Christmas Abroad

When I was a little kid growing up in Germany, I was very lucky.  I was lucky, because as an American, I celebrated all the “American “ holidays, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, but I celebrated all the German ones, like Fasching and St. Martin’s Day.  This straddling of cultures came easily to me, and as one can imagine, was personally profitable, as well.

Take Christmas for example.  In Germany, the Christmas season begins on November 11, with St Martin’s Day.  Although the story of St. Martin has religious roots, our school chose to ignore that point, focusing instead on the arts and crafts aspect of it.  We made lanterns.

It is a custom on November 11 for children carrying paper lanterns to line up at dusk and parade through the neighborhood streets singing songs and entertaining the onlookers. In less urban settings, the parade route culminates in a big bonfire where St. Martin, himself, on his horse, may greet the children with snacks and hot cider.

I attended Karlsruhe American Elementary school, and our “Host Nation” teacher, Frau Zink, had us make lanterns as part of our German culture class. We paraded our lanterns through the darkened hallways, much to the delight of the parents, teachers and other students. Back in the classroom, we’d enjoy cookies and juice by lantern light.  (Even though real candles illuminated our lanterns, I don’t recall there ever being a mishap.)

When Frau Zink came to our classrooms in December, she brought an Advent wreath and each class was held by candlelight as she showed Christmas movies, read Christmas stories, taught us Christmas crafts and played German carols on her zither and/or guitar. There was no concession for children of other faiths, and as far as I know, there weren’t any parental complaints.

On the evening of December 5, like all other German children, I eagerly set my shoe out in front of my bedroom door, waiting for St. Nicholas to pass by in the night, leaving little presents and candy in it.  Even though I was American, the German St. Nicholas included me in his rounds, unlike the American Santa, who did not visit my German friends.

If December 6, Nicholas Tag, fell on a school day, our school custodian, dressed like St. Nicholas, would come to our classrooms and pass out Santa-shaped bread rolls and apples.  I can’t remember his name, but to this day, I can see his face and remember how he smelled of cigarette smoke and stale beer.

We often spent our Christmas holiday in either London or in Paris, and later, in southern France or northern Spain.

I remember seeing the Christmas Carol in London, and then being terrified as we walked down some of the same streets depicted in the movie.  I remember looking at the row houses’ doorknockers, waiting for them to come alive.

When I was 5, my parents took me to Hamley’s toy store, where I picked out the most beautiful baby doll in the world (or so I thought). She had a long white christening dress on, lace cap and booties. I named her Sally.  I lovingly carried her back to the hotel, and while trying to dress her in another outfit, her arm fell off. Traumatized, my parents rushed me back to Hamley’s to be reassured by a staff member that Sally was going “to hospital” and she’d be fine in a day or two.  She was.

When we bought a beach place down in southern France, the people we met in Argeles influenced some of our Christmases. We once had Christmas day lunch (all six hours of it) in the gas station home of some people my parents befriended. I don’t remember much, except that the gas station had big windows decorated with multicolored lights. Because I was too young, I don’t remember much more than that—I imagine with all the food and wine, my parents enjoyed the day a lot more than I did.

I loved Christmas in southern France. I loved the smells of wood smoke, incense, pine trees, ocean, and old buildings.  At night, we’d walk along the narrowed cobbled streets, peaking into windows, as interesting smells came wafting from kitchen doors and out of ancient churches. The walled cities, palm trees, and bright starlit skies made it easy to imagine I was in Bethlehem. When the church bells rang in Christmas day, delicious shivers ran down my spine.

Each country we visited influenced our customs, and the winter holidays began to become unique celebrations as time went on.  Besides eating the traditional fois gras and drinking champagne on Christmas Eve, we tucked into paella or spicy sausages for Christmas Day or a roasted goose or rack of lamb—In writing this, I had to ask Bill what Americans traditionally eat for Christmas, as I have no idea.

My vagabond childhood has influenced my vagabond adulthood.  Bill and I have spent Christmas in Morocco, Italy, Germany, Puerto Rico, and in the United States.  We’ve blended holidays, customs, foods, traditions and music, hopefully bringing many good memories to our children.

There is a term for us—the kids who grew up overseas, somehow connected to the military—we’re unrooted—but being unrooted has been a blessing—I’ve become grounded in many world cultures.


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