Christmas customs and traditions, including my own, carry us from the past into the future. I think some of my traditions started while working in Germany when I was in college. I lived with a family in their home that was also their business. They ran an inn, or maybe it could be called a bed and breakfast. My jobs were many, from cooking to making beds to tending the bar. We worked six days a week, all day long running the Kaisersteuben in Oberaudorf.
I remember the first night I had a dream in German. I was so excited thinking that I was finally fluent in the language. I learned so many traditions from this family, traditions I knew I would take home to my own family in the future.
It is actually possible that I carried more home than necessary. When it was time to build the family farmhouse here in Steuben County, I knew that we should live over the barn. “It’s German,” I said, “and very practical.” Yes, it was, and indeed we did. It was a wonderful new/old house and those who were fortunate to spend time there know how special it was.
Although I live in town now, and love this old house, there was something wonderful about Christmas on an Indiana farm. We usually cut the tree down from our own fields, from the trees we had planted. Once in a while we dug up the tree so we could repot it after Christmas. I don’t think any of them ever lived, but it was good trying.
Hauling in a live tree is messy, with falling needles and a bit of sap always stuck on door handles or door frames, but I never cared a bit about the mess. Just having a tree in the house with the scent of pine permeating the air is enough to know we are in the Christmas season.
I was once a purist about the decorations. Everything had to be edible (well most things) by the birds that would enjoy the tree after we hauled it out to the garden to spend the winter. Those first few years we strung popcorn, dried apples, and made dozens of gingerbread cookies to hang on the tree. Most of the time, I followed the inspiration of author/illustrator Tasha Tudor. I even built a buttery after her New England buttery (pantry).
Following the German traditions there was always the hand blown glass pickle ornament that I hid when the boys weren’t looking. The first one to find the pickle received the first gift of Christmas. There were always candles on the tree as well, along with a bucket of water placed next to the tree! There is nothing more beautiful than singing Christmas carols around a tree lit with candles.
The night before Christmas we hauled a sled out to the woods filled with nuts and seeds for the birds. Oftentimes we sat in the woods waiting for the sound of a deer or the call of the owl before heading back. Did I mention there was always snow? Dylan Thomas wrote in his book, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” that there was always snow.
Family customs survive even when families don’t. My sons and I cut down my tree at Booth’s when they are all visiting for Thanksgiving. I have given in to hand blown glass ornaments and strings of colorful lights, but there are candles waiting to be lit on Twelfth Night.
There are customs added as well, such as St. Nicholas Day. This year St. Nic arrived in Jonah’s second grade classroom to a hallway full of shoes as I told them stories. It was either candy or coal, and I do think a few of the kids were a bit nervous about getting coal.
We celebrate the nights of Hanukkah with potato latkes and a hand-carved wooden dreidel. This year Virginia is with us from Argentina teaching us about her customs.
Each family has traditions that come and go with generations. I would love to know the history of Christmas of my ancestors, but most stories are lost with time. I guess the best we can do is to just share what we remember and add traditions that will become stories in years to come.
Oh, and by the way, no one has found the pickle on my tree yet! If you aren’t busy, come on over. The gift is under the tree!