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Submitted by Ginger Kuenzel, DLE ’12, Speaker, Author, Editor, Translator, Corporate Consultant, Adirondacks Enthusiast, Hague, NY/ Englewood, FL
Thanks to the pandemic, this year’s Thanksgiving will surely be different than ones we have experienced in the past. With travel restricted and medical experts advising against getting together in large groups, we may be celebrating in smaller circles this year. This article is about Thanksgiving in more ‘normal’ times.
Thanksgiving is approaching—the annual holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Its origins date back to the time of the Pilgrims, who put on a huge feast to thank the Native Americans for their help in settling into ‘their’ new country. Apparently, it wasn’t yet clear to those Native Americans that the arrival of the white settlers wasn’t necessarily going to be all that advantageous for them.
Today the holiday has evolved into a time for extended families to travel great distances to get together with people that they wouldn’t necessarily choose to have dinner with otherwise. It all starts off early Thursday morning when the turkey gets stuffed and put in the oven.
Back in the 1980s, when we were living in Munich, 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’d had the opportunity to experience 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 appreciate the beauty of 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. Imagine their surprise and the delight in their eyes when they see the tree, lit with candles (yes, real ones) and the presents below—all magically delivered by the Christ child, who had rung that bell before disappearing into thin air.
Although I missed the raucous American celebrations, I also grew to love the German traditions. There is no Santa Claus, but 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.
Another wonderful German tradition is gathering for stollen and coffee on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and lighting one more candle on the advent wreath. 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 that church in Austria.
Today, our family combines 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.