helga Frick says:

    Dear Ginger,
    Reading your beautiful and so well written reflection gave me moist eyes and a full heart! I was born and raised in Germany, yet my husband and I ended up in America, and stayed! We raised a lively little flock of
    children here ( now also all adults) and, like you, tackled the two very different ways of celebrating Advent and Christmas.

    Christmas Eve, to this day, has won out, even in the next generation.
    My grandchildren are still experiencing candles on the tree and celebrate Christmas Eve’s beginning in a solemn way, with listening to the traditional Christmas hymns, while parents keep watching the candles attentively. Then, after wishing each other “Frohe Weihnachten”, candles are blown out, electric lights take over and…
    opening of gifts can begin ( always some from the Christchild!),
    A joyful and also yummy time!
    And how moving it was to go to Midnight Mass after all of this….often through snow…the adults and bigger kids, while someone volunteered to watch the little ones, who slept contentedly

    St. Nikolaus also came on December 6, ( I keep reminding “my flock” by text each year 😀) but he “got lost” somehow by now! – Christmas Morning never seemed a problem, because the children could not wait to get to play with their toys! – And in school? Our kids were mostly envied, they told me, because they had Santa Claus, too, and therefore two celebrations.

    Oh, yes, Advent stayed Advent… the time of preparing and waiting for
    Christmas…only we decorated the tree WITH the children, a couple of days before the 24th. This has also faded somewhat and became a blending if the two cultures. I still miss the Sunday
    gatherings around the Advent Wreath with “ Kaffee und Kuchen” that are still customary in the Alps, to this day. We have lost this too by now, unfortunately!

    Coming from Bavaria has quite naturally made us fall in love with
    the Adirondacks! And our decades here were and are all one BIG gift!

    🌲♥️ Fröhliche Weihnachten, dear Ginger, to you and all your family!

    • Thank you, Helga, for sharing your memories as well. There certainly are a lot of similarities between Bavaria and the Adirondacks, as you mentioned. I feel at home in either place. I am always completely overcome by emotion, to the point of tears, when I join in singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht by candlelight, no matter where I am. Frohe Weihnachten also to you and your family and alles Gute fuer 2023.

      • Helga Frick says:

        Thank you, Ginger!
        I hope Christmas was a happy time for you!
        Und nun wünsche ich Ihnen ein gutes, gesundes neues Jahr!

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