From the sunny suburbs of Sydney to the snow of the Austrian alps, I have spent quite a few Christmases away from Ireland over the past 15 years. Some I have taken in my stride, enjoying the differences, culinary and climatic. On other occasions it has been hard to bear being away. To celebrate with someone else's family. To not indulge in the long-held traditions that make Christmas Christmas.
For a long time now I have tried to alternate between spending Christmas with my immediate family in Ireland and celebrating in Bavaria with my husband’s family. As the years have passed, I have come to know and look forward to many of the German traditions: the mini biscuits, called Plaetzchen, eaten on Christmas Eve, the roast goose on Christmas Day... but in my heart I will always want midnight mass and turkey and ham.
There are other traditions I can’t seem to warm to, try as I might. The Christkind (the Christ child) bringing presents to good children on Christmas Eve evening is, literally, a foreign concept. I can understand how it developed.
St Nicholas fills children’s boots with nuts, chocolate, clementines and small presents on 6th December. Why should he come round again in the guise of Santa on the night of the 24th? Why not involve the newborn saviour? But having been raised on visits to Santa’s grotto, The Night Before Christmas, and the Baby Jesus in the manger of the crib, I can’t ignore one and make a winged gift-bringer out of the other.
In fact, the whole notion of opening gifts on Christmas Eve doesn’t sit well with me. For one thing, it feels like cheating. For another, the timing makes things tricky. The Christ Child won’t arrive if anyone is home, so the magical appearance of wrapped presents underneath the tree entails a significant amount of logistics and planning. I feel sorry for the children too. No excited getting up at the crack of dawn for German children. No spending the whole day engrossed in new toys and games. The presents arrive in the evening, get played with for a bit and then it is off to bed.
When my eldest son three years ago announced he wanted to spend Christmas at home in our own house, it took me aback a bit. He only knew Christmas spent in the homes of his grandparents, alternately in Ireland or Germany. Switching between Irish and German customs from year to year, he felt unsettled, it transpired. Would Santa know whose house to bring the presents to? Would he bring them on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Which church, which language will mass be in?
It was then I realised that we needed traditions of our own. Family traditions, not national traditions. Ones that suit our life, that integrate mine and my husband’s upbringing and that will form the memories of Christmas that our children will grow up with.
This year will be our third Christmas in our own home. We will attend the children’s mass on Christmas Eve afternoon and watch the nativity play. Afterwards we will have a simple meal of fried Silesian sausages and potato salad, a meal we only ever eat on Christmas Eve and a custom we have adopted from my in-laws.
The children will be allowed to open some presents and before bed they will leave out their stockings for Santa, who will visit overnight. My husband and I will chat or read, maybe watch a film. We’ll drink hot port or hot whiskey and prepare for Christmas Day and all that it entails, from the excited children waking early to the bucks fizz for breakfast, the mince pies, the goose, the sprouts and the Christmas crackers.
That is how we do Christmas. It is becoming normal, albeit gradually. I can look back and say we have established traditions, traditions I can see us keeping up. We have created our version of Christmas. I don’t know if we’ll ever shake off the habits of the past - my husband feeling that Christmas Eve has been lessened by the Christkind not arriving, me feeling that too much of Christmas is happening a day early. Time will tell. But the really important thing is that the children enjoy it, that they know what Christmas means, why it is celebrated and how.
Fionnuala Zinnecker has written previously for Generation Emigration about life in Germany, and blogs family life at threesonslater.blogspot.com and cooking at mykitchennotebook.blogspot.de.