In October of 1977 I set foot on Canadian soil as a landed immigrant. I had left my native Bavaria to start a new life with my husband who was from Victoria. Since I had studied English at university I communicated with ease. What I was unaware of, though, were the cultural differences which would often throw me for a loop because I was still too entrenched in my own old-world values and ways of thinking. For some immigrants this experience can be quite challenging; it’s called ‘culture shock’.
So I was in for a big surprise when I noticed, walking around my new neighbourhood in Victoria, that Christmas decorations were up in people’s houses as early as November. Later I observed lights strung up in trees and around doors, manger scenes, lit up artificial deer, Santa figurines, blinking stars, beeping toys, music, snowmen on front lawns, and many other seasonal objects. In the malls Christmas music was everywhere and I had a hard time adjusting to the sensory overwhelm of noise and extravagant visual displays.
What a contrast to the time before Christmas I had been used to. It was quiet with an emphasis on nature’s season of rest and hibernation. When I was growing up, we only had an advent wreath with four candles for advent in December. The candles were each lit for a short time around dusk and the family would gather around and sing some advent tunes with my father playing the zither (a stringed instrument). Christmas songs were not introduced until Christmas Day. Silent Night was only sung once – on Christmas eve which was the time when magic happened. Little children were told that if they have been good all year, the Christkind would come and bring them gifts.
We children would be sent out of the house on Christmas eve afternoon while the other family members were secretly decorating the tree in the living room behind locked doors. At 5 pm we’d have a modest supper and wait for the sound of a little bell meaning the Christkind had dropped the gifts off. Then the door opened and the tree stood there in humble beauty.
Presents were laid out on the table – but we couldn’t just run up to them and rip them open. First, we had to listen to my father reading the Christmas story, then we’d sing songs, wish each other a Merry Christmas – and, finally, we were allowed to open the presents. They were quite modest: possibly a pair of socks or mittens, a new night gown, a bar of chocolate, and some small toys. Of course, gifts improved as I got older and there was more money available.
At midnight we’d go to church and enjoy a festive celebration with beautiful singing. On Christmas morning my mother would slave in the kitchen preparing our traditional noon meal of roast goose and potato dumplings and cabbage salad. Stollen (Christmas bread) was served for afternoon tea; later we played games and ate Lebkuchen (ginger bread) and marzipan till we burst.
So, I was in for an amazing and slightly different experience with my husband’s family. Gifts under the tree to be opened on Christmas morning; a big turkey dinner with cranberry sauce (which I had never tasted before); a variety of unfamiliar vegetables; a dozen or so relatives all wearing funny hats and eating Christmas pudding. So many new impressions and tastes. It was a noisy and cheerful event but for many years I had a hard time playing the piano and singing my German Christmas songs because I’d burst into tears, my heart remembering all those Bavarian Christmases past and the folks left behind.