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.