The chair in front of Oma and Opa’s kitchen window was the best seat in the house. The hissing, clanking steam radiator beneath the window made it a warm and cozy place to keep an eye on the neighborhood. As a child, I would kneel on the floor in front of the window with my arms up on the sill, and rest my chin on my hands so I could take in the little world that was Opa’s domain. He was always out in the yard, or the garage doing something. But the best time of the year to watch was the weekend before Christmas when the ritual of the Tannenbaum took place. In Oma and Opa’s house, it was always called the Tannenbaum. In fact, O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree) was the very first Christmas carol I ever learned, and I learned it in German long before I learned the English version. I still remember every verse in German.
Opa would always buy two trees. He usually bought two of everything – one to use, and one to keep for spare parts – it was just the way he operated. But the Christmas tree was a different story. He would set each of the cut trees in a big, galvanized bucket filled with wet sand and let the trees “rest” for a day. He would then decide which of the two were the best. The better tree would become their Christmas tree and the other tree would serve as “filler” for the first. Opa would carefully and deliberately determine where the better tree needed some extra branches and then would cut limbs off the “loser” tree, drill holes in the “winner” tree, apply some sticky substance to the cut branches, insert them in the holes and create a “perfect” tree. Why? Because long before I was born (before one of the neighbors ratted him out and the fire marshal shut him down) Opa would put real candles on the tree – so it was important that each branch holding a candle was strong and that no branches were overhanging the lit candles. He continued to build a perfect tree each year even after he had to give up the candles in favor of strung lights. He was German – he was a stickler for perfection.
I also remember the days when, while Opa built the perfect tree outside, Oma was spending countless hours in her tiny kitchen making Stollen, Lebkuchen, and Pfeffernusse. Opa’s favorite were the Pfeffernusse cookies (which means pepper nut in English). Mom picked up the Stollen tradition, but I don’t remember Oma making any of those things again after Opa died. She did, however, find a place where she could buy Lebkuchen that was imported from Germany, and she often enlisted my Mom to purchase them from G. Fox & Company in downtown Hartford around the holidays.
Christmas changed in our house after Opa died. That year there was a HUGE family fight that resulted in an estrangement from my Dad’s side of the family. Oma lost interest in all the Christmas preparations she always spent so much time and energy on. But I am glad that I can still remember Christmas when Opa was alive. Those memories of watching from the kitchen window as he pieced together a perfect Christmas tree while Oma labored over her cookies and kneaded her Stollen dough, always come back to me this time of year. If I close my eyes, I can feel the bumps and cracks of the linoleum floor under my knees and hear the moaning of the radiator as the hot water worked its way through the pipes to warm my vantage point. I can smell coffee and baking bread – the aromas filling the kitchen with warmth and wrapping one little girl in Christmas happiness.
Wishing all of you fond Christmas memories of your own and a very Fröhliche Weihnachten!
Click here to listen to O Tannenbaum sung on YouTube.