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-- the Yule Season in Germany --
Imagine my surprise as my first Christmas in the United States grew near!  It's been quite a few years ago now when around Thanksgiving, trees and decorations started showing up everywhere, Santa Claus imitators were everpresent ... hey, that wasn't right!  The tree doesn't get set up until Christmas Eve, and it sure wasn't Santa Claus who brought my presents ... that was the pervue of the Christ Child himself!

Alas, it has only gotten worse over the years, with stores bringing out the Christmas stuff even before Labour Day.  By the time the actual holiday comes round, I'm already  thoroughly sick and tired of it all.   But oh, how different (and wonderful!) my memories!

It all starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, when the first
candle is lit on the "Advent Wreath" (from Latin
adventus, meaning
arrival).  The month of December is designated as "Advent",
originally a time for fasting and penance, but now perhaps
more a time for family togetherness, reflection, worship
and story telling.  Each Sunday another candle is lit until,
when all four are burning, Christmas is right around the
corner.  The idea of the wreath dates back to the ancient
                Germanic custom of a wreath made of straw and/
                or evergreen boughs, tied with colourful ribbbons
                (but mostly red and gold) which would be hung on
                doors to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to
                the occupants, but the Advent Wreath tradition only
                goes back a hundred years or so.

The sixth of December is a favourite holiday for children.  This is the day when they put our their well-polished shoes at night awaiting a visit from Sankt Nikolaus, for he is sure to leave some goodies (candies, chocolate, perhaps even a small toy) for them.  Traditions vary by region, but woe the child who hasn't been exactly an angel during the past year ... Sankt Nikolaus has been known to leave coal instead of candy (or, in older, less enlightened times, even a cane!).  This day, of course, is the Feast of Saint Nicolas, a catholic saint whose legends date back to the fourth century where there (probably) really was a Nicolas of Sion who was Bishop of Myrna.  It's hard now to separate fact from tradition, but this man is said to have been deeply moved by the misery of the poor and did what he could to help ... rare indeed for someone well-to-do of that time (some things just don't change!).
Then, finally, the waiting would be at an end and Christmas Eve was upon us.  As small children, as soon as it was beginning to get dark, our noses would be pressed against a window (well away from the living room!) trying to catch a glimpse of a shining star which of course meant that the Christ Child had arrived and we'd get to see the tree and our presents any moment now.  Then it happened ... a little bell was rung, mom or dad (whoever had been in the living room getting things ready and light the candles on the tree) opened the door ... and what followed was pure magic!  There was the Christ Child in the manger (my family had a beautiful hand-crafted creche), the only light came from the candles on the tree (yes, real candles back then!), and we would sing Christmas songs, perhaps say a prayer, and somebody read the Christmas story from the bible before the lights were turned on and we'd get to open our presents.  Then there'd be chocolates, nuts, cookies and tangerines ... to this day, the smell of tangerines reminds me of Christmas (back then, it was the only time of the year that they were readily available).  As I got older, I got to accompany my parents to midnight mass which even now is something I remember fondly.  Cloak it in any religion you will, the magic of rebirth, the return of light and the promise of new life, in nature and in our our spirits, stirs something deep within each of us.

While Christmas Eve was strictly a family affair, Christmas Day was for visiting more distant relatives, friends and neighbours, to wish each other Merry Christmas and share refreshments or perhaps even small gifts.  And if you were a working person, there'd be an added bonus:  In Germany, there's a "Second Christmas Day" which means another day without having to trek to the office.  Bliss!

Alas, nothing is as it was.  The commercialisation of Christmas is in full force now, and by the end of Summer, the shops in Germany are full of all the usual accutrements, just as they are here in the US.  Anything for a buck ... or a Euro ...
Sometime in December, almost every town has it's "Christkind Market," where dealers set up stalls in the market place, there is food and musik, everything geared toward Christmas.  I guess one could call it a "Christmas Faire".
(Christkind = Christ Child)
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