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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Family celebrations

My mother used to tell me of her childhood Christmases with a wistful tone that seemed to sugest she really hated growing up; that her adulthood never really manifested to her satisfaction. She grew up in Detroit, Dearborn. And this is what she told me.

They didn't really have Christmas within the family. Gramma and Grampa had an open house every year the fourth week of December. Preparaions started in October. Grampa would make his famous yeast cake which he called a Holiday Roll. It was a golden raisin strudel dusted with powdered sugar. he made it in October because it had to sit in the freezer for a few months to properly mellow. When he got out the creamy ceramic bowl with the blue and pink stripe on it, mom knew they were entering the busy season.
After Thanksgiving, she and Aunt Anne would start making ornaments for the tree: teassel animals, acorn people and little boats of milkweed pods with colorful paper flags. They would gather greens to make garlands and buntings so that by the time the tree was brought in a week before the open house, the house already an antiseptic pine smell. During this time Gramma made several more trips to the butcher and grocer. She made mince pies and rum cakes that would also cure for several weeks in the freezer. They made jellies and spreads from pale pears, red raspberries, dark elderberries, black currants and firm orange pumpkins. Then the baking would begin. There were tarts, muffins, pies and cookies. Dozens of cookies. And candy: during the Thanksgiving holiday they hosted a taffy pull and made candies with their friends in the neighborhood. They made nut brittles, sea foam and toffee.
Mom mostly talked about Gramma and the baking. Somewhere in the middle of all the prep she'd start singing in German. And she'd sing and sing and sing until most people would have been hoarse. When it was time to make cookies, Grampa would appear in the kitchen. Springerle, gingerbread or Lebkuchen, and sugar cookies. Grampa bent and soldered the cookie cutters himself. I don't kow what shapes he made but I know why they didn't buy them: no money. Mom was born the day the market crashed in 29. Grampa made the cutters from the washed tins of the canned products gramma bought. He understood the cookie dough better than gramma. Gramma and mom couldn't work a lot of doughs. Their hands were always too warm and the dough would start to rise before they were done kneading it. It never had time to rest. Springerle, I have since found out, is a cookie that can not stand to be even the slightest bit "poofy".
Before she knew it, it would be time to decorate for the open house. Candles in the windows, the ornaments on the trees and then Gramma would bring out the glass bulbs that "came over from germany". Now the way that mom would tell the story had me believeing that Gramma brought them with her from Germany when she came in 27. But I have seen these honored bulbs listed in antigues magazines. Krebs is a German company. But the designs were manufactured in germany for the Kresge Corporation. Kresge as in Kresge Market as in K-Mart. No one other than gramma as allowed to hang them. Once the tree was lit then they would open a present. Then the next day they would set up the huge buffet tables and begin the task of polishing the silver. At the end of that day they opened another present. On day three there was more polishing, setting out china, pulling out things to begin to thaw and dressing the birds for the oven. And another present.
And each day was like this for a week until the doors were thrown open for the open house. Gramma's was the place to be in the neighborhood. She glittered like a christmas tree under her costume jewelery in the warmth of companionship. Grampa's booming voice vibrated above the din of clanking silverware when he laughed. And then it was time to clean up. The reward for the house being in order then next day was to open the jackpot of presents and have hot chocolate in front of the fire. Grampa had studied chemistry in Germany and came here as a druggist. He would mix up a concoction of chemicals, soak some small twigs in the mizture and when they were dry, he would drop them into the fire to punctuate the story he told. He cast a spell over mom and Aunt Anne with hot pink, blue, lime green and violet colored flames as each bundle of twigs caught.
I don't know what story he told the girls. It could have been the Christmas story. It could have been the Maccabean Victory that gives us Channukah... I'll never know now. What I do know is that Gramma Ada was Jewish and her traditions were buried under a Christian disguise; which from the last post you know I believe to be a disguise of a different color.

What mom had always said was that the glass ornaments and the cookie tradition in the family were more about German pride than religious example. The glass blowing tradition comes from the area where I have traced my roots- Thuringia and Bavaria, having close proximity to Czech glass blowers. It may even have been taught to the Northern Germans by Czech refugees at its inception. For what ever reason, Germans embraced Christmas with a fervor befitting religious conversion. It would seem odd on the surface. But then the pagan heart can find freedom in celebration while superficially serving Roman masters. As for the Jewish parts... the week of presents is reminiscent of Channukah. The candles lit in the windows each night share similarities. But I fear the German pride of excellent craftsmanship outshone all else during the winter holidays. Passover probably belonged to Gramma while Grampa revelled at Christmas.
I wish I knew more about these things on a personal level. The stories and the trees we had as I was a child have certainly informed my selections for ornamentation. I love the blown glass ornaments. The fruit especially, some of the flowers too. Some of them look so real... like the sugared fruits on which they were modelled. The tear drop shapes and glass icicles are also among my favorites. And there is a difference between the German bulbs and others. Even now with manufacturing secrets seemingly shared across borders... the German bulbs are distinctive... better.
The only thing I don't put on my tree is the tinsel. I can't stand picking it up forever and a day after the tree comes down. And My tree always has more lights than the saftey limits on the box. I can't stand a tree with dark patches. The whole season is a celebration of light. And that I think is the point in all the celebrations: lighting a dark season and remembering that the darkness won't last forever.
I need this reminder more this year than any other. But I won't have a tree for my new menorah ornament because there just isn't time for it when you live like a pioneer and you are a single woman with a job outside the home. Now I know what marriage is really for. And in some way I resent the need for it even more than I usually do. But that is definately a post for another day. I am going to go and shamelessly blend a bunch more holiday traditions...

Season's blessings to you.

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