CHRISTMAS in Germany ! how we Americans have been looking forward to the pleasure of this season, and it has been far beyond even our brightest dreams ! From childhood days we began to have a love for the German Christmas. Our pretty little Christmas stories are from the German ; there is a heartiness in the celebration of the Germans in our midst, and from many sources we have gained the impression that Germany is the land for the true Christmas. Experience con-firms the opinion. It really seems that here, above all lands, the true Christmas feeling is known, the spirit of “good-will to men.” It is a holy time, and the nation, as a whole, burns with love to the ” old, old story.” With us in America Christmas is chiefly a family celebration. True, we recognize its sacred origin, and the churches commemorate divine history; but when one sees the great religious festival of Germany’s Christmas, there comes the feeling that we have but faintly recognized the Christmas story in our holiday season. The distinguishing feature of the German Christmas is the religious ceremony, the observance of the time as a sacred and solemn season.
There are minor distinctions, aside from this one great fact, the religious character, which are at once noticed by a foreigner. In the home celebrations, we miss one or two of the sweet little joys found in the American home the fascinating legend of Santa Claus, his reindeer, the ride over the house-tops, the descent through the chimney, and the waiting stockings. The little German child knows naught of the delight of our little ones, of sending letters with the flames up the chimney ; or lying for hours before the glowing fire, wondering about the little man who comes on “the night before Christmas “; of the stockings hung by the hearth, and the rushing to them in the early Christmas morn. Ah, we are glad not to have missed this sweet childhood dream, but how can it be possible in Germany, with no open hearths, and only these monumental white stoves ? So we find there is a peculiar beauty in our own Christmas, even while we love the spirit in the German celebration.
Perhaps the best place to see the true German Christmas would be in the country or some small town or village ; for here ancient customs have not yielded to modern civilization as in large cities, where, naturally, much intercourse with the world abroad tends to abolish old national traits.
Life in cities, the world over, is much the same ; yet there is something in the German character that resists much of this modern influence, and makes them cling to their own national life and customs, so that even Berlin, with its million and a half inhabitants, still retains the marked German life. There is this, also, to favor the continuance of it the marked division between the upper and lower classes. In the very heart of the city are people with all the appearance and peculiarity of peasants, and none of the city influences can change them to city people. In dress, in manners, in daily living, they are still peasants, so that in Berlin one may study the German people, as well as catch glimpses of that life in the court, so far, far above these hard-working, tax-paying subjects. In America the domestic apes the mistress, for it may lie within her golden dreams to be a mistress herself some day, and all the laboring classes are striving for a higher rank, at least for their children ; the humblest laborer may have traits of a lady, and it is often difficult to distinguish the workers and the society people on a fashionable promenade. Not so in Germany. There is strong class distinction, so that the great metropolis readily shows all the phases of the national life. Then, too, Berlin has only reached its greatness since the late war, and has not yet grown accustomed to grandeur, nor shaken off its primitive ways. A Frenchman in the pension gave a good criticism on Berlin when he remarked, “For a large city, it is wonderfully like a little town.” So at Christmas time we really receive a good idea of the holiday as celebrated by the people, great burgher and humble boner.
Early in the season, the city prepares for its holiday. How beautiful the city looks, made ready for the holidays. There are magnificent stores all bewildering in artistic arrangement of bronzes, works of art in metal, bric-à-brac. And the toy stores !there are the dolls in all the national costumes of the world, and windows all bristling with combating soldiers. You never saw such windows ! And the candy stores ! no, the word ” candy” is distinctively American, and never used across the waters : in Germany and France it is bonbons ; in England, ” sweets.” The Germans do not eat candy as a habit, as we do, but at Christmas time there according to their idiom ” it goes loose !” But it is the ” Pfeffer Kuchen ” that is the great distinguishing delicacy of Christmas tide. It must be a fact that there is not a house, family, or person in Germany without this at this time. It is a sort of hard ginger or spice cake, sometimes with nuts, sometimes a chocolate cake, and made in all sorts of shapes. There are great squares and small ones, then stars, circles, animals, men, various shaped articles, round, diamond, hearts with verses upon them, some with candied surfaces, some with sugar in various designs and of various colors ; some done up in little bundles in colored or gilt paper O, it is impossible to tell all the tempting forms these sweets take ! Everybody buys. The stores are crowded for weeks. In the German Christmas, do not forget that Pfeffer Kuchen plays a great rôle. The flower stores are a feast to the eyes. Where in the world are there such flower stores as in Germany ? Each one speaks a message of cheer, and as the workers hurry on their way, filled with daily cares, there comes a fragrance, a fresh breath, as they pass by, that makes life that day sweeter. The flower girls are refreshing to see. Flowers and the flower trade mean much more in Germany than in any other land. They do not seem to exist as a business, and to make a demand upon the people, but they spring up as flowers of nature do, for the blessing of the people, called into being by the demand for beauty in the soul of man. The lovely stores, the fresh, simple-hearted, pretty-mannered girls, in the flower world of Germany, exist to make life better and happier; in England, in many places, this is lost, and “money ” is the spirit beneath and on the surface. At Christmas time, the flower stores are like a vision of fairyland, and the homes are fresh and fair with their living beauty. Flowers are a factor not to be omitted among Christmas joys.
What else ? We linger at the stores. The butcher or meat shops must not be forgotten.
You would scarcely know a meat shop here as a relative of that abominably ugly place we call by that name in America. Think of entering such a store : marble mosaic floors, walls beautifully painted in pictures, high-frescoed ceilings, and, amid flowers and plants, on marble tables and counters, the cleanest, most tempting meats, cooked, garnished, all served by rosy German girls in white aprons and caps ! Such is the German butcher shop. People stand and gaze in the windows as at any art store. At Christmas time they are at the height of their glory, for then every one must have meat, which is often a rarity in German families. O, yes ! we must mention one amusing custom. You often see a chair, with a white apron tied about it, hanging up in front of a meat store. That is to signify “warm Wurst,” an ancient custom that still holds in Berlin.
It is hard to leave the stores, but we must hasten to the markets. Every open square has been turned into a market. Some are for the sale of Christmas trees, and there is that odor throughout the city, the sight of the trees, the spicy odor, adding to the ” Christmas feeling.” Every family must have its tree, so these squares are little fragrant forests for weeks before the holiday. Other squares have booths, with articles for presents. As the handsome stores have revealed the Christmas of the rich German society, so here we read the Christmas joys of this other the peasant class in the large city. O, what odd things! All sorts of wooden animals, knit dolls, all varieties of caps, the German men and boys seem fond of caps, shoes of queer shapes and materials, candles, wax figures, woollen articles, nuts gilded and decorated, and everywhere Pfeffer Kuchen.
Then there is the great Weihnacht’s Markt at the Schloss Platz. In the open square about the Old Palace in Berlin, booths are erected where the people may sell their wares. How some of these poor people look forward for months to this market, when they may be able to make a little money ! The market holds for two weeks ; alas, if it is rainy weather ! The people will go to the stores then, and the Christmas season is a sad disappointment. One woman, last year, in the bitterness of her disappointment, hanged herself. This market is a relic of the centuries. In the last few years of the wonderful growth of Berlin, it has been thought that this was ” too rustic, too country-like,” and that it should be abandoned, but the old Emperor says that as long as he lives it shall remain, as so many poor people delight in it, and for some poor children it is the greatest pleasure of the holidays. And such crowds of children ! each screaming, yelling, “only ten pfennige I” children with picture books, whips, whistles, rattles, birds, running after the visitors, plead and beg until you must buy. It is Booths, hundreds of them, candles, tree ornaments, knit articles, musical instruments, and Pfeffer Kuchen ! The are ridiculous as they mingle and cry out their wares in America plays a great rôle in the Weihnacht’s Markt.
” Hier ist die reiche Tante Veronika Gerade aus Amerika Kommt our einmal das Jahr! ”
is the song as they display some jumping figure. It is all laughable. The boys and girls of course of the lower classes have a jolly time. Even some of our American students could not resist the fun, and caught the example, and, filling their pockets with pfeffer nuts and apples, divide them among the crowds of laughing, screaming girls that gather about, and how they run and pelt each other! The Markt is quite a national feature, its crowds, noise, humor, very characteristic of the happy good-humor of the German.
How the poor enjoy all this ! This belongs to the good times of Christmas, this giving away to humor and fun without restraint. Every one yields to the general good-feeling, and how can it be other than a glad, merry time in the land ? Is not this the right spirit for Christmas ? Let the heart forget its own care thus once a year, and, thinking of our duty to make the world cheerful in this gladsome time, let us allow the free heart its pleasure. This is done in Germany. It seems a nation of children now. Men and women talk over secrets with all the glee and enthusiasm of children, and we feel that Christmas retains the charm we felt it once had, when we were little ones. Too often, with us, the spell dissolves with childhood days ; older grown, we feel that
” Something sweet followed youth with flying feet, And will never come again.
Yet here we find a nation keeping up to old age all that childhood bliss. What is the secret ? Simplicity, the good-will to all men.
In the homes, Christmas begins to reign long before the authorized holidays, here is the very heart of Christmas joy. What preparations must be made, what -a long list to be remembered ! Everybody is remembered ; usually with only a little thing, a mere trifle, yet beautiful, as expressing thought, remembrance. The German heart just expands and opens itself at Christmas time. The one thought that fills the being is give : no wonder it is a happy, happy time, for mankind is happiest when giving. We venture to say that there is no one in the land who does not receive and give, and even the poorest and most wretched must have a moment of happiness it may be the only time in the year on Christmas day.
The Gifts! Would we appreciate them? As a nation, we like everything on a large scale. It is a national trait, born of our country, with its large rivers, great plains, mountains, stretch of land, our nature is like the nature of our land. In Germany, a little thing is of moment and value, and so the presents are generally little things, weighed not by outer worth, but rich in that sweeter, stronger, rarer power, loving thought. This remembering one’s friends, once a year, with some little token, is a very precious thing, sweetens the burdened life, and our Christmas cards, not known in Germany, give us this opportunity to send a loving message. In Germany, no one is omitted on the list to be remembered from the house portier and his children, to the friend who is remembered for some slight act of kindness during the past year. Christmas time is the time to recall past kindnesses a general revival of all that is good and blessed in life, and lovely in the human heart. What a blessing to the race is Christmas tide !
In our family the long list is made out, and the presents must be gathered. What fun we have ! Doubtless, many Americans would .laugh over the presents, and so did we ; but it was a laugh of enjoyment, and not derision. A box was packed to be sent to the country relatives, each one remembered : bunches of artificial flowers, ribbons, fans, bracelets (silver, with ” Gott schütze dich ” engraved on them), edelweiss pins, fancy aprons, reticules, and knit garters, wash-rags, laces, collars, raisin men, toys, O, what not ? And in all, over all, mixed with all, Pfeffer Kuchen ! On each the name was written, and a verse, and the joy of the receivers was anticipated in a lively manner ! Elsa and Frau Hauptmann, and the Herr how they rattled on, and I even happier than they ! And the return box from the country relatives ! Knit articles beyond enumeration or description ; such meat, sausages ! such butter, cheeses ! A breath from the farm-house, the freshness of the open land, comes with the box, and town and country unite in Christmas joy.
The post-wagons, yellow, beetle-like affairs, are rattling all day, the post-horn blows incessantly, and the great wagons stand at the railroad stations to receive the countless packages, boxes, bundles, greetings of kind hearts. And how each family rushes to the window as the post wagon stops, and each wonders ” Is it ours ? ” and ears listen intently to note at which landing, on which side of the hall, the quick step halts, and the bell sounds loud to the listening ear. Every one is in the most pleasant expectancy, and each household in a happy recipient state. O, it is charming ! and dear old Christmas is blessed again and again for its spell of happiness in this work-day world of ours.
It is a time for the poor. There is a general caring for the poor, and a helpful one. In the schools the children are all requested to bring garments, money, whatever may be convenient ; and in each ward a certain time is appointed for the distribution of these. In Germany, while it is a poor land, we do not see the wretchedly poor as seen everywhere in richer countries. Whether it is that the German has a higher respect for him-self and will not allow or suffer the outward show of poverty, or whether there is greater help, more systematic assistance given them, or whether it is, as some affirm, that open exhibition of poverty is repressed by force of the law, we cannot say, we only know that here we have seen no down-right beggary, although a grateful acceptance of all given without it. In England there is beggary of every description ; the blind, the lame at every corner in London, and mendicants beset the boarding-houses that Americans frequent, and follow them on the streets with pitiful tales. Near to Germany, Austria has its beggars, playing organs and harps on all the public roads. In Germany, while the cry is continually ” a poor people,” there is no open wretchedness. The rich families care for families individually, and the State has a proportionate pension. In wealthy families there is a special celebration for their poor. Through the kindness of Mrs. M., through whom so many of my German experiences have been gained, I was privileged to witness such a Bescheerung at their home.
It was a scene never to be forgotten, and the salon that has witnessed so many Thursday evening receptions, and been the spot of so much pleasure to the Americans in exile, now presented another testimony to the goodness in the hearts of these rare Christians. A long table, laden with gifts, and bright with a lighted Christmas-tree, awaited the expectant families. We few invited guests kept back in the corner, the feast was not ours. The piano in this room was played, and from the other room came the music of voices united in “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” The doors opened, and the families (thirty or more, with the addition of many little ones) came in and took their designated places at the table. Dr. S. had been invited to speak to them, and the words of the short address and of the prayer that followed, amidst such a scene, brought tears to every eye, one of our young gentlemen could not restrain his sobs, and left the room. Then, spontaneously the children joined in the exercises. One after the other the little ones approached Mrs. A. more a Holbein Madonna than ever, as she lovingly stood among them, those she labors for, and whose cares burden her heart and rest upon her even as upon them. The children spoke verses or sang songs with pleasure to be able to add their gift. It was delightful ! Then the happy faces as the gifts were examined ! These friends had been sewing for weeks to make happiness where trial is known ; and the abundance of warm garments, of all necessary articles, was true help to them. Each seemed to receive just what was needed shoes, stockings, quilts, skirts, under-wear, mittens, and what awoke pleasure they could not help showing; each family received a large piece of meat, groceries, and a thaler. Was this not a rich Christmas to them ! O, the bliss of those little ones with the dolls ! Bags and baskets, which they brought with them, were packed and laden with substantial gifts, and the happy crowd, on returning to their homes, could feel that the love of Christ for mankind must be true if he puts such love in the hearts of his servants, and the poor must unite in praise to the Christ-child and the celebration of the Christ Birthday.
This over, we adjourned to the drawing-room for our celebration, and now comes the fun ! We all received some little token just for fun ! You cannot imagine the wit and fun and surprise of the evening! Mrs. A.’s wit touches the point every time, keen, bright, sharp, versatile ; if there is a spark of wit in any one, hers kindles it, and a consequent good time follows. The gifts were all absurd, and accompanied by verses. One young man, a student of philosophy, actually says he understands Hegel; so he got an owl, with this verse
” Here’s a fowl, He’s an owl ; See him think, Watch him wink, Will you not? He reflects And dissects German thought. But he’s baffled and perplexed, Shall I tell you why he’s vexed ? ‘Tis no wonder, you will grant, — He would understand Hegel and (C) Kant!”
How we all enjoyed it, and none more so than the young philosopher. Another a young German, who also philosophizes, received a marzipan peach and this verse :
” Hier ist ein Stückchen Marzipan, Veracht es nicht, denn sieh’, Wenn auch nur Zücker, ist’s zugleich Ein Stuck Philosophie: Es ist ein kleines ‘Ding an sich,’ Wie man zu sagen pflegt, Doch is tes auch zugleich ‘Für sich’ (Pfirsich) So tief ist’s angelegt.”
My gift was no joke, and I was the happiest there ; in a little red plush frame, a picture of Mrs. A., and the writing, ” One cannot give more than one’s self.”
In our family there was the loveliest spirit to a stranger and a foreigner. With the family there was a plate also for the American, and covering all, in recognition of home, an American flag ! What if it has only eleven stripes, what if but thirty stars, and what if these stars are eight-pointed ! was there ever an American flag so welcome, so delightful, and shall it not come forth the German American flag every future Christmas, in remembrance of that happy Christmas in the heart of a German family, in the German land? A tiny Christmas tree was at my plate, its bits of candle lighted ; a bunch of roses, red and white, made of soap, bonbons, and Pfeffer Kuchen. The chief gift, and very precious to me, shows the spirit of the German giving how they make a gift of inestimable value through thought, sentiment. This gift has value untold to me. In a brass frame a picture of Dryander. Knowing how ” the little American” loved his preaching, the Hauptmann had gone to him, and secured this, his name and a verse and the date written on the back of the card. Was it not a beautiful Christmas thought ? Far over the seas, the stranger finds warm hearts and love. Indeed, in many ways they endeavored to make me not miss home at this time. They asked all about the American Christmas dinner, and allowed me to invite several of the Americans to dinner, where the turkey was prepared with close observance to American recipe, and the preisel-beeren made to resemble our own cranberries, and the city scoured for a rare bunch of celery, that cost an extraordinary sum. What more was needed to make happiness perfect ? How often had I sighed and groaned for a rocking-chair, and did not one put in appearance that morning ? Mrs. M. said my intense satisfaction in a rocking chair at their Thursday evenings led to the remembrance, and, while the Germans scorn ” a student and a rocking-chair!” I can smile at all the scorn, and at last find comfort when weary.
Christmas is not only giving; it is also worship-ping. It is not all amusement it is devotion ; not all pleasure, but religion. With all the gladness, happiness, joy, good-will, merriment, still, never for a moment is it anything but a sacred festival. This thought is kept uppermost. It is not, as too often the world would make it, the time for material pleasure; while pleasure reigns, still, it is the time of the glad tidings of the birth of our Saviour. Santa Claus and presents do not crowd out Christ and the old, old story. There is no story of this kind among the children, they grow up with the clear understanding that this is the day commemorating the birth of Christ, and that all these gifts come through the Great Gift. So they learn to love the sacred story, love it for the associations, the happiness it brings.
On Christmas Eve, the gospel story of Bethlehem is read. The Christmas celebration is held in the families on Christmas Eve. It is called the ” Holy Night.” From every window blazes a Christmas tree, a vast illumination through the city. Every family has a tree ; even though it be a little branch of green, a humble family may gather about it, and find a sacred happiness there, that may touch our hearts to deeper reverence and love. Here is not a rush for gifts and forgetfulness of the Giver. A ceremony must precede and no gift is touched until the Giver is thanked. Before the lighted tree, the family stands in devotion : “Holy Night ” is sung with solemn hearts, the story is read with loving remembrance, the prayer is offered in fervent gratitude. Is it not right on a sacred holiday?
The nation as well as the family makes it a religious season. For several days church is held twice a day, and the churches are filled. It is the time for that wonderful music when the glorious chorals of Bach and Handel fill the sacred places with divine harmonies. The children are gathered for service not of entertainment, but of the responsive reading of the same story of the Babe in Bethlehem. Over and over it is the same story : turn where you will, it is sung, chanted, repeated, read ; the children, the old, in church, at home, still the old, old story of that first holy night when the angels sang their hallelujahs, while shepherds watched their flocks by night, and the bright star shone to guide the wise men on their way to the young Babe, lying in its humble bed in the manger in Bethlehem, in Judea.
It is right to make this a religious festival, to keep foremost the birth of the Saviour. May this spirit grow in our midst, and may not merry-making eclipse the bright light of holiness that radiates this sacred time, and, while the heart is filled with gladness, good-will, joy, let it learn sweet new lessons of love, reverence, adoration, and peace in Christ, once the Babe bringing that first ” Holy Night.”