A number of the writers in the memoir classes I lead are immigrants, and for the next couple weeks I’m planning to feature essays these wonderful writers wrote when I asked them to describe the role food plays in their holiday traditions.
Let’s start with Annelore. She was born in Germany and met her American-born husband Roy in the early 1960s, when both of them worked in a small town on the Czech border. “I was working as a medical lab tech and Roy was in a special division of the U.S. Army,” she told me, explaining that he maintained Radar equipment for listening in on Czech and Russian conversation along the border. “It was a unit of 20 engineers and linguists and very secret – you could say he was a spy.”
The two of them married in Germany and relocated to his hometown in North Dakota in 1963, where they had three children. “Everybody knows that when we are far from home, when we are expatriated we tend to cling to tradition, to customs we are familiar with and that make us feel at home,” she wrote in an essay she titled Christmas Traditions. “Missing the wonderful winter Christmases from my childhood in Germany, I tried and tried to reconstruct them for my children year after year.”
Recreating her German Christmas traditions became even more challenging when Roy accepted an engineering position that required the family to spend the next couple decades relocating from country to country around the world. “It was not always easy to find the right ingredients to make it happen,” she wrote. “Live pine trees for example are sparse in deserts like Southern Patagonia or Egypt or in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.”
Listening to Annelore read her essay out loud in class made us all hungry. They started baking in late November, she said. Gingerbread. Stollen. Hazelnut cookies. Almond crescents. Cinnamon stars. Marzipan. “It was not always easy to bake in ‘third-world-ovens,’” she wrote.
For the children, the baking was all part of the anticipation for Christmas Eve. Depending on which country they were living in, it might start with a candlelight service at church. Wherever they were, friends were always invited to join them later for a small meal of Sauerkraut, sausages, steamed salmon, and dark bread. The Christmas tree usually was in the living room with the doors closed.
“Then, a tiny sound!” Annelore wrote. “The tinkling of a bell – Christkind must have come to put presents under the tree. “ She said Christkind comes in the guise of a small angel who slips through a window left open for that very purpose. Only then could they open the door to the sound of music and the sight of the beautiful tree. She described the large tray of cookies waiting in that room as well, and if they were living in a country where the weather outside was cold enough, the aroma of Gluehwein would fill the air. “For the adults this would be the time to settle into the spirit of Christmas, enjoying along with the children, presents, sweets, and music by candle light until late into the night,” she wrote. “Was there room for dessert? Never! But there was plenty of room for being grateful for friends, a delicious feast and of course, the tradition of celebrating together.”
Annelore’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center on the Beth’s Class blog, and you can read Annelore’s essay in its entirety there to find out how searching in Buenos Aires for a traditional goose almost left her serving fish for their feast one year.