Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The First Day of Christmas ...

December third was the first Sunday of Advent and here in Germany, and in Catholic German-speaking households around the world, the day when the first of four candles on the Adventkranz is lit. I’m not a particularly religious person but I am fond of traditions and when His Holiness arrived a little over three years ago his mama and I decided to raise him as a Catholic, although a soft-Catholic, with an emphasis on big picture issues like love, charity and peace, and none of the stomach-churning guilt and impending damnation that characterized my experience growing up in the Church.

This is his first real Christmas, the first time in his life when he realizes something special is going on and on Sunday he was especially excited to be hosting a party, in this case one that would signal the beginning of the Holiday season, which I had described to him as a month-long party to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. Now, he doesn’t have a clear concept of exactly who Baby Jesus is (not that I do for that matter, nor could I attempt to explain the mysteries of the faith to him or anyone else) but he knows he was a good man, who consistently did the right thing and he considers him a friend, if for no other reason than for the parties being held in his honor.

HH was in high gear all day and had worked himself up into quite a state by late afternoon, so much so that he fell asleep exhausted just before the guests arrived. I always hate to wake him from a nap but he would never have forgiven me if I’d permitted him to sleep through the party, so after everyone was comfortably settled with food and drink, I slipped into his room. He was sleeping deeply and his body was damp with the heat that small children generate. We could hear voices in the living room but he was slow to fully wake and I held him in my arms for quite some time at the foot of the bed.

I carried him, still wrapped in his favorite blanket and clutching his filthy bear, into the living room where he found his Oma and his German aunts and uncles, as well as a few of our new friends from the neighborhood and their children. We had waited for him before lighting the first candle on the Adventkranz. I know how much he enjoys watching candles being lit, but as it turned out it was me who was amazed. When I took the matches from my pocket and approached the candle, the people in the room, including the small children, began reciting a poem. I had no idea it was coming. The poem, very loosely translated, goes something like this …

Advent, advent one light is burning
First one, then two, then three, then four
Then the Christ child is at your door
And when the fifth light is burning
You’ve overslept Christmas

A long time back, when I first met the woman who would become HH’s mother, she had a small Christmas party in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen. The gathering consisted of a handful of German ex-pats, mostly young businesswomen like herself, single and a long way from home at Christmas. On her table was the first Adventkranz I had ever seen, it was an improvised affair, some pinecones and branches with four red candles in the center. Every Christmas thereafter she would prepare her small Christmas shrine with whatever was laying around her apartment, then eventually ours, but always the four candles at the center. I must admit there were a few years there when I couldn’t wait for the season to be over so that I could remove a particularly cheesy Ersatzkranz from the dining room table. I never fully understood the significance of it all until this passed Sunday.

Tonight is Nikolaus Abend (Nikolaus evening) and in the morning HH will find one of his slippers just outside his bedroom door filled with chocolates alongside a plate of cookies and a single gift. Earlier this evening as he was getting ready for bed he brought me his Christmas book, which is filled with Christmas carols and stories and poems and he sat down next to me searching for the Adventkranz poem. He had waddled into the room reciting it, he’s only three and he’s been in Germany just over one year and yet he too knows the poem that his mother and her mother and the assembled elders recited in low voices, haltingly at first until their memories awoke and the words returned and Advents passed came rushing back if only for that flicker of time as HH stood before the small flame and laughed and sparkled in the still young light.

Copyright © 2006 GermanDiary


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a sweet entry. I forgot about filling shoes...!


7:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing writing and a super-sweet story.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Buffy said...

I grew up in the Bible Belt. Plenty of guilty and impending damnation to go around there too.

I left my Baptist roots to become a Catholic in Europe...I loved the traditions...the pomp and circumstance....the incense and candles...we celebrate in grand devoted ways so many things...why not our religion.

Nope. Never understood the Puritans. Also never understood why so many people associate God so closely with hellfire and fury. Surely that's one of the perks of believing...so we don't have to worry about that. Nope. My God is full of the things you speak of. Love Charity Peace. And has no room for hellfire and fury. Or Judgment Of any sort.

Uggh. I sound like a preacher. I so try not to. It's hard living in a family of evangelicals.

Well done on bringing up a soft catholic.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Carol ... Our shoes were filled with Walnuts and HH has made me crack just about every one of them!

Maria ... Thanks!

Buffy ... A real treat to have you stop by. Let's hear it for soft!

5:29 PM  
Blogger Ruby said...

For the first time in those 14 years I'm living in Germany I have an Adventskranz on my table. My friend Sunny wanted to offer me one this year. I must say I was really happy when I received it, and it looked so nice last Sunday when I lit up the first candle...

6:41 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I LOVE how you describe Jesus to HH. I would pretty much say that I feel the same as you do about religion, and continue to struggle to find words to explain it to my 5 year old. He is very interested in all of the religious aspects of Christmas this year and your post has helped to give me some ideas. Thanks Richard! xo

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a difficult task you are facing... how to explain religion to an inquisitive three year old obviously gifted with the emotional intelligence of his parents.
How to explain a value system that is both capable of bringing the best and worst of people?
I guess the Adventskranz can be a helpful symbol to explain an even bigger one...
Continue being an amazing father. Dont stop.

5:38 AM  

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