It was my first Christmas far away from home. I was 21 and an exchange student in Germany – a country that is very very into celebrating the Christmas season. I realized that when I discovered the country had what was called “First Christmas” and “Second Christmas,” which means the 25th is “first” and the 26th is also a holiday and another day to celebrate. Why not?
For Christmas in Germany, it seems, everything lights up. Bells ring. Chestnuts roast. And every town has some version of the most adorable Christmas markets where everybody seems joyous and happy.
The entire month of December is one of celebrations. These start four Sundays prior to Christmas with the first Advent. So as soon as late November, depending on the year, you’ll have people wishing you a “joyous Advent” and most Christmas markets open about Dec. 1 or on the first December weekend. And Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas Day.
Christmas in Germany – St. Nik’s day
It was in Heidelberg, Germany, several decades ago, that I first realized what a big deal this whole Christmas thing was. I remember on Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, a friend and her boyfriend from my dorm hall made a real to-do that I had to leave my shoe out in front of my door that night. Why? Because St. Nik would come in the night, of course! And if I had been a good girl that year, I’d get candy and treats. If I hadn’t been a good girl, I’d get charcoal. This was all new to me, and I laughed but finally kowtowed to their insistent demands. Before bedtime, slightly embarrassed, I stuck my clunky thick rubber-soled Bass lace-up shoes in the hall. They were slightly scuffed and the thick sole was starting to show wear since they were my only pair of shoes other than some boots and lighter tennies. The next morning, having forgotten the whole St. Nik thing, I stumbled out the door to go brush my teeth in the bathroom down the hall and about tripped over chocolates and goodies spilling out of my shoe and hanging on the door handle!
It was a touching way to kick off the Christmas holidays, especially since I was far from family in a foreign place. Not as if I could quickly share the experience with my parents; there was no ability to text, email, Snapchat, or “Facetime” with somebody in an era before smartphones or personal computers were omnipresent. My family and I, to save money, would pre-schedule phone calls on a phone on the wall of my dorm hall (yes, a phone connected to a wall), writing letters back and forth to select and confirm dates, which would take about three to four weeks. Then, at the selected time, I’d stand in the hall at the dorm’s phone by about 8 a.m. since my parents would call me promptly at a minute or two after 11 p.m. California time – prices dropped at 11 p.m., of course. Our next call that month wasn’t until Christmas Day, when prices were low all day.
Off to the Christmas market – alone
After my St. Nik’s day surprise, I couldn’t just snap a photo of my chocolate-filled shoe and “WhatsApp” it home to await immediate response and an electronic conversation. I did snap a photo of my shoe filled with candy, just to remember the moment (yes, with a camera, on film). Away from my home and my family, I felt the heartstrings pull a little. But the Christmas market had just opened and there was no sense in sitting alone in my dorm, so I decided to head into town that evening.
I remember shoving my feet into my boots, wrapping myself up in a long burgundy wool coat I had bought there (California girls didn’t own things like that), and pulling on a burgundy knit cap. A burgundy-and-white scarf wrapped tightly around my neck and chin completed the decidedly burgundy ensemble. Dressed a bit like a Christmas plum, I headed out into the cold. Snow was expected although there was none on the ground. I could see my breath, and I had shoved my hands as deep as I could into my pockets with my nose buried in my scarf. As I neared the old town, I could hear music and bells, families chattering and kids squealing. Right on cue, as if Disney had planned it, a few snowflakes started to fall, and I tipped my head back and stuck out my tongue to nab one. I mean, isn’t that what you do with soft snowflakes as they fall? Seemed right to me.
I was still on a darkened side street, and my pace slowed. I stopped for a moment, looked up at the stars, saw the snowflakes swirling in the glow of a streetlight a few buildings down, and felt that little squeeze around my heart. I didn’t have anybody to share this Christmas in Germany with, and I really wished I could talk to my parents. California seemed so far away. One lone warm tear dripped slowly down my cheek. I quickly wiped it away with the back of my gloved hand as revelers turned the corner and whisked past me. I stuck my hand back in my pocket, took a deep breath and walked on.
Gingerbread, spiced wine, and bright lights
When you are alone, it’s not so inviting to stop and hang out with a cup of hot wine since NOBODY goes alone to these things. You are surrounded by laughing groups of people, and if you stop for more than minute, you just get cold anyway.
So instead I sauntered slowly around the market, enjoying the celebrations so traditional at Christmas in Germany. I stopped and fingered the frosting-covered gingerbread hearts emblazoned with “Ich liebe dich” and “Frohes Fest,” admired the handmade wooden ornaments, and pretended to shop at the brightly lit booths. But mostly I just keep moving.
Before long, it was time to head home since temperatures were dipping toward freezing and my fingertips were a bit numb. I bought myself some hot chestnuts that had been roasted over a fire, and headed out from the bustling market area to the darkened side street to start the walk back. I clutched the little warm paper cone of chestnut goodness in both hands for warmth and held it close to my nose. I could smell the earthiness of roasted chestnuts – and the warmth radiating onto my nose helped chase a bit of the cold away. The snow had stopped, but with the temperatures dropping I decided to splurge on a tram back to the dorm. I folded down the top of the paper cone around the few remaining chestnuts, and stuffed the warm cone in my pocket to finish them back in my dorm room. To this day, the smell of roasting chestnuts instantly spirals my mind back to that day in Heidelberg. I can feel the cold. I see the snowflakes starting to fall. And I can recall that little tightness around my heart of feeling alone at Christmas.
My friends never did admit to stuffing my shoe with goodies on Dec. 6. It was St. Nik, of course, they insisted over and over. And who am I to argue? Maybe it was St. Nik, looking down kindly at a young woman spending her first Christmas in Germany far away from home.