For me growing up, this intensity was seldom apparent. In fact, quite the contrary was true.
Stability and Peace
With virtually no extended family, my mom, Omi and I had few if any competing expectations. As far as gifts were concerned, modesty won out over both extremes of abundance and scarcity. And as Europeans, we would generally forego the traditional Canadian turkey dinner in favour of homemade German potato salad (kartoffelsalat) and wieners w crusty buns and Dijon style mustard, followed by Weinachtsstolle (German fruitcake) and Dominosteine, served on the evening of Dec 24, as soon as my mom got home from work. It was an exciting family gathering, but not a noisy one.
When I was little, my uncle formed part of the small group around the table for dinner. After he died, it was just the three of us for a few years. Later, as a teenager, I remember my mother’s friend, Horst, joining us for Christmas Eve.
Ironically, this annual holiday ritual represented one of the most stable seasons in my otherwise chaotic and unstable upbringing! Despite the schizophrenia, suicidal depression and clinical anxiety that wreaked general havoc my single parent, immigrant family life, Christmas Eve and the events leading up to it seemed like the glue of reliability that held us together year after year, and kept me — as the only child in the midst of this mayhem — sane.
The Reliable “Weinachtsbaum”
Come hell or high water, there was some form of real Christmas tree every year, with the same damned decorations, including the „Strohsterne“ that had been carefully preserved by my great-aunt in Germany and then my grandmother and my mother after her. There were the red balls packed neatly away in yellowing cardboard egg cartons, and there was the always-too-short string of yellow lights to emulate the real candles my grandmother‘s family‘s tree would have sported when the Tannenbaum was unveiled on Heilig Abend in their modest living room each year. (Oh how I longed for the multi-coloured lights and too much tacky tinsel that festooned the plastic trees of my Canadian school chums!)
Symbols of Stability
Unbeknownst to me at the time, that meagre tree, the gifts that surrounded it, and the simple supper of Wuersten with Senf, Kartfoffelsalat and Dominosteine that preceded the opening of said gifts each year provided a beacon of hope in my emotionally tumultuous childhood and adolescence. Where so much uncertainty prevailed, our family’s Christmas rituals represented the security so lacking in other areas of my life.
My family‘s Christmas Eve tradition is one I‘ve insisted on emulating each year into my adulthood, in spite (or perhaps because?) of the fact that my mother died 2 days before Christmas when I was 21, and my grandmother and mom‘s friend Horst are also no longer with us.
What’s on My Tree
Our tree features a combination of old- and new-world tradition. The lights that serve as the base each year are not multi-coloured as I‘d pined for as a child, but the string of soft white mini lights that adorn the tree is sufficiently long so as not to leave giant gaps even those years when we splurge on a larger tree! And in lieu of tinsel, we usually include some form of sheer, golden ribbon poking out here and there. (Reusable, of course!) Next come the red balls in assorted hues and sizes. They are not the same ones my mother used (those have long since broken), but they reflect the overall feel of my childhood Christmas trees.
After the red balls, the homemade wooden stars, painted yellow, that my roommate and I bought on Roncesvalles in my mid-20s after eyeing them in a shop window for some time one year (the same year we stayed up until 4 a.m. baking gingerbread for a house that looked considerably more pathetic in the end than the photo accompanying the recipe on the cover of some Sally Homemaker style holiday magazine that had inspired this foolishness in us!)
(My kids, when I told them one year where the drum ornament had come from, were shocked and appalled to learn that their mother stole. I myself continue to harbour mixed feelings about the ethics of the event, in the grander scheme of things.)
The card represents my life as a teacher, and fills my heart with love for the many classes with whom I have been lucky enough to forge a student-teacher relationship over the years.
She is fashioned from paper mache of sorts, and is faceless. I purchased her when my mother died, from the hospice that had looked after her in various ways during the preceding year, and who was selling these homely, handmade creatures as a fundraiser.
Her understated robes wrapped around her, the faceless angel humbly oversees the proceedings from her vantage point, and serves as a reminder of the year my mother died when I was 21, on Dec 22, two days before our annual family Christmas Eve celebration.
Somehow they made it to Canada, and here a few of them still are, gracing my family‘s Christmas tree, in 2018!
I hope it will do so for many years to come!