When I was three years old my family moved to Germany and thus began four years of magical Christmases. It was like living inside one of those glass balls that fill with a swirl of glittering snow when you shake it. Christmas began on December 1st with the gift of an Advent calendar – enchanting winter scenes printed on cardboard liberally highlighted with sparkling glitter. Small windows of various size and shape, numbered 1 – 25, were cut into the picture. The numbers were scattered randomly and their black print barely showed up against the intricate paintings. We taped them to our window panes and every morning searched diligently for the correct square. The shutters were tightly shut and had to be pried open very carefully to reveal the little picture which lay behind each one. The images of candy, fruit or toys, back-lit by the light coming through our windows, glowed with the promise of Christmas gifts to come. No real present, ever quite matched the odd combination of satisfaction and anticipation created by those tiny representations. The window for the twenty-fifth day was always the largest and most prominent and behind it lay a crèche scene with baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Of course, Baby Jesus was everywhere and I developed a great tenderness for him, climbing up chairs to reach the carved wooden nativity scene set in billows of white cotton that mirrored the snowy scene outside. Though forbidden to touch, I would take the tiny baby and rock it tenderly in my hand before setting him back among the kneeling animals, shepherd and magi. We had found Him at the local Christkindlesmarkt, a magical night fair, created just for Christmas, full of booths selling spicy iced gingerbread cookies, carved manger tableaus, cuckoo clocks and brightly painted wooden toys of every ilk. The smell of cut pine branches, hot spiced wine, crackling sausage and melting sugar swirled around me as I rode high above the crowd on my father’s broad shoulders.
December 5th came next, the eve of St Nicholas Day, when every child stuffed her cleaned and polished shoes with carrots for St. Nick’s horse and placed them carefully outside the bedroom door. In the morning good children would find them filled with chocolate. Bad girls and boys lucky enough not to have been beaten or carried off by the krampus (the saints’ fierce furry minion) would find only coal!
The Christ Child appeared again in the shape of the traditional Christmas bread called stollen, a folded sweet yeast bread full of citron, almonds and black currants. The raised loaves are said to resemble the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes. I was allowed to help blanch almonds. First my mother would pour boiling water over the raw nuts. Then after five minutes they would be drained and allowed to cool briefly. Afterwards we could easily pop them out of their skins. It didn’t take much to send them flying across the room and even a little girl could aim them with great accuracy! Scolding ensued, but being Christmas, carried no heat. My mom only made a small batch and we baked at home, but most of our German neighbors sent their loaves to the local baker to cook in his big ovens. For a few days the streets would be full of delivery boys working in pairs delivering the loaves on planks of wood decorated with holly and red ribbons.
We had a Christmas tree, of course, dripping with heavy lead tinsel. It’s banned now, at least in the United States, to prevent lead poisoning. Probably a good thing, because it took hours to decorate the tree placing each piece, carefully one at a time along every branch. In Germany, the Christ Child came on Christmas Eve to set presents under the tree, which stood in a sealed room awaiting him. After dinner the doors were thrown open and presents exchanged. Afterwards the whole family attended the midnight Christmas service. My mom’s family came from Germany and she had grown up in that tradition, but in my dad’s home Santa Claus delivered the presents through the chimney at midnight, filling the stockings, eating the cookies we left and feeding our sugar cubes to the reindeer. Presents were opened in the morning! So that’s what we did, too. Still do.
One of the things, I loved about our German Christmas trees were the little red mushrooms with white spots that decorated the branches. Mushrooms were magical; I knew that from the pictures in my story books. They were pretty and small and sometimes fairies lived in them. They tasted delicious, like the forest, I always thought, but they could be poisonous so you had to be very very careful. Even then, small as I was, it was unclear to me what those red mushrooms had to do with the Christmas story, but they added to the enchantment so I accepted them.
Turns out the some anthropologists have come up with a theory that the mushrooms and Santa himself are related to Teutonic shamanic traditions that predate Christianity. I found a summary of the theory on the UC Santa Barbara Dept. of Geography blog:
“The ancient Shamans of Siberia would go to the houses of the people in the community on the winter solstice and bring to them the amanita muscaria mushroom … it was their tradition. The Shaman, dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that he had picked and dried during the previous season (enough for the entire community), would go door to door and give to the community the mushroom experience. If the main doors to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the Shaman would enter the houses through the secondary entrance, which just happens to be the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney. And because these amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption (allowing the shaman to consume more), traditions of drying the mushrooms also came about. Even to this day, it is a common practice for people to stack their mushrooms in socks and hang them over the fireplace overnight to dry them out.”
Whether this fascinating theory holds up or not makes no real difference. We already know the magic of the season lies in its heady mixture of pagan and Christian traditions – the tree, the Yule log, wassail, even the date December 25 are pagan practices to which the Christ story has been deftly grafted. It means that the traditions I hold so dear have deeper roots and more intimate connections than I once supposed. Whatever their origins, I and mine have been honoring the season and the magic it holds for lo, these many millennia. It gives me hope and renews my faith.
Peace on Earth, good will towards all beings.