Christmas In The Fatherland (Germany, 1884)


The holy Christmas-time on angel wings draws nearer and nearer to the earth. Out in the great Prussian forests and on the mountains of Thuringia the fir-trees have been growing all the long summer days, and now the ring of the woodman’s ax is heard on the early December air, like an army reveille, summoning the Fatherland to its annual celebration of the birth of Christ.

By and by the trees appear in the market places of every town and the peasants are busy fitting them into standards. Here a twig is cut away and there a branch is added. Birnam Wood is come to Dunsinane. There is a tree for every palace and mansion, for every cottage and hovel and solitary lodging—for even the lonely sewing-girl, and the poor widow buys her Christmas twig and lights a taper in honor of the Christ-child.

In all the German houses the children are talking of Santa Claus and singing such songs as these:—

Oh. Christmas-man, oh, Christmas-man,

Come in and bless us all !
We ask thee every day and hour.

We children, great and small.

Oh, Christmas-man, oh, Christmas-man,

Do not forget our home ;
But shake thy plumpest Christmas sack

Out on our tables! Come.

Oh, Christmas-man, do not forget

The tree so green and bright
With apples, nuts and sugar-plums

And many a dazzling light.

Right good and gentle wc will be,

Obedient to each call.
Oh, Christmas-man, good Christmas-man,
Come in and bless us all.

Everywhere secret conferences are held and the happy children’s eyes grow large and shining as mysterious parcels are hustled out of sight.

Day by day the shop-windows are more attractive. In one of them there is a doll’s restaurant; the groups of Liliputians sit at toy tables, eating ices, drinking beer, or reading the morning papers, while busy waiters, with napkins and trays, seem hurrying about. In another window is a nursery ; in another, a stable. Surely no boy could pass by without one longing gaze. There are horses in the stalls, wagons, saddles, harnesses, blankets, whips, brushes, combs, pails and brooms—all are there, and a model groom is coming in at the door, followed by a coach-dog.

Another window is all aglow every night with a splendidly-lighted tree, behind which a fat, furry, snowy Santa Claus stands, shaking with jollity, while doll parents are giving presents to doll boys and girls.

In a candy-shop there is a beautiful chocolate carriage and horses. The ladies and even the driver look very sweet, and the gilded trunks strapped on behind are full of the choicest bonbons. And what funny candy sausages, fruits, vegetables, and animals!

Up in the arcade you may see the fairy story of Hans and Gretel. There is the wonderful house of “pepper-cake,” trimmed with almonds, with windows of red candy. There are the lost children as large as life, gazing with great, hungry eyes, and the wicked old witch has just come out of the door. No wonder the little brother and sis’er were afraid of the ugly woman with the gnarled stick and brown warts on her big, crooked nose!

Then in the darkness of some early morning hour you hear the bustle of wagons and dog-carts, the sound of hammers and the hum of voices ; and when you look from your window the place is all alive with busy peasants, who are putting up their booths and bringing their wares for the annual Christmas Fair.

Some of these country people have been working all the year, making clothing, bedding, toys, tinsel ornaments, paper flowers and shades, and cultivating plants for this grand sale. The stalls rise in a day, as if by magic. It is not easy to tell their contents. Every species of the genus doll is there—wax, rubber, cotton, paper, wood, worsted, candy and cake—as big as a child and as small as a peanut—dressed like princesses in a fairy tale, and like clowns, tumbling over a cross pole.

Around the edges of the booths hang gold and silver balls, tinsel cord, gay balloons, tapers and flags. All kinds of clothing are displayed—knit goods, ribbons and household wares, work boxes and fancy baskets, and everywhere and in every form piles of pfcjjakuclun.

I have been told that the good hausfrau judges of the wealth of her neighbor’s purse by the amount of Christmas “pepper-cake” she buys. This cake resembles our old-fashioned “baker’s gingerbread.” It is sweetened with syrup, sometimes with honey, and is made quite plain, or decorated with nuts and enriched with various fruits and spices. Family friends send boxes of pfefferkuclun to each other with Christmas greetings.

Some of these brown-faced peasant women have little charcoal hand-stoves. When their fingers stiffen they swing them, like censers before an altar, to set the coals aglow. Many a gray-haired dame sits on a stool in the damp, chilling air, low slippers on her feet, a muslin cap or a cotton handkerchief on her head, knitting, knitting, all day long, except when a customer approaches to look at her wares,—happy if by candle-light she can count over a good handful of copper pfennige.

And now the glad Christmas Eve has come! Walk through the streets of a German city and you will find them light as day from the universal illumination in memory of the coming of the Childking. In the churches, Christmas carols or “manger anthems” are sung, and the story of “peace on earth, good will to men,” is again rehearsed.

In the best room of every house, however humble, a glorious sight awaits the children,— a sight all the dearer because everyone knows the story of Hans Andersen’s “Tannenbaum,” and a Christmas tree is henceforth to him a thing of life. The doors into fairy-land fly open. High up on the topmost twig of the tree hovers a gauzy angel; a mist of gold and silver covers the green branches; balls of gold and scarlet, gilded nuts, shining cages and pockets filled with sweetmeats, are the fruit of the enchanted fir-tree; jeweled crosses and stars glitter everywhere, like orders on the breast of a prince, and colored tapers, burning brightly, transform the whole into a pyramid of light.

The foot of the tree is sunk in a bank of mosses and flowers and many gifts lie about in parcels or adorn the tables. Every member of the household is remembered. Indeed, servants and clerks are entitled to extra money and clothing. The “Christmas-box” is not yet abolished by law in Germany, as it has been in England. There, at least, all the world is rich enough to give and happy to receive. The Bohemians call it the “free-giving evening.” Presently all voices join in the glad Christmas songs.

Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree.
Thy leaves are ever green ;

They fade not in the summer heat,

Nor yet in winter frost and slcct,—

Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree,
Thy leaves arc ever green.

Then follows the festive evening meal. Some of the German dishes an American must learn to like, but to-night we have the daintiest fare. There are roasts as well as sausages, potato salad, and cornpotts of fruit. The cook has made the mohnkuchen, of white bread, sugar, milk, white poppyseed, almonds and citron. There are tender hearts compounded of jelly, sugar and almonds. Grandmother’s box of pfffferkuchen has come, and perhaps there is a snowy schaumtuchen—foam-cake— from the bakery. Even the children have a tiny glass of the white wine which to-night replaces the beer. It is a famous repast.

There are daily festivities until after the dawn of the New Year. Many a peep is taken into the future. The gilded nuts of the Christmas tree are set sailing in water. As they mate, fate is supposed to decree those young people will mate for whom the tiny boats were named. A tightly-pressed cone of flour contains a magic ring. Each person cuts off a section and the wedding bells must soon sound for the one who secures the prize. The spawn of the carp you eat, the particles of bread in the molinkuchcn, represent your gold pieces for the coining year. Good appetite! ” Wit die Arbeit, so der Lohn!”

Most of the absurd or picturesque customs and festivals of ancient times have passed away in Germany, yet many of their present games and ceremonies are but relics of old heathen revels and superstitions, and recall the English “mumming-time,” the Yule-clog and the wassail bowl.

Sometimes it is the children who dress the tree or the branch and the parents are shut out till every gift is made ready. There is one good old fashion which bids the father and the mother on Christmas morning privately reveal to their sons and daughters “what has been most praiseworthy and what most faulty ” in their conduct during the year that is ending.

Christmas is far more sacred in the Fatherland than the Sabbath, and the succeeding days are scarcely less so. On the Sabbath preceding the great festival the shops are open and many a good housewife goes piously to church in the morning, does Christmas shopping in the afternoon, and finishes her fancy-work in the evening while the young people are enjoying a social dance.

But on Christmas day all work and business are put aside. The fatted calf has been killed, the festal garments made ready, and for once sweet leisure hovers over the German home. On New Year’s Eve the Christmas tree is lighted for the last time—then bids farewell to its glory.

Wherever the child of Germany finds himself on Christmas Eve, his thoughts turn fondly homeward. No glow of tropical lands, no glitter of Arctic seas, no dazzle of Western wealth, no dream of military fame then looks so bright as the fir-tree in the window far away, whose lights shine upon the faces he loves.

“They are singing now the Christmas songs at home,” he says, “and wishing for the absent ones.”

He listens for the echo of the blithe old bells, he sees the radiant windows, and hears the children’s shouts, and the mother’s gentle voice. The fountains of his heart are broken up. All Christmas day he is a child again. In fancy he joins in the glad anthems that fill the parish church or the old Cathedral aisles,

Green with fresh holly, every pew a perch
In which the linnet or the thrush might sing.


The Current, 1884


Old Fashioned Holidays | Christmas Indexes

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