Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“German” Christmas down under

My mother grew up in former Silesia now a part of Poland. Becoming a refugee as a 12 year old during WWII she had to flee her home and the family was not able to rescue any of the precious things you get out from the far corners of your cupboards to put up and enjoy looking at during the Christmas season. I remember her stories about Christmas. She told me that as Catholics living on a remote farm the family went to midnight mess on a sleigh. And every year they fed the cows and horses in the barn a piece of bread on Christmas eve to say thank you to the animals' for their work over the past year.

When I was a small child the freshly cut pine tree, decorated with “lametta” - thin strips of aluminium foil - and real candles, was hidden from us as a surprise until after (Lutheran) church on Christmas eve. After a quick dinner with suaerkraut, saussages and "Bratkartoffeln" a bell rang. Only then we were allowed to enter the living room, but we had to sing Christmas songs or say a poem before we could open the presents. In some years Santa Claus was there in person, the “Weihnachtsmann” with his feared stick, “die Rute” that would give a few cautious wacks to naughty children - and sometimes to my dad as well- before handing out the presents from his big sack. In Germany Christmas has been a family affair all along just like in Australia, but we had clear rituals around food, visits, presents, music, the church and sometimes snow. i remember how quiet the country became covered in a blanket of snow. I can recall the crisp sound of our steps in the snow on the way to church.

As I celebrated my first Christmas in Australia I have only been in the country for less than a year. There was no tree and there were no precious things. I arrived carrying a backpack only and my immigration papers were still pending. Our celebration, in Darwin at the time, featured none of the treasured items that were thought to be indispensable only a year earlier. But it was warm and the beach was close where we spent a lot of our Christmas time. I also remember how I enjoyed watching the severe lightning in the build-up from the rooftop of the appartment house we were housesitting then.

Only the first year after our daughter was born we still celebrated Christmas eve as the main event. We were working out bush near Mount Magnet as contractors in mineral exploration then and I brought along some tinsel tp decorate the camp. My husband also cut an Australian Christmas tree in full orange flowers for the occasion. When he brought the tree into our camp site it gave me a severe allergy attack and had to be returned to the bush only hours later.

Now we are spreading the celebrations across the two important days. I again cook the traditional Christmas Eve meal of my childhood: fried sausages, fried potatoes and sauerkraut. The celebrations are kicked off with the children participating in the traditional Christmas play at our Lutheran church in Perth, presented in German by local children of German speaking families. Before it gets dark we put out some homemade reindeer food to make the reindeers stay a bit longer at our house. Then we have a feast with our closest Australian family members, talking about traditions and sharing stories about Christmas. We usually get dressed up and also open some presents.

The plastic Christmas tree with electric candles at that time already will have spent more than two weeks in our living room. The children help with decorating, but there still are no ‘lametta’ or other German treasures hanging off the tree. We usually start baking Christmnas cookies at the end of November, as many such as ginger bread varieties need some time to soften before they can be eaten with joy. Last year we were baking in 35 degrees, worked fine with the fan on in the kitchen. Traditions are strong motivators.

On Christmas Day we unpack the rest of the presents that appear during the night brought by Santa coming who comes through our chimney. We leave the food out for Santa as usual. We also have Christmas stockings, but they are not so important. The lounge room usually ends up being in a big mess after we unpacked all remaining presents early in the morning on Christmas Day over a cup of tea.

Then we are off to the beach, meeting with friends for morning tea, some games, stories and sharing special Christmas food, such as our traditional German herring salad. And we jump into the clear ocean for a Christmas swim. Dress is casual on the day before we go home for a Christmas Dinner as a small family unit again, jazzed up by some close friends, sharing cold ham, some chicken, more salad and may be sea food, the meal to be finished up with traditional English Christmas pudding if there is room in our tummies.  Left overs are kept for Boxing Day  that sees us going to the beach and meeting friends and distant family members once more for a picnic at a nice spot in the shade.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas the children and me love reading German and English Christmas stories to get the feeling for Christmas. For many years our favourite story was about Santa going surfing after having completed his work.

There are big differences between German and Australian Christmas celebrations, such as the weather here that permits a strong focus on outdoor activities. Both festivities are family affairs and we feel we have married both cultures to a perfect match, just right for us.  We are very lucky and only rarely I feel like my mother who had to leave all her precious Christmas things behind when she was a girl without a home, being a refugee.

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