Christmas For Members

Why there is one thing about German Christmas that sends a chill down my spine

Jörg Luyken
Jörg Luyken - [email protected]
Why there is one thing about German Christmas that sends a chill down my spine
Photo: DPA

Growing up in Scotland, I had limited connection to my German heritage. The only time of year that this changed was Christmas, which was magical - for the most part.


I grew up in a tiny village in the northwest of Scotland. For much of my time in primary school, I was the only child in my year. To say we were isolated from the outside world is to put it rather mildly.

My siblings and I never learned German. Instead we were brought up singing Gaelic songs. Rather than listening to Bach and Beethoven, we played the bagpipes. And we never cared about German football, all that mattered to us was Scottish rugby.

But this all changed in December when the wonderful characters of German Christmas tradition took a detour from their trips around the Bundesrepublik to travel across the North Sea.

It all started on the evening of December 5th, when we would polish our boots and put them out for St Nikolaus. The next morning we would wake up to find them filled with tangerines and nuts. The other children in our primary school couldn't understand why we got this extra visit from a jolly old man in the depths of the night, so some of them started putting boots out too. (As far as I remember, their gift the first year was a boot full of rain water before their parents caught on the year after.)

My German grandparents also helped out from afar. A huge box would arrive covered in stamps in the days leading up to Christmas. We unpacked it to find the finest marzipan from Lübeck, delightful Stollen from Dresden and Lebkuchen from Bavaria.

Eating the Stollen was taken particularly seriously - we had a special knife, kept in its own case, which would only be brought out at Christmas time to cut the sweet loaf.

Whereas the other children's houses all lit up with fairy lights and glowing Christmas trees much earlier in December, ours still lay bare on the day of the 24th. Not a single decoration was to be put in place until the Christkind arrived. By that time we had all been packed off to our bedrooms, where we eagerly awaited the sound of a bell, the sign this mysterious German man-child had finished his work and vanished.

When we came down the stairs there was a tree standing in the corner of the living room, covered in red, crepe-paper roses - another German tradition that had been passed down through our family for generations.

The Christkind had left each of us a pile of presents. It was the peak of the Christmas celebrations. But it was also the point that an odd feeling started to form in my stomach, a queasy sensation that only grew with the opening of every new gift. By the time there was nothing left on the floor but neatly folded paper (ready to use the next year) my face had turned a pale green.

I knew that the next thing that awaited me was that unavoidable, most dreadful of German Christmas traditions - herring salad.

In the middle of the kitchen table a large bowl awaited us filled with a mixture of hard-boiled eggs, beetroot, potatoes and pickled herring. There was no side dish, no bread that might fill me up. I had no choice but to force down as much of this sadomasochistic Baltic "delicacy" as would calm the angry, baying voices in my belly.

It is only after I moved to Germany as an adult that I came to realize that pickled herring is just one of several traditional German Christmas meals my parents could have picked from. We could have just as easily ended up scoffing down a carp or stuffing ourselves with raclette.

The dessert on Christmas Eve was the only bit of Britishness we had - a steaming Christmas pudding followed the herring salad. Nothing made me feel as happy to be brought up in Britain rather than Germany. Maybe that was my parents' psychological trick.


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