Danube Swabian Heritage


 

     

 

Recollections of a Danube Swabian Christmas in the "Old Country"

 

by Frank Schmidt

     Danube Swabians are a family-oriented people and tend to cling not only to the customs and traditions of their immediate family, but also to those common to the whole community, which many regard as an extended family.  Those who were born and raised in the Danube Swabian homelands, in Hungary, Romania or Yugoslavia, this time of the year evokes fond memories of a homeland that no longer exists.

     In the old country people lived in harmony with the changing seasons. The “Kalender,” a German-language almanac found in every home, was their guide.  Among other things it listed both the Catholic and Protestant “name days” one or more for every day of the year.

     The Christmas ritual began on December 4th, Barbara Day.  That’s when parents took a shallow bowl or plate, placed a drinking glass up-side-down in the center and covered the bottom with grains of wheat.

     While the children looked on, the wheat was moistened and they were told that when the wheat had grown to the heights of the glass it would be Christmas.  Bursting with anticipation, the children kept a close watch on the wheat, and their joy knew no bounds when the first sign of growth appeared.  From then on it was checked daily, even hourly and its progress was eagerly reported to the parents.  In a warn room with adequate moisture the sprouts shot up quickly, but for the youngsters never quick enough. 

     December 6th was Nikolaus Day, that’s when the children received presents from “-” so named because Nikolaus wore a green fur coat Pelznickel dialect German for Nikolaus).  We don’t hear much about him anymore, but he is still with us.  About a century ago he served as the model for the German-American cartoon** Thomas Nast who created the Santa Claus we know so well.  In the metamorphosis Old Nick underwent quite a change.  The Pelznickel came from somewhere in the “East,” Santa Claus, as every child knows, come from the North Pole.  The Pelznickel was tall, thin and had a stern countenance, unlike his counterpart who is short, fat and jolly.  The Pelznickel wore a fur hood, a green coat trimmed with white fur and black boots which could hardly be seen because of his long coat and black boots which could hardly be seen because of his long coat.  Nast changed the color of the coat to red, shortened is considerably so that Santa’s pants and boots could be seen and added a wide black belt.  The P had no means of transportation, so he came on FOOT and used a long staff as a walking stick.  Since he had no one to help him, he had to carry the heavy sack filled with toys for all the world’s children on his back – and it would take him all night to deliver them!  No wonder he was stooped over and always looked tired.

     On the other hand Santa Claus, as we all know, has many helpers, scoots through the air in his sleigh drawn my a team of flying reindeer and is always jolly.  Santa is the Spanish designation for a female saint.  Why Nast used it in conjunction with the masculine Nikolaus is not known.  But we do know that Claus is the German short form for Nikolaus.  So like many other customs, Santa Claus is yet another German contribution to American Culture.

     Anyway, in Danube Swabian communities children placed their shoes – they had to be polished – between the outer and inner windows, beside the door or somewhere in the house where they could easily be found.  To the children’s delight, in the morning the shoes would be invariably be filled with small toys, candles and other goodies.  The P**, God bless him, loved the children and never let them down.

     In the ensuing days mothers were busy baking gingerbread cakes and other things for the upcoming holiday.  The heady aroma emanating from the kitchen just about drove the kids crazy, but the gingerbread men could not be touched till Christmas.  Still, mothers always had a few odd pieces left over, remnants from the cookie cutter, which kids could nibble on.

     Just when the German custom of bringing evergreen trees into the house and illuminating them with candles began.  Is lost in antiquity.   We have practiced it for a very long time and it is deeply ingrained in our psyche.  Our ancestors brought the custom to the Danubian Lowlands when hey settled the area, two or three centuries ago.  Since there were no coniferous trees in the drained swampland -  or any trees for that matter – they fashioned artificial trees in imitation of the evergreens they had known in Germany.  This helped keep alive a beloved tradition.
 

     The illuminated Christmas tree was first introduced into Canada in 1781 by the German Baroness Frederica von Riedesel in Sorel, Quebec. She had followed her husband Friedrich Adolphus von Riedesel to North America, where he was a commander of German troops fighting under British colors. The governor's mansion in which the tree was set up still stands. A plaque in French, English and German commemorates the event

     In Danube Swabian communities only a handful of people could afford a live Christmas tree.  The majority made do with homemade ones, some of which had been in the family for years.  The trunk of a sapling or an old broomstick often served as the stem.  Branches were made of wire wrapped with green crepe paper.  These were tipped with green colored goose feathers, shaped to resemble the boughs of fir trees.  Some people used a type of thorn bush for a tree.  These were usually left in their natural color and the long outer thorns were tipped with walnuts.  Decorations for both types of trees consisted of homemade baubles, apples, nuts, tiny toys, candy kisses, streamers and tinsel.  As a finishing touch, candles were clipped to outer branches.  The odor of pine was missing, so the artificial tree was never called a “Tunnenbaum,” but could rightfully be designed as a genuine “Weihnachtsbaum."

     On December 24th, Adam and Eve Day, these were behind the scene activities children were not supposed to see.  So they were packed off to Grandma’s, to an aunt or a neighbor’s for the day or at least for the afternoon.  During that time the parents made the final preparations for the holiday, the most important of which was the decoration of the Christmas tree.  This was always done behind closed doors, for the Danube Swabians clung to German tradition and no one was to see the tree till Christmas Eve.  The tree was customarily placed in the Paradi-Stub a guest room that contained the best furniture but was seldom used by the family itself.  Those who didn’t have such a room put a small tree on a table in the living room.

     At supper time the bowl of wheat, which was not a mass of emerald green wheat sprouts, was placed in the center of the table.  The glass was removed and a candle was put in its place.  A bright red ribbon was tied round the bowl and the candle was lit.   This marked the beginning of Christmas.  The children who had been seen the drab wheat being placed in bowl weeks before, were amazed at the thing of beauty it had become before their very eyes.  The wheat symbolized the renewal of life and the candle hope for a bright future.

      After supper one of the parents would quietly leave the room to light the candles on the Christmas tree.  When all was ready the door was ceremoniously opened and there, wonder of wonders, stood a Christmas tree in all its glory.  As the candles cast dancing patterns of light and shadows on the walls of the darkened room, youngsters stood in awe at the sight of that wondrous spectacle.  It wasn’t there when they left the house earlier in the day.  Where had it come from?   For Germans, a Christmas tree illuminated by candles is the essence of Christmas.  Those who have seen one will never forget its magic spell.  As usual, everyone agreed it was the most beautiful Christmas tree they had ever seen.

     Whether the tree was in the guest room or living room the family, which more often than not included the grandparents, sang those wonderful carols which touch the German soul “O Tannenbaum… Stille Nacht… Alle Jahre wieder… Ihr Kinderlein kommet… Leise rieselt der Schnee… O du Selige.” And other vocal treasures from the rich store of German music.

      Later, families sat quietly in the living room, which in most houses also served as a bedroom.  Children were told to be on their best behavior for on that very night the Christkindl (little Christ child) would come to their house to bring gifts for good little children, but none for those who were not.  Children sat on the “Ofenbank,” the bench surrounding the unique heating unit, which was a fixture of most Danube Swabian homes.   At the right moment the petroleum lamp was turned down.  In the semi-darkness the kids were quieter than they had been all year.  Their anticipation was mixed with fear for they were well aware of their past transgressions.

     Unlike the Pelznickel, who was never seen, the Christkindl came in the flesh, so to speak, to reward children on the eve of his birthday.  In some communities a ladder was placed against the chapel on the “Kalvarienberg” (there was a “Mount Calvary” in every Catholic community).  Why the Christkindl needed the ladder to descend to earth from the roof of the chapel after it had flown all the way from heaven was never explained.

      The children’s hearts beat faster when they heard the tinkle of a bell outside.  Was it the Christkindl?  A sudden loud knock on the door and a falsetto voice calling out “Darf’s Christkindl a rein?” (May the Christkindl come in too?) announced its arrival.  The implication in its voice was that if the children had misbehaved the Christkindl would not be invited to come in.  At this point the mother would always answer “Jo, Christkindl, come in we would have well-behaved children.)

     When the door was opened, there stood an apparition dressed in a white sheet.  In one hand it held a white linen bundle and in the other a flexible stick. Instead of the small child its name implied, the Christkindl turned out to be a fully grown person. Through a slit in the street, its eyes looked suspiciously like those of a close neighbor. Even its voice was not as feminine as it should have been. It knew all about the children's pranks, however the bad marks in school and the fact that they had neglected to study their catechism. It also knew many other things about them, things only their parents could have known. It threatened the children with sticks if they did not promise to reform and even landed a few blows to make sure it was clearly understood. With the Christkindl still brandishing its stick, tremulous children's voices readily promised to mend their ways. What else could they do? Satisfied that a changed attitude was in the offing, the Christkindl's demeanor became more kindly, as one would expect of such an angelic figure. It even wished everyone a Happy Christmas. When about to leave, it turned in the doorway, opened its bundle of goodies and rolled the contents across the floor. What a treasure! Walnuts, apples, hazelnuts, "Salonzucker," candy kisses, figs and oranges. This was the payoff the children had been waiting for and they lost no time in scrambling for goodies the like of which they had not seen in a long time. If there were more children in the house than perhaps two, the one who grabbed too many things would be rapped across the knuckles by the Christkindl to teach him or her not to be greedy. Even in the midst of plenty children had to learn to take only their fair share of the bounty.

     Christmas fairs are an old German tradition dating back to the 13th century. The one at Nurnberg is perhaps the most famous. During advent booths are set up in a market square where Christmas trees, candles, decorations, toys and handicrafts are for sale. The smell of fir resin, roasted almonds etc. and lots of good cheer - make a visit to such a Christmas fair, an unforgettable experience.

     In the late twenties and early thirties oranges were not an everyday item in Danube Swabian households. They came from groves established by German settlers in Palestine. Since this was also the Christkindl birthplace, they were regarded as something special.

     The rest of the evening was devoted to telling stories, reciting poetry or playing board games. This was the time to eat the stuff the Christkindl had brought, as well as honey dipped walnuts, hazelnuts stuffed into figs, "Salonzucker" (homemade candy kisses wrapped in bright paper), and of course Mom's gingerbread cookies and cakes.

     When the tired children were tucked into bed, grandma or some other responsible person would baby sit while the parents went to Midnight Mass. For this service the church was packed and there was standing room only, for practically the whole community was in attendance.  Next morning, on Christmas day, mother or whoever did the cooking in the house rose early to attend the 6:00 am “Hirten Messe” (Shepherd’s Mass).  The others would go to church later, while she prepared Christmas dinner.  It’s safe to say that no one ever failed to go to church on Christmas day.   What would people say?

      Geese were plentiful in Danube Swabian villages, so roast goose accompanied by the vegetables the family had stored for the winter, was the most popular choice for Christmas dinner.  The family and guests throughout the day enjoyed “Torten” and other baked goods.

     After dinner children went to relatives, friends and neighbors to wish them a personal “Frohe Weihnachten.”  Since most relatives and friends lived in walking distance, Christmas cards were only sent to those who lived far away, but these were never impersonal, conveying such inane messages as “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.”

     Godparents were a Danube Swabian institution.  Every child had them.  They were usually good friends, not relatives of the parents and took their duties seriously.  Not only did they hold the child when it was baptized, but they took a personal interest in its development.  During the settlement of the Danubian Basin when so many of our German ancestors died of malaria, godparents were indispensable.  If parents or other relatives died, godparents were expected to physically care for the child and make sure that it got a religious upbringing.

     Godparents were also a very much a part of Christmas.  The “Godl” was a sort of fairy Godmother for whom the children had a special affection.  One went to her house to wish her a Merry Christmas and took along a linen cloth, which she filled with the customary treats.  She was best known for her gingerbread men, which were so large that they would never quite fit into the cloth container.  Girls received gingerbread dolls or angels.  Boys got horses or Christmas trees.  If there were more than two children, each one received its own special for of gingerbread.  The shape didn’t matter much, because the gingerbread was soon eaten anyway.

     On Christmas day the streets of Danube Swabian towns and villages were filled with joy.  Groups of people in their Sunday best headed for church, as the bells rang through the clear air.  The rhythmic jingle of sleigh bells was heard everywhere as horse-drawn sleighs filled with happy people passed each other on the road.  People waved and wished each other a “Frohliche Weihnachten.”  Older people were greeted with the customary Danube Swabian greeting “Gelobt sei Jesus Christus” (praised be Jesus Christ), to which they invariably replied “In Ewigkeit. Amen” (In all eternity. Amen).  While parents visited or received visitors, children played noisily in the streets.

     Aside from the work connected with the necessary preparations for Christmas, this was not a hectic time in Danube Swabian communities.  It was more like the steady tick tock of a grandfather clock.  Everything was done without undue haste with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the good things in life and to savor the friendship of those close to you. By December 28th, Innocent Children's Day, all signs of Christmas disappeared and would not be seen again until next year.

      Although not strictly part of Christmas, January 6th, Kasper, Melchior and Balthasar Day was observed by chalking the initials K.M.B. over the doorway as a reminder that many years ago three kings from the Orient arrived in Bethlehem to present the Christ Child with gold frankincense and myrrh.

      One more thing. It is not generally known, but Christkindl, too emigrated to America. Long before the Pelznickel in fact. It came to Pennsylvania with the earliest German settlers. However, in America it became a grown-up and it's name was anglicized to Kris Kringle, which is just another name for Santa Claus.

      I could count it as my good fortune to be born in a homogeneous German (Danube Swabian) community in the heart of Batschka County, Yugoslavia. It was at a time when, as Danube Swabians are wont to say, the world was still in order. Though I only spent the first ten years of my life there before my parents brought me to Canada, I have not forgotten Christmas in the old country. It still evokes poignant memories of good friends, kindly neighbors, schoolmates, loving parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts as well as assortment of cousins and pets.

      Yes, I still remember our Christmas tree, the Christkindl and the gingerbread man from my Godl. How can I forget the ringing of church bells, kindly old Father Lorenz Mayer, his sonorous voice ringing through the church as he intoned the Latin words "Dominus vobiscum," to which the choir replied in unison "Et cum spiritu tuo." Nor have I forgotten the candle lights and the burning incense. I even remember that someone always came to church with a cold and couldn't suppress the cough that echoed through the silent house of God.

      Memories of Christmas in the old country refuse to die. In my mind's eye I still see the stream issuing from the horses' nostrils as they prance along the street pulling sleighs filled with happy people. I can even hear the jingle of sleigh bells and sense the aroma of gingerbread baking in the oven. How can I forget the happy hours I spent sliding aroung in my wooden shoes on the frozen surface of our pond, throwing snowballs, the clean white snow, and the mulberry tree in front of out house which looked so nice when it's branches were coated with ice.

      Most of all, I remember the 6,000 or so upright, hard working people of my birthplace - even those I never knew. I regard them as kinfolk. All were descendants of the original German Settlers. They are all gone now. Gone with the wind. Every one of them. They became victims of a post-war genocide the world knows nothing about. They now repose in mass graves in what was their hereditary homeland. Or, if they were lucky, they escaped to the West with nothing but clothes on their back. They are now scattered throughout the world.

      I don’t like to think about what Christmas would be like in that place today, it’s too painful.  Much as I try, I can’t strike the injustice of it from my mind!  I’ve been there several times since the regime-approved newcomers have taken over the town.  These so-called ‘colonist’ who would not share the earth with the decent German people who were the first to break the virgin soil, made the land arable****, and built the town.  They now live in Danube Swabian houses, peek at passers-by through dirty windows and do not celebrate Christmas.  The church is boarded up.  Its bells have been silent for fifty years.  The canal is choked with weeds.  The pond has been drained and is now used as a garbage dump.  There is no one left to place a wreath or shed a tear on the grave of a loved one in the desecrated cemetery.  The rood of a little chapel on the Kalvarienlenberg has collapsed and its walls are crumbling.  How will the Christkindl land on the roof of the chapel now that it has no roof?  But, since it only comes to good people, it probably doesn’t go there anymore.

     Even in the comfort of my home I can almost feel the cold wind blowing over the mass graves of our martyred compatriots in some distant field in out former homeland.  Mothers, grandparents, children, cousins, uncles, aunts, schoolmates – innocent victims of man’s inhumanity to man, all are buried in common graves under the soil they once tilled.  No priest was in attendance to give them their last rites when they were committed to the grave.  Nevertheless, I feel that the blood of the martyrs adequately consecrated the earth.  No monument marks their final resting place and only God knows where it is.  May they rest in peace!  For as long as the genocide of the Danube Swabian in Yugoslavia is covered up by the media, I cannot remain silent.

     Do I yearn for Christmas in the old country as it was more than half a century ago?  Yes, I do.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy Christmas the way we celebrate in this country today.  I’m no Scrooge!

     But perhaps, just perhaps, this Christmas I’ll try to get some grains of wheat, which I will place in a bowl on Barbara Day.  When placing the seed in a container I will be mindful of the upright pioneer people from whom we are descended.  On Christmas Eve, Adam and Eve Day, the lush green sprouts will remind me that Danube Swabians have put down roots and prospered on four continents.  The candle will signify that the darkest period in out history is behind us and that if we stick to our values and keep our identity, we’ll have a bright future in a free society.

Merry Christmas!
Frank Schmidt  
Copyright Heimat Publishers 1998

[Published at DVHH.org since 2003] One of the first articles published at the DVHH.