Holiday Traditions in a Bicultural Household
I have lived in the United States for over 25 years now and consider this country my permanent home. I am at least 50% American in my values and beliefs, even if my origin takes me back to Germany followed by a 10 year stint growing up in Brazil. But invariably when a holiday rolls around, I am reminded about my roots and find myself at odds with the traditions that are common place for my husband who is 100% born and raised in the US.
How Germans Celebrate New Year's Eve
Not once in my 40 years have I missed the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. No matter how little I was. And I know this to be true because I recall my little sister as a baby on my Mom's lap, washing her hands in a glass of champagne awaiting the final countdown. It was always an evening celebrated with a special meal, and before I had my own kids, a chance to go out to a restaurant with my family where we would enjoy dancing and entertainment on the last evening of the year.
Perhaps one of my fondest memories are the fireworks and sparklers which we enjoyed so much when we returned to Germany for New Year's Eve every other year. With the help of grown-ups, we set fireworks off in front of our house and watched them explode into amazing shapes against the night sky. And I can still feel my little hand shaking with excitement as my Mom or Dad would light the sparkler in my hand and I would twirl it in circles to make fancy patterns in the air. It was a thrill to be up so late at night and before the night was over, we were already looking forward to the next New Year's Eve.
How Germans Celebrate Easter
The Easter basket: I don't recall it in any other shape or form than an empty wicker basket we had laying around the house which doubled as a vessel to collect the easter eggs scattered around the house and backyard by the Easter Bunny. We hunted for candy eggs which were simply hidden in their shiny foils without the protective plastic eggs around them found here. At some point we did start adding small gifts to the festivities, but the little tchotchkes which make their way into the American baskets are still a foreign concept to me.
We were most definitely expected to dress properly for the Easter Bunny but something like the Easter outfit, complete with a bonnet, is not something my parents would have ever bought for the occasion. Yes, we did always enjoy an Easter dinner together but it was truly served in the evening and not mid-afternoon as I have experienced here in the US. And mind you, we would still be in our special outfits because formality is the name of the game when Germans celebrate holidays.
We ate dinner 'late' largely in part because we were still stuffed from our Easter brunch which kicked off the celebration every year. My Mom used to bake a vanilla cake in the shape of an Easter lamb which stood proudly in the middle of our table. I remember fondly how the day always started with a fight with my two sisters over who had the honors to be-head our lamb for a piece of my Mom's prized cake.
The arguing took on a new life when my Dad would announce the start of our annual Easter 'egg cracking game'. Each one of us carefully selected a hard-boiled, dyed egg from a basket and in an orderly pattern around the table, we took turns trying to smash each other's bottom and top egg shell. The one with at least one intact side to the egg would be pronounced the Easter King or Queen and have good luck for the upcoming year.
How Germans Celebrate Christmas
The month leading up to Christmas reminds me every year that this is the holiday which seems to present the most differences in our bicultural home. For Germans, things start to get underway on the evening of December 5th when children put out a shoe in anticipation of St. Nicholas who will do one of two things while they are sleeping: fill it with nuts, oranges and chocolate if they have been good; or, fill it with rocks, coal, and sticks if they have been bad. I never worried about what I would find in my shoe the next morning, only about the size of the shoe I would put out (my Dad's worked best) to get as much chocolate as possible out of the occasion.
We always celebrated Christmas itself on the evening of December 24th when an angel is believed to bring presents for everyone. I don't recall a gift exchange between people although we certainly had an art or craft to surprise our parents. All day we would be kept away from the tree so as not to disturb the timing when the angel would be able to make a stop at our house. Invariably, when all the waiting was done, it was night time and a bell would be sounded announcing that the celebration could begin. The tree was always breathtaking, lit with real candles. But presents waited for a short while longer until after my older sister and I did a short musical performance for the entire family. Only then we were allowed to attack the pile of presents under the tree.
December 25th is known as the 'first holiday after Christmas' and we woke up to re-examine and play with all the gifts we had opened the night before. My Mom religiously served a 'Christmas' goose, red cabbage and potato dumplings for a late lunch. Only later in life did I learn about the labor this made-from-scratch meal required as I was often asked to peel, cut and shred the potatoes for the dumplings. Oh, to be a kid again.
Celebrating US Holidays as a German Residing in the US
After we moved to the United States, we were happy to adopt a few new holidays. Initially we felt no connection and simply appreciated an extra day off from work or school. But over time, we began to celebrate the meaning behind these days and now are most definitely trying to share the underlying message with our children.
We moved to the US in late August and my first unknown holiday was Halloween. Not a hard one to adopt as a child, given the gruesomely decorated houses and abundance of candy. But now that I have more seniority, I can only look back and laugh at how my new friend talked me into dressing up as Raggedy Andy. The role of Raggedy Anne, of course, went to her and I would still be hard pressed to tell you who these two characters actually are.
Then came Thanksgiving, and to us it only felt like the invasion of pumpkins continued. Not only an insignificant vegetable to us before arriving here, but we also had never tasted it hidden in so many foods. From pumpkin pie, to pumpkin bread and pumpkin butter: the taste is finally growing on us. And, I must mention that my Mom does now serve turkey for dinner, but in years past, any bird (such as a duck or goose) would do the trick.
Independence Day is the most difficult to appreciate, probably because it is also the most patriotic. Patriotism is definitely still more synonymous with the United States than it is with Germany. Every year, I am surprised all over again to see how the stores stock up on everything red, white and blue in anticipation of this holiday. And every year, my husband is on the hunt for a local 4th of July parade so that the kids can experience a true American tradition. I go along for the ride, looking forward to the fireworks which I miss so much on New Year's Eve.
Balancing German and US Holiday Traditions
Once we had children in our bicultural home, it definitely became a priority to bring each of our traditions together as one. We are still perfecting the way we sometimes try to combine that which is important to each of us, but the kids are very flexible. If anything, they benefit not only because we are exposing them to two different cultures but also because in a moment of indecision, we often opt to do it both ways rather than just one.
Following is a wrap-up of how have combined the most significant holidays in our home.
New Year's Eve: We definitely still celebrate big, rather than small, but clearly have made some accommodations. An outing, a special meal at home, and champagne at midnight seems to have become our new standard. A few wimpy firecrackers from Target become a special touch. I compromise for the televised 9pm ball drop out of New York City for the kids (thank goodness we live on the west coast), but stay up myself to see the repeat at midnight. I have never, nor will I ever, give in to sleeping through midnight, even if I have agreed to put the kids to bed. My husband keeps me company, but I am not sure he agrees with me 100%. Before I can go to sleep, I connect with my family over the phone and wish them a happy new year.
Easter: Invariably the kids enjoy not just one, but at least two egg hunts for Easter. One at home in German style, and then another outside our home with the plastic filled eggs. I feel that more than makes up for the lack of American style Easter baskets the kids enjoy here. We get dressed nicely and have brunch the way I know it from growing up, complete with the lamb cake and egg cracking game. But we are mindful how much we eat because we eat an early traditional American Easter dinner comprised of ham and mashed potatoes. Oh yes, and those sweet Hawaiian roles my kids now beg for all year long.
Christmas: Again, the trickiest holiday to combine. The only way I have been able to make sense of it is to tell the kids that St. Nicholas and Santa have to work together because there are so many kids who are waiting for them every year. St. Nicholas still finds our house yearly, mostly because it is one of my favorite memories as a child. I have incorporated leaving presents from family and friends under the tree all month long leading up to Christmas. This custom is still a little unusual to me, but works well so that we can open a few presents on December 24th when I am used to celebrating Christmas. Then Santa comes down the chimney to bring the remaining presents which the kids wake up to on December 25th. Not sure exactly how it can be possible, but not once has he remembered to fill our stockings which I tell my husband are just hanging by the fireplace as decoration. He looks puzzled year after year.