When the summer ends and cooler weather starts to prevail and September begins my thoughts turn to Christmas. It becomes in part my focus and goal for the next four months. I think about ideas for gifts, what will be my wrapping paper/ribbon combination for that year, what holiday cards I will send to family and friends, how I will decorate my apartment and so on.
Tablescape in the dining room- vintage silver foil tree with gold glass ornaments and a selection of silver from my collection, fresh flowers and sherry ready for guests.
Arrangement of faux creamy white roses, incense cedar, hanging cedar, long needle pine and weeping pine. For more beautiful permanent custom floral designs see HERE.
And when Christmas comes, I quite enjoy celebrating the day with family and friends and putting all my plans into effect. But, often in addition to the joy, there is a sense of wistful nostalgia or slight regret about Christmas past when I was a child and how the traditions then changed or ended as I grew up, as people died or faded away, as tastes changed, as time marched relentlessly on into the future. Am I really 43? Only yesterday I was 20.
When my family moved to New Jersey in 1975, a new Christmas tradition began in a new house. My great aunt Margaret (my grandmother’s sister) and her husband Edward whom I always weirdly referred to (as my mom did in her childhood) as simply “Aunt” and “Uncle” (in part because both of my parents are only children as I am and so in a sense they were really the only Aunt and Uncle on that side of the family.)
Aunt and Uncle would come to our house on Christmas Eve and stay through the holiday. With them we opened presents on Christmas Eve in the tradition of the German side of the family of whom Aunt was the only surviving member. Her elder sister, my grandmother Hedwig, Grammy, died when I was 11 months old, so I never knew her nor do I remember her. (That is a regret.) On Christmas Eve in the New Jersey house, everyone selected a favorite food of the appetizer variety like shrimp or clams or pâté and we all sat and ate by the tree and the fireplace in the living room. It was lovely.
I remember the year when my mom and I made yards and yards of popcorn and cranberry garlands.
I remember the year when I got the first Star Wars figures made- Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2D2 and my ultimate favorite, Darth Vader. You didn’t get the actual figures, but a certificate that guaranteed you receiving those 5 characters when they were made in the following year.
I remember the Christmas Eve when I did not get the Wonder Woman doll, but I survived…
I remember going out to dinner with my parents and Aunt (Uncle was no longer with us) on Christmas Eve and there was a dapper, older gentleman eating alone. Before we left my mother went over to him and said, “Merry Christmas!” and shook his hand. That act encapsulates what she is all about and I will always remember her gesture of kindness and love.
Aunt and Uncle always gave me books, many of them about history. I still have these books on subjects like The Great War and World War II and they fostered my interest in my German heritage despite the horrors of the 2 wars which was that heritage’s historical context.
Aunt and Uncle were an interesting couple. No children, married quite young. Uncle was a saint really- a very devout Catholic (Aunt always said he loved his religion), but he was Catholic in the best sense of Christ’s teachings and not dogmatic or political.
Aunt, on the other hand, was high maintenance. A character really. Here is a picture of her in the 1930’s where one can see and feel her vibrant, jaunty and glamorous personality. She was fun.
In contrast, a picture of my grandmother Hedwig in her thirties exemplifies her serious, exacting personality- the eldest child of a German upper bourgeoisie family.
But although Aunt was fun, it was hard to know her in an emotional/intimate sense. She always wore an intriguing ring, her engagement ring- a flat rectangular stone of unfaceted black onyx set in gold. I always thought that this ring captured who she was- independent (n0 traditional diamond for her), tasteful, chic, smooth, impenetrable- her emotions hidden beneath the shiny black opaque surface that did not and perhaps could not reflect anything truly personal.
Update: In speaking with my mother after publishing this post, I learned that Aunt’s onyx engagement ring was also chosen by her because of potential gender discrimination at her job. Aunt and Uncle were married in 1930 and Aunt had to still work and apparently married women were frowned upon because it was thought they would leave to have a baby. So, Aunt’s ring in its length served to cover up her thin gold wedding band and impart the impression that she was a single, carefree gal in the workforce. Fascinating. But, I also still think that she liked being different and having an unusual engagement tickled her distinctive personality.
It was a shame really because I wanted to know all about her side of the family and their life in Germany. Whatever she knew, she did not really tell and now never will, but instead she let out small bon mots about life in Germany as a child or about the Bier family. (She and the entire family- mother, father, her elder sister and brother emigrated to the United States in 1922.) Her favorite line, “All I remember is the Kaiser (Wilhelm II); his picture hung in my classroom at school” , but nothing else really about the family I so desperately wanted to learn about in contrast to the other half of my family: my mother’s father’s side who were all Irish, all Catholic, all quite close minded. To them I was too different, too intellectual, too much a thinker, too queer. I thought the German side of my family would indeed “get” me- my critical consciousness, my refined taste, my bouts of melancholia, depression and doubt.
The Biers were from Dessau in the east of Germany. They were solidly and probably proudly upper middle class with an ease of living. But as with all families there were secrets. My great grandmother Johanna who was called Oma (colloquial term for grandma) by my mother, married Arthur Bier. Oma had a Jewish mother named Rosa Solomon pictured right in a stickpin my great grandmother wore. My mother did not learn about this fact until her 20’s because my grandmother and Aunt thought it would upset her. Surprise, she wasn’t upset.
And Arthur Bier whom we refer to as Opa even though he died before my mother was born was the black sheep of the family. He moved to New York City around the turn of the century and married Johanna here and then returned to Germany where they lived apparently quite comfortably below the castle in Braunfels near Frankfurt-am-Main. Why they didn’t return to Dessau in the east, I don’t know. Perhaps his marriage to a partly Jewish woman prevented that.
When they emigrated back to the United States in the early 1920’s, Arthur worked as a janitor- a fact that embarrassed Aunt even when I knew her. I don’t think we even have a photograph of him. He died on Pearl Harbor Day 1941; he was only 58. The details are fuzzy, a mystery lost to time and there is no one left to ask.
At Christmas, I often think of the Biers and wonder and fantasize and try to imagine them and their life in Germany before and during The Great War and what came after. Did they have real candles on their Christmas tree? What were the ornaments like? How did they wrap presents? What did they give one another? What were their traditions? Who was Arthur Bier?
There does exist a picture of the Biers which I now cannot find, but it has always stuck in mind. The setting is spring or summer and the family is arrayed outside in the bright sun, some seated, some standing. Whom they all are I don’t know, but the patriarch stands out still in my head. He is seated and wearing a light colored suit with a straw boater hat and perhaps he holds an elegant cane. He and his family surrounding him all look self-confident, almost smug in their display of their haute bourgeoisie status in the relatively new German Empire founded in 1871. They are proud Germans, recording themselves around the time of the war, just before or just after, but before the (un)representable horrors to come.
For the last 12 years or so, my parents and I have been celebrating Christmas with our adopted family- my father’s goddaughter, her husband and their 3 children, the oldest of whom, a girl, will be 12 in January 2011. The youngest, also a girl, 18 months is my goddaughter and she is the great joy of my life. I am her Mary Poppins 1/2 the week and though arduous, it is a great adventure watching her growing up and learn and wonder. Her new favorite word is “No”.
Christmas, I think, is always more sweet with children present, especially if they still believe in Santa. Their excitement about gifts, decorations and Christmas cookies is infectious and reminds one of one’s own childhood when all things (at times) seemed possible. Their unjaded participation in the festivities is a great thing to share as I do with the 3 W____ children. It is like inhabiting a Thomas Nast (1940-1902) Christmas engraving, many of which appeared in Harper’s Weekly- sweet, innocent and make believe. These images are the way we all want Christmas to be, but often it is not in reality because one grows up, one experiences loss and disappointment and no one expects a jolly man in a red suit to once again come the chimney bearing wondrous gifts.
When my mother was a child, she would like many children leave Santa a snack, but also with great originality a cigar. This of course was at a time when smoking was still considered healthy and I guess Santa needed a nicotine break on his long night of flying through the sky delivering presents. The next morning the snack was gone and the cigar was half-smoked with its ashes on the plate thanks to Uncle. It is a fond memory for her; it makes me smile and demonstrates what a sweet man Uncle was and how small memories can last a lifetime.
The snack and the cigar for Santa were left in a house devoid of any decoration or ornament. But, when my mother woke up Christmas morning the house was a holiday wonderland seemingly created by Santa himself. My grandparents and Aunt and Uncle stayed up late into the night transforming the house for my mother and her belief in Santa Claus. How lucky that was for her and them.
This tradition of course ended with my mother’s childhood as so much invariably does as we grow older. Now, my mother and I decorate her house over several weeks as we simultaneously decorate client’s homes for her successful custom floral design business, Jo’s Blooms in Short Hills, New Jersey. At my parent’s house, we laden the tree with hundreds of ornaments, many of them vintage pieces from Aunt and my grandmother, trim the mantle and staircase with garlands and ribbon and set the table for the coming holiday meal.
Even the kitchen is transformed for Christmas. Here is a picture of my mother’s kitchen hutch filled with a collection of Spode Pink Tower transferware circa 1900-1920 ( a collection that nicely began with my grandmother) interspersed with vintage holiday items: bottle brush trees laden with snow, elves and snowmen (some smoking cigarettes!) made with pinecone bodies, decorated cardboard houses with snowy roofs and a vintage plastic Santa in a sleigh pulled by celluloid reindeer. These holiday ornaments are now over 50 years old. They have survived and endured many a Christmas and are now slightly faded or a bit broken and so on. But no matter. In the end that is what we all do- survive and endure and hopefully enjoy Christmas or whatever holiday we celebrate with family and friends.
And when Christmas is over, I often have a slight dip in my overall mood. All that preparation and anticipation for one day and then it’s over too quickly and a new year begins. Putting away everything from the holiday is certainly not as fun as decorating and unpacking it. But there is always next Christmas and the memories made this year will carry me through to next September when my mind turns toward the holiday again.