It’s a funny thing to talk about British Christmas traditions to Germans. Many of Britain’s most fêted customs are, of course, German – no country does Christmas better. Be it advent calendars, Glühwein or gaudy baubles on the Christmas tree, the Brits have adopted a lot from their Teutonic counterparts. And the Germans certainly know how to celebrate the festive season with a conviviality and pomp unrivalled in the UK. The Queen’s speech, Christmas crackers and Brussels sprouts seem twee in comparison.
I’ve been living in Germany for eight years, and have celebrated the past four Christmases here. My first Christmas in Munich was spent with my boyfriend’s family – gifts were opened on Christmas Eve, we sang carols around a real tree decorated with real candles (the whole way through O Tannenbaum I was inwardly screaming – fire hazard!), on Christmas Day we ate goose and on Boxing Day we got dressed up and went to the ballet. It was so unlike my Christmases past that I spent the entire festive season in a haze of wondrousness.
The next year was tougher – the novelty was starting to wear off. I started to miss putting sherry and carrots out for Father Christmas and band of reindeer. I missed pretending to be asleep when my mum tiptoed in with a Christmas stocking jam-packed with satsumas, socks and a new toothbrush. I missed our Christmas breakfasts, eaten too fast in anticipation of opening gifts. I missed my grandparents coming round for coffee and biscuits. I missed our huge turkey roast, and I even felt sad when we didn’t have a starchy, sticky, way too dense Christmas pudding for dessert. I hate Christmas pudding.
The German post-lunch Christmas walk didn’t feel the same. Playing board games in the evening without my brother losing his temper wasn’t the same. We didn’t spend Boxing Day at my aunt and uncle’s Welsh farm, eating bubble and squeak and watching bank holiday TV.
Christmas was still bloody lovely, but it wasn’t mine.
We all become sullen sixteen-year olds when we spend too long with our parents as adults, and I was longing for a Christmas that I hadn’t had for a good two decades, viewing my past Christmases through rose-tinted glasses. I didn’t want the Christmas of my early twenties, when the magic had already faded and we were starting to bicker with one another. I wanted the Christmas of my youth.
I remember trying to get home for Christmas while living in Paris as a student – as always, the Brits couldn’t cope with a light dusting of snow and the airports, train stations and motorways were struggling to function. I was stranded at Orly Airport on Christmas Eve, bawling my eyes out. I finally got on a plane, waited hours for a train and paid far too much for a taxi home with a driver who would also have rather been elsewhere, exhausted and cursing the British inability to deal with anything other than drizzle.
We once got stuck in the snow while headed to my aunt and uncle’s farm on Boxing Day. We spent two hours trudging to their place, my toes numb with cold, my belly bellowing with hunger, my father cursing the narrow, slippery, untameable Welsh roads. Lunch was eaten in silence as we all slowly thawed out.
My memory of Christmas is indeed a select memory of my childhood. But isn’t everyone’s?
I have insisted upon watching the Queen’s speech for the past four years in Germany. While watching it, I always wonder why. I was never bothered about it in the UK – it was stuffy and I wanted her to get it over with so I could watch the Christmas Top of the Pops special. I think it’s because the speech is broadcast when nothing much is happening on a German Christmas Day. Dinner is still in the oven, everyone’s lolling about, playing with new toys or browsing through crisp new books. And how incredibly British is it to only insist upon a tradition that doesn’t disturb anyone else?
Last November I gave birth to my son. His first Christmas was in Germany, but at just six weeks old, he slept through most of it. This year will be his first proper Christmas in my adopted country – where he’ll try to pull down the tree, wolf down gingerbread and tear open gifts with élan. I’m excited, but I’m also wary.
Reconciling my own cultural traditions with those in Germany isn’t easy. There’s a fine line between accepting and embracing your in-laws’ traditions and enforcing your own without appearing incredibly rude. Of course, this goes for anyone who spends Christmas at their in-laws, but the chasm seems particularly large when you live in another country.
Turning up at your in-laws with crackers and their accompanying cheap gifts and bad jokes will raise eyebrows (try explaining Christmas crackers to anyone, it makes you realize how bizarre we Brits really are). Leaving carrot ends and cookie crumbs on the floor for Santa won’t ingratiate yourself much either. Nor will getting paralytic on Christmas Eve, another British tradition.
Only time will tell as to how British our German Christmases will be, and how German our British Christmases will be.
As much as I loathe patriotism, I am eager for my son to appreciate and celebrate British culture – and to enjoy those rituals that I once so dearly cherished. I can’t wait to help my son write his first letter to Father Christmas – we’ll post it off to Lapland and eagerly await his arrival on December 24. I want to take him to see Santa and his elves in a mall, I will lovingly prepare protuberant Christmas stockings and I’m preparing myself for the groans when he has to sit through yet another rambling Queen’s speech.
Similarly, I’m so looking forward to putting his tiny shoes out to see if St. Nicholas pays a visit to Bavaria, bringing sweets to well-behaved kids on December 5. I’m anticipating trying his first hand-baked Christmas cookies from nursery (the Germans have a thing about Christmas cookies), and I long to stand around an elegantly decorated tree with him, singing German carols.
And so here we are – about to embark on a childhood of Christmas customs – a colourful amalgam of British and German traditions, forging memories and creating rituals.
About The Author
Rachel Preece is a writer based in Munich, Germany. Originally from rural Shropshire in the UK, Rachel moved to Munich on a whim in 2008, just after completing her degree, and she's been there ever since.
When not sat at her beloved desk, Rachel loves visiting countries less traveled, eating good, wholesome food, curling up with a book and writing for her blog, Arts in Munich.