Monday, December 31, 2007

Family All Around

The holidays haven't always been a joyful time for my husband and myself. The ocean dividing family and friends in Germany and us in Seattle has been palpable at times - thick and all-consuming. And just because my family lives in California doesn't mean we see many of them more than once every few years!

But over the years we have found ways to make this divide less heart-breaking and more heart-warming. Telephone calls, little packages sent back and forth, Skype and, of course, visits have all made our living apart a little less silent and lonely.

The hardest time of the year for my husband has been Christmas. Although we get into the spirit as soon as we can after Thanksgiving, it just doesn't fill the memories which my husband has of Christmas back home. Drinking Gluehwein, munching on freshly roasted nuts and the chatter of other holiday wanderers all warm the spirit during the holidays in Germany. The smells, sounds, sights and overall spirit during Christmas is simply indescribable. They have an uncanny way to make you forget that it is freezing cold outside and that your toes are about to fall off.

Here in Seattle things just aren't uniform in the way that they are in Germany. In part this is a good thing: due to the mixture of cultures and traditions and religions, everyone has their own idea of what warms the heart during the winter holidays. But in other ways it means there is no central location where the trappings of Christmas are displayed in all of their glory as is the case in Germany.

Personally I am not very religious (spiritual, YES, but organized religion and I are still having deep discussions). So it isn't that I want religious symbols plastered around town. But sometimes I would like to have a kind of uniformity of sorts that goes beyond the secular-ness of Santa in his red and white suit and the hammering of holiday songs about snow from the big department stores reminding you that there are only a few days left before gift-giving time (and that they have 70% off everything)!

There is something missing in a country which claims to appreciate and cater to all. I do believe that the United States as a whole really does want to do good by all of us and I DO appreciate that fact that there are so many different holiday traditions celebrated right in my neighborhood. However, what I can't stand is that without the lack of unity of celebration, big business has taken over the holiday season as its own, demanding that consumption be the unifying God of this holiday season. "We can't sing about Jesus Christ so how about 'Santa Claus is Coming To Town' during your holiday shopping spree? And did we mention that we have 50% off everything?"

I guess what each of us does in the United States to avoid the commercialism of the holidays is to create our own little cocoons of spiritual replenishment; to surround ourselves with family and friends and warm conversation; to find others in our towns and cities and join with them to celebrate as it feels most comfortable. And to let others celebrate next door and down the street and across town as it feels most comfortable to them. Sure, things may not be created for us in a uniform way to just step into. But in the end it is worth it as long as we don't let commercialism fill the lack of one uniform tradition.

For us, Christmas this year was especially warm and lively. My mother-in-law flew over at the beginning of December and spent the holidays with us (see photo above of her and I in the kitchen after Christmas dinner)!

I think she had a fine time spending the holidays with us and I know that we won't quickly forget the smells of Vanilla Kipfel, Mandel Hoernchen, Huehner Frikasee, Kohl-Rouladen and much more which she made for us. I think my husband simply died and went to heaven each time he bit into one of her traditionally prepared German delicacies. And I'm sure he was delighted to have an expert with him in the kitchen to help prepare Rouladen for our Christmas dinner (which he does each year... followed by Mousse au Chocolat).

Having so many family members together during the holidays was extremely special. My mother and brother arrived a week before Christmas and our house warmed up even more. What could have been absolute chaos (and was at times) ended up being a lively, heart-warming, laughter-filled few weeks. We also invited our neighbor across the street to our Christmas dinner as his family was in India and he was alone that night.

As always, we combined our German and American Christmas traditions: dinner on the evening of the 24th and then unwrapping presents from family and friends after dinner. Then on the morning of the 25th, opening presents which der Weihnachtsmann/Santa put into our stockings during the night. On the one hand, it is a crazy mess of gifts and wrapping paper but on the other hand, our children won't always be this young and filled with the magic of the season.

I'm not sure that we will ever have a Christmas like the one we just had. But rather than regretting that it is over, I cherish the memory of it. I am so delighted that my husband and I can truly bridge the expanse of space and time of our two countries, families and histories. After it was all over, as we were driving back from the airport after dropping off my mother-in-law for her flight back to Germany, my husband and I looked at one another and agreed that it is the fact that we are from different countries and cultures and traditions which makes our lives so much richer and fabulous. Yes, it is all very bitter-sweet at times but we wouldn't change a thing.