The Christmas Market in Trier, my former home.
It’s eight-thirty, and the morning light is feeble and steely gray. The trees outside my kitchen window are dancing in the wind off the Puget Sound. Today is the shortest day of the year, mild and blustery. It’s also been about six months since I started this new life: retired after twenty-six years of teaching in Germany, back in the U.S. in a new town, new friends – just a few, but meeting more and more interesting people – and a completely new lifestyle: nearly every day is a Sunday! What I mean by that is that I have the gift of time, and no more excuses for not going after my goals and dreams that I’ve nattered on about throughout my working years.
I recall that after my last big shake-up, moving away from my longtime home to start over in a new community, the shock and homesickness and regret hit me hard right at the six-month mark. And it’s happening again – how I miss my old life in Germany, my old friends, and especially the German way of celebrating Christmas! Yesterday at Doug’s lovely Christmas party, we all sang Christmas carols to the accompaniment of some very talented musicians. When the piano player led us in a chorus of Stille Nacht in German, I launched in enthusiastically, but couldn’t finish – my voice choked by tears. My homesickness is still too raw for me to sing German Christmas songs. The mourning for my life in Europe comes in waves, as was predicted by other returning ex-pats, and Christmastime is a big wave indeed.
Christmas market in front of the Trierer Dom (cathedral).
There are no Weihnachtsmärkte in Tacoma – those wonderful German Christmas markets in the historical city/town center, with booths that look like little alpine cabins. I’d visit as many of those as possible each year, soaking up the atmosphere, and the Glühwein, steaming mugs of sweet red wine spiced with cinnamon, anise, nutmeg and orange rind. Nothing drove away the bite of the winter cold like Glühwein, and nothing made me feel instantly Christmassy like a stroll through the booths where artisans sold all manner of hand-crafted gifts and decorations: carved wooden tree ornaments and nativity scenes, hand-made soap and candles, gingerbread and fruit cake (The German version is really delicious!), knit hats, scarves and gloves, jewelry made of semi-precious stones and silver, or sparkling glass beads, fluffy slippers made of sheepskin and fleece – I could do all my Christmas shopping right there, outdoors, and then fortify myself against the cold with a sizzling Bratwurst, a paper boat of mushrooms swimming in creamy garlic sauce, a flatbread hot from the wood-fired oven and topped with goat cheese, bacon and walnuts, or perhaps a Dampfnudel, a steaming, fluffy wheat bun filled with sweet cherry goo and topped with hot vanilla custard sauce. And don’t forget the candied almonds! All the delicious smells are drifting back to me on the winds of memory.
Sure, there were stores in Germany, big and small, over-decorated for the holidays and offering the usual gift items, both useful and useless, but to get to these stores we strolled down the streets of the pedestrian zone at the city center, past beautiful historical buildings, past buskers of all sorts, past tents and booths where this church group or that civic club was selling hot chocolate, more Glühwein, and homemade German Christmas cookies – the kind made with ground hazelnuts and dipped in dark chocolate or kissed with jam and powdered sugar. Here in Tacoma we have some pleasant shopping streets, but they’re plagued by traffic, and no one has set up booths outdoors so that we can enjoy the winter weather – which is mostly rainy, so what would be the point of an outdoor market? And we have the mall, which I avoid at all costs. Nothing cheapens the holiday mood like a mall, with its too-loud Muzak and its too-tacky decorations and its schlocky merchandise. Ugh!
And so, for me, this Christmas is a time for regret and longing for Christmas past. You can’t live in another culture that long and not have its ways seep into your soul. But it’s not a bleak Christmas for us – far from it! The invitations and holiday concerts have been coming thick and fast. Tacoma has a lively theater and music scene, and we’ve enjoyed two lavish Christmas shows: the Seattle Men’s Chorus presented Our Gay Apparel, and the Tacoma Christmas Revels took us back to the Italian Renaissance. The former was just as fabulous as you’d expect, and more. My favorite number was “Marvelous Holiday Sweater,” in which dancers paraded across the stage in the most outrageous Christmas outfits you can imagine while the chorus (very large and very talented) sang the glories of dressing up for the holidays. The latter show – well, when I saw the program, I braced myself for a long afternoon of dreary madrigals, but I could not have been more wrong! The large, gorgeously costumed cast presented a lively progression of Renaissance music and funny skits that had us singing along and dancing in the aisles. It was great fun! And generous friends, old and new, have been including us in their celebrations. There’s lots to do here, and lots of holiday spirit – as long as I stay away from the mall. And we’re nearer to family now. I was able to spend Thanksgiving with my mom and daughter, and we’ll spend Christmas with D’s brothers and their extended families here, which means I’m able to borrow some grandchildren for the holidays. (Take your time, dear daughter. I’m content to borrow grandchildren until you’re ready to produce some.)
And so, dear friends and family, I wish you a Christmas steeped in whichever traditions are dear to you. May you enjoy a blessed yule, a reflective solstice, and the warmth of friends and family. Frohe Weihnachten!