By Steven V. LeShay
The Old Man doesn’t remember ever celebrating Christmas on Christmas Day. Instead, as a child and even through adulthood, he observes the German tradition of Heiliger Abend (Holy Evening), gathering family and gifts together on the evening of December 24, the last day of Advent.
The Christmas season for him begins on December 1. His mother clips 25 clothespins on a wire coat hanger hung on a window sill near the kitchen table. Each night, before supper, he is allowed to take one clothespin off the hanger signifying that Christmas Eve is one day closer. And so, his excitement will build excruciatingly and slowly until he removes the last clothespin.
On December 23, he and his family decorate a real Christmas tree that has stood naked in the living room since it was bought freshly cut a few days before from a local “tree farm.”
His father adorns the tree with connected red, yellow, blue, green, orange, and white light bulbs. Then, everyone carefully hangs beautiful glass angels, colorful globes, and other fancy ornaments that have been carefully packed and stored away each year as family heirlooms. Usually, as part of the German tradition, a green pickle ornament is hidden sometime later in the tree. The first child who finds it gets an extra present from Santa. However, the fact is that not many Germans have ever heard of this tradition – just his family.
As a final touch, the family drapes lots of silver tinsel wherever there is a space on the spruce boughs. Then, his father places the last and most precious ornament, a star, on top of the tree, barely clearing the ceiling. He plugs in the lights, and everyone stands there admiring their handiwork while expressing “Oh’s,” “Ah’s,” and “Wows!”
Now that he was the Old Man, it is enough effort for him to display the one-bough Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree and, maybe, a small ceramic nativity scene that his parents passed down.
After setting out some cookies and milk for Santa, and a carrot for his reindeer, the Old Man’s parents carefully arrange presents (including those from Santa) around the red, metal tree stand already filled with water to prolong the tree’s life.
For the entire next day, December 24, he is only allowed to look and ponder (but never, ever touch) the magnificent bounty that lays beneath the beautiful tree. His mother always explains that “Santa came the night earlier to our house because he has so many other houses to visit throughout the world.”
Later, well before supper time on Christmas Eve, his parents re-collect and pack up all of the still-unopened presents into the family car and travel to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, where the real Christmas celebration will begin. After arriving, his family adds their presents to the few that already are under his grandparents’ tree. For supper, everyone sits down to eat traditional German dishes of sauerbraten, homemade beef roulade, mashed and sweet potatoes with gravy, peas, and carrots, accompanied by sparkling wine and sometimes champagne. After coffee and dessert, including ice cream, Grandma’s famous pound cake, homemade anise, and other assorted Christmas cookies, the entire family finally returns to the living room to comfortably settle into couches and chairs. It is almost seven o’clock, but the “rules” are that everyone has to listen to Christmas songs on the record player and vigorously serenade the Christmas tree with robust German renditions of Oh, Tannenbaum, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Finally, after a day and a half of sheer suffering, it is time to open all gifts!
But the rituals aren’t quite over … yet.
The Germans have a word for it: Schadenfreude, which means “harm-joy.” It is the word used to describe joy or pleasure when one sees another suffering misfortune.
A great amount of the joy and pleasure the Old Man’s family derives from Christmas is witnessing his “misfortune” that, as the youngest member of the family, he is assigned to be “Santa’s Helper.” His job (until his sister is old enough to assume these duties) is to go to the tree, choose a present from beneath it, and then give it to the person whose gift it is.
There are other “rules” he is obliged to follow strictly. According to his mother, “First, you never can give anyone, including yourself, two presents in a row; and secondly, you have to wait – as does everyone – until the person who received their gift opens it and passes it around the room for everyone to see and admire before you can get another present to deliver.”
These “rules” – coupled with ad nauseam comments and questions such as “Where did you ever get this?” and “How did you know I needed this?” and “What’s it made out of?” along with sideline instructions from his mother (“Now get Grandpa a gift from the tree; he hasn’t received one yet”) – only add to his torture, suffering, and misery as the gift-exchange ritual goes on, and on, and on … and on.
The pile of gifts beneath the tree gets smaller and smaller on the bright side. The adults get wearier and wearier as it gets later and later into the evening. And so, many of the remaining presents are for him, with a few for his father, whose birthday is on Christmas Day. His father’s gifts read: “Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday!” – a twofer that the Old Man’s daughter, also born on December 25 many years later, has to endure throughout her life.
As the evening drags on, his mother soon urges him to “Hurry up; hand out another one! You can take two. It’s late; we have to get home!”
Yes, Christmas always was a festive family time for the Old Man.
This story is Chapter 19 in Steven V. LeShay’s autobiography, Tales from An Asylum: A Memoir Unlike Any Other.
Steven “Doc” LeShay is a game inventor, retired university professor, and Naval Air Reserve Commander who lives with his wife and cat and enjoys playing tabletop board games. He is the author of Tales From An Asylum: A Memoir Unlike Any Other, and Sssnake on a Ssskate?, a bedtime read-aloud picture storybook for children, ages 3 -6. Both books are available on Amazon.com. He is a member of FAPA, Florida Authors and Publishers Association, and lives in Summerfield.