A Man With a Sack, Some Old Boots, and a Naked Baby: Merry Crazy Christmas!

In my previous post, I argued that expat children don’t have such a hard lot, considering they typically get the benefit of every holiday they’ve encountered in the various cultures they were thrown into, often with the bonus of all the presents that come with that holiday.

Our four children are a good example when it comes to Christmas and all the German traditions we celebrate. As I often get questions as to how these traditions actually work, I thought I’d elaborate in more detail. Also, this gives me a chance to vent just a teensy bit about my Christmas-induced stress levels.

So pour yourself a large cup of coffee and find out how your life right now at this time of year, no doubt hectic on its own merits, could be even crazier.

St. Nicholas with a sack full of presents

On the 6th of December, we Germans celebrate Nikolaustag, St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas was an ancient Saint with a bishop’s hat who walked around with a big sack full of presents he doled out to kids who’d been good. The ones who’d been bad would get a stick or switch from a pine tree (presumably to be beaten with). Something like that – I was too lazy to look up the exact history. The Dutch celebrate it too – Sinterklaas – except they do it the right way and REPLACE Christmas with it, so that they still end up with ONE holiday. Not so the Germans. We, of course, do both, at twice the amount of work for the behind-the-scenes mothers, excuse me, elves. Although in German tradition there are no elves. We will get to who makes and brings the presents in a little while, just bear with me.

By the way, St. Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus on his way to become the United States’ Christmas symbol of choice. They are both related. Except that St. Nicholas lives somewhere in the woods and nowhere near the North Pole. And he heroically carries his own sack, bent over, without additional transport in the form of reindeer. Leave it to the Americans to make Santa Claus travel in style and in an oversized (and probably gas-guzzling) vehicle.

Anyway, this is what happens on the 6th: The kids open the front door, and there are the boots they put out the night before (and presumably also cleaned, though that never happens at our house), neatly lined up, filled with what in the olden days were nuts and raisins and oranges, but nowadays of course is a ton of candy. Tiny chocolate Santa Clauses and such. Plus a present. Not a big one, more like a stocking stuffer, but still, it has to be thought about and purchased and wrapped. By, you guessed it, the person already overloaded with Christmas-themed preparations. Not sure how the boot tradition evolved. Probably just some mother who was pulling her hair out because her kids would never shine their boots, and who finally hit on the winning persuasive technique.

Boots just after the arrival of St. Nicholas. Note the boot full
of cat food on the right – if all presents were so easily picked!

An Advent calendar to count down the days

What German kids also get is an Adventskalender. An Advent calendar where you can open a door every day from December 1 until Christmas, to find a nice surprise behind it. In the olden days (which also includes my childhood), this surprise would be a picture of something. We’d get the same recycled calendar every year, a large panorama of some wintery scene, and behind each little door a picture of, say, a snowman, would be revealed to you. Other kids, even in those days, got one with chocolates behind those doors. You could buy them in every supermarket, but of course my mother never did. She did not believe in spoiling the kids, and she most of all didn’t believe in chocolate.

But my husband had no such mother. HIS mother embroidered elaborate Advent calendars with little pockets in them, and every year she wrapped 24 little gifts she’d stuff into those pockets. Every year Noisette got his calendar with those presents, and of course he grew up to cherish this tradition.

You see where this is going, right? So our first son was born. As you’re prone to do with your first child, you overachieve in everything. You decorate the room just so. You record everything in the baby book. You know his weight and height and where he scores on the curve. You puree your own baby food. And you create your first Christmas tradition. Your mother-in-law has helped out by embroidering and sending an Advent calendar to hang on the wall, and you proceed to wrap 24 perfect little presents for your precious baby who doesn’t even know what’s going on.

I wish somebody had smacked me over the head just then. I wish I had been able to see into the future and perform some simple calculations. 4 kids, 24 days until Christmas Eve – that makes for nearly 100 little presents to think about, buy, and wrap. I run out of tape every single year. And because I’m a procrastinator, I always spend the night before sequestered in my room and hunched over rolls of wrapping paper with a scissors all day, measuring, cutting, wrapping, taping, and generally cursing traditions the world over.

Advent calendars over the years…

…and in different houses.

Yearly Advent calendar wrapping craze

The result looking all pretty and making it all worth it

Don’t be tempted to use tape as shortcut: By morning half of
these will be lying on the floor.

At our house, St. Nicholas brings the Advent calendar on the night to the 6th. I don’t think this is any cultural tradition anywhere, that is just the story that emerged in our family. So I cheated fate out of 5 days, I suppose. Big deal. 19 days times 4 kids still makes you wrap till your fingers bleed. The embroidered wall calendars with pockets are long gone, because the gifts never seemed to fit into them, so now the presents are hung from the banister of the staircase in whichever house we happen to live in at the moment. Sometimes, St. Nicholas takes shortcuts – no wonder, after all that wrapping, and all the wine that needs to be consumed to complete it without going insane – and tries to affix the presents with tape, which is much quicker than ribbon, but then they start popping off during the night and litter the floor by morning in a very unholy looking mess, and need to be re-affixed with string after all. It’s better to do it the right way from the start.

Then you get a breather of barely over two weeks. In which you scramble like crazy buying everyone Christmas presents, the ones you had no time for earlier because every single present-related thought of yours went into suitable Advent calendar gifts.

The (logistical) nightmare on Christmas Eve

Then, on Christmas Eve, when it has just gotten dark, our kids get to open their Christmas presents, all arranged in neat little (or rather big) piles around the living room while a fire crackles in the chimney and Christmas songs play on the stereo (we do not make them sing songs around the tree like I was made to do as a child). We do make them go to church, however, not only as a nod to the birth of Jesus but also for the very practical reason of getting them out the house so that SOMEBODY can arrange the presents they get surprised with after coming back from church.

This is where I take my hat off to the Americans: Ever practical, they fabricated the legend so that Santa Claus drops into the chimney in the middle of the night, meaning parents have all the time in the world arranging presents under the tree while drinking eggnog into the wee hours while the kids are sound asleep. You could even be smoking pot while laying out the goodies, and no one would be the wiser. Whereas German parents have real stress: How to get the presents under the tree in broad daylight without the kids noticing?

My parents solved this problem the way all German parents did in those days: They put the living room off limits and under lock and key for three whole days. Dinners were confined to the kitchen, and the goings-on in the forbidden room were all very mysterious and enticing. We couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on. On Christmas Eve, when it was finally time, a bell would ring from that room, and we entered a magical scene in a room transformed: All was dark, except for the (real) candles on the (real) Christmas tree, there were stacks of the Christmas cookies my mom had baked and hidden away over the last three weeks (or I should say what was left of them, because her hiding places were never quite able to withstand the hungry determination of my brother and myself in discovering them), there was a doll house and toy grocery shop that got only put out at Christmas time, and there were the glorious piles of our presents, still very much out of reach because we first had to sing (and play the recorder) around the tree.

I still get delicious shivers 40 years later just recalling the glorious sight.

Alas, American houses are not built in any way conducive to putting an entire room into quarantine in this fashion. Houses have open floor plans with the kitchen at the center of everything, and unless you want to celebrate Christmas in the garage, everyone sees everything that’s going on. Which is why it would have been VERY wise for us to just go ahead and adopt Santa, reindeer, chimney and all, and be done with it. Like I said, someone should have smacked me over the head back when our first child was born, and shown me the practical way. Instead, we have spent countless Christmas Eves concocting the most elaborate schemes to lure the kids away while one of us stayed behind to stealthily – and frenetically – drag presents from basement to living room. We’ve gone on drives to watch the pretty lights, we’ve had one of us “forget” something on the way to church and have to go back to the house, we’ve bribed a friend to put out the presents for us. I was very relieved the day the last of our kids caught on to the scheme so that they now happily play along with our shenanigans.

Yet another dude with a red coat, or a naked baby

Why all this mystery, you might ask? WHO brings those presents that it has to be so secretive? Having already used up St. Nicholas earlier in the month on December 6th, this is where it gets tricky. In Northern Germany – where there are more Protestants – it is the Weihnachtsmann, the guy they call Father Christmas in England and who looks suspiciously similar to St. Nicholas. Presumably he comes again two weeks later in the same costume but under a different name and brings presents all over again. Weird. So the Southern Germans – who are more heavily Catholic – came up with their own idea: Let’s have the Christkind – Baby Jesus – bring the presents! That’s right, little Baby Jesus flying around the world carrying armloads full of presents and delivering them to deserving children. Or wait, not just deserving, ANY children. As far as I can remember there were no strings attached. Apparently little Baby Jesus showers the world’s children with presents indiscriminately.

Incidentally, Chris Kringle (whom I’m not sure who worships – is it the English? Americans in some parts?) is derived from that same Christkind – Christkindl in Bavarian German – which got butchered into Chris Kringle. I’m curious: What does Chris Kringle wear? I honestly don’t think the world can support yet another bearded guy clad in red with a sleigh full of presents.

In my childhood room, there were mounted on the wall two fat rosy-cheeked cherubs blowing into trumpets. Why my parents thoughts this was the proper decoration of a little girl’s room, I have no idea. They probably just needed a place to put them. In any case, because I was staring at those angels most of the year when I couldn’t go to sleep, I always imagined Baby Jesus looking just like them: Happy, plump, and bare-bottomed. I never once reflected on how he could possibly carry any presents like that, or whether he mightn’t be a wee bit cold, what with it being winter and him naked and all. I didn’t care about any of that, I just loved him for bringing me the magic of Christmas.

This gives me comfort in that I hope my kids were equally unquestioning and faithful in their belief when they were younger. Because God – or, in the event, Baby Jesus – knows our traditions made no real sense. In fact, they were downright creepy. I mean, a man with a sack who might go around beating kids, and a naked baby? My Catholic Southern German self had won out and we had settled on Baby Jesus versus Father Christmas, but by virtue of our kids spending most of their lives in the U.S., they also believed in Santa Claus. What happened was that we’d talk about the Christkind in our German conversations, and about Santa Claus when we were speaking English. I’m a logical person, and all this back and forth, with St. Nicholas and the Advent calendars thrown in on top, made me cringe every year at the outrageous improbability of it all. It doesn’t make sense!, I wanted to scream. Just like there shouldn’t exist different voltages and different TV broadcasting standards and anything but the metric system for measurements the world over, there shouldn’t be different and conflicting Christmas legends. It should all be standardized!

But the thing is, when you’re a kid and you’re getting presents, you don’t give a sh*t who’s the one bringing them.