Germanic traditions impact Chicago Christmas culture

By Caryl Clem:

Treasured Christmas memories ignite the passion within us to decorate and celebrate holiday customs. Smelling fresh evergreens in the chilly crisp air erases years as you hunt down the perfect tree with childhood excitement. Later with friends and family transforming bare branches into a living room reigning queen topped by the family heirloom Angel.  Pine cones adorn a red bowed wreath that hangs on the front door, promising a circle of friendship and goodwill within. An Advent Calendar hangs on the wall near the candelabra.   Mistletoe hangs around with sprigs of holly. These customs have Germanic roots.

In the dark months of winter in forests deep, Norsemen stocked their homes with evergreen branches mixed with mistletoe and holly to ward off evil spirits. Since these plants stayed green through the cruel winter season, it was proof these plants had powerful, magic. As Christianity replaced pagan beliefs, St. Boniface declared evergreens represented everlasting life. Ballads circulated throughout Germany praising the mighty  O Tannenbaum by the 1550.  A wealthy German Duchess gave a gift of a decorated Christmas tree with wax candles and blown glass ornaments to the royalty in Paris about 1717. Another German royal gave a tree to a king in England.  Hand carved wooden angels hanging from branches or crowning the top, another Germanic custom.

Advent Calendars

The wife of a Protestant Pastor in Germany during the 1880’s had a little boy who kept asking how many more days until Christmas.  She had a great idea; she decorated 24 boxes with a hidden treat inside.  Each day on the Christmas countdown, the boy opened one box to find a Lebkuchen to eat. Several years later at a printing company in Munich, a young man is busy creating an advent calendar to market. The fun to open doors appears after 1920, popular chocolates add to the enjoyment in the late 1950’s.

Shopping via German Style features an outdoor festival of unique food and decorations.  Several markets are available, check out the online home page for Christkindlmarket for inspiration.

At the Christmas Eve Service, I love giving full throttle to my voice during, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.  The composer is none other than German composer, Mendelssohn. Ironically, the Methodist minister who adapted the lyrics to fit this melody, did not know that Mendelssohn never intended it to be a hymn.

Holiday homeland favorites are relished such as red cabbage, sauerbraten, potato dumplings and  Pork SchnitszelThe midday meal beverages star mulled wine, flaming Fire Tong wine /rum punch,  or a hearty eggnog toast. Traditional German desserts of gingerbread men, Stollen, Lebkuchen, or Pfeffernuesse cookies. Many recommendations of Chicago restaurants can be found on Yelp.

German neighborhoods include Old Town, Northwest Side between Chicago Avenue and Fullerton Avenue.  North Avenue had the nickname of “German Broadway. In 1900, one in every four residents was from German descent. Exploring German culture can be done at this cultural center and museum called Dankhaus.

 

 

They are talking about advent calendars

Because I am generally one of the first they meet in the main hallway by the front door at school, the kindergarten through second grade share it all with me. We talk of movies, weekend sleepovers, weather, new hats, backpacks, who is sick, who they miss, who was not nice on the bus or who they helped. Even are favorite food especially candy is up for debate.

And two have shared the excitement of Mom purchasing an advent calendar that talks about following the nativity story. Though I can’t share everything with them especially about God and religion, I do acknowledge that I believe. One calendar actually produced a gift of Lindt chocolate every day and another a tree of magnetic ornaments.

Today, a huge variety of advent calendars can be found with different themes; some in the form of sports, technology and I found one with elves. Some are extremely large and three-dimensional like dollhouses. Some use Lego and star wars pieces for children.

During the 1960’s, I would receive one in a large brown envelope from family that was an artists masterpiece celebrating the birth of Jesus. Little cardboard or even paper windows opened each day with a prayer or bible verse from the first day in December. There was a double window to be opened on Christmas Eve. We never sneaked a look ahead at the surprise picture or message, neither did my own children when they received their advent calendar gifts in the 1990’s. I remember one that looked like a giant Christmas tree with angels on the outside pointing to the windows located on the tree that looked like different ornaments.

Vermont Christmas Company offers a wonderful selection of advent calendars. One of the worlds largest collection of calendars with over 300 designs. You can also save 30% off even if you are starting a little late into the month.

For adults, there is are daily wine or whiskey calendars with windows or cardboard openings stuffed with cheese for snacking as well.

Last year, only a couple days before Christmas Eve, I received a gift from a student which was an advent calendar. A little late to celebrate the early days of the month so it took me forever to figure out what is was…even my daughter who is 29 asked why certain areas were numbered. Shaped like a dollhouse, it was a bath and body calendar. One day there was a small container of body lotion, body sponge, scented oils, and even chap stick.

 

Decades of holiday decorations

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the early 1960’s, for my Dad, it was the Christmas Tree. The Christmas tree that was real. Not the fake trees that were first metal, silver and generally had coordinated ball ornaments that were all the same.  The metal tree also rotated in a stand to music with floor lights. My father had to have an 8ft real tree with over 600 colored bulb lights where two lights of the same color were never together, bubble lights which were effectively scattered as well as intricate ornaments  placed with care on each branch to compliment the space. Tinsel was hung one string at a time. And that was it…sometimes he would put colored lights to frame his creation around the front window facing the street.  The tree took hours, sometimes days to complete but it was his masterpiece and still remembered by many today.

After Dad passed away , I tried to carry on the tradition in the 1970’s for my Mother. She switched to a fake, green tree with the new Italian lights and garland while living in Dolton.

And then during the 1980’s and 1990’s, Christmas became more involved with my own little ones and the art of decorating traveled outdoors. I also worked for Christmas Around the World part-time and still have the manger scene today. Now, it wasn’t about just the Christmas tree, though we did have a perfect cathedral ceiling foyer to show off our large green, fake tree. It was about the entire house even changing out the art work to celebrate the holiday. It was about stringing lights to frame the garage and wrapping the garage with ribbon.

And the new millennium came and it was still about Christmas trees, though now we had switched to white lights and lace lights trimmed the porch and frame.  The fake tree finally fell apart and still in the same house with the cathedral ceiling all these years, we are back to a real tree from Home Depot and unfortunately, not quite as large. Though the indoor decorations have remained, the outdoor lights have broken, wreaths have withered, faded, a wooden replica of Rudolph has lost its leg and Santa flying his sleigh with his plastic reindeer have seen much better days.

As for this year specifically, I have had help, we have scaled back as far as outdoor decorations though the weather in Chicago has been unseasonably warm.  A deck decorated in lights from last year still works and flower pots from summer are left in their spots filled now with fake poinsettia leaves and maybe other items from the dollar store.  An easy fix.

It is a little sad for me as I leave for work everyday and think …..hmmm….maybe today when I come home, I will add a few more decorations outside. Though I haven’t yet.

But when I do leave in the morning, it is strange that the sign of hope by my driveway seems to be especially illuminated with light from the sun, sky or the spirit world. Every morning it gives off an unusual brilliance….a special message.

Many friends and family have passed away through the decades, and maybe this is there way of telling me that it doesn’t matter what kind of costly decorations we have to celebrate the holiday season, as long as we share the sign of hope with others, there is nothing else that is more vibrant….more important! There is always hope if we truly believe.