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Recollections Of a Danube Swabian Yuletide

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Danube Swabians are ethnic Germans who have their roots in Hungary, Romania or Yugoslavia.

Today the surviving Danube Swabians are scattered around the world. Christmas time for the older Danube Swabians evokes fond memories of a homeland that no longer exists.

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Christmas season began on December 4, St. Barbara’s Day. That’s when parents germinated wheat. While the children looked on, the wheat was placed in a bowl, with a drinking glass in the center, and moistened; and they were told that when the wheat had grown to the height 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.

December 6 was St. Nikolaus Day, when the children received presents from the “Pelznickel.” (Pelznickel is literally “Fur Nikolaus”; Pelz = pelt=fur)
Pelznickel came from somewhere in the East. He was tall, thin and had a stern countenance, unlike Santa Claus. Pelznickel wore a green coat trimmed with fur and black boots that could hardly be seen because of his long coat. But nobody ever saw him anyway.

Pelznickel came on foot and used a long walking stick. Having no one to help him, he had to carry the heavy sack filled with toys on his back. No wonder he was stooped and looked tired.

On the other hand Santa Claus, the revamped American version of Nikolaus, has many helpers, scoots through the air in his sleigh and is always jolly.

Children placed their shoes between the outer and inner windows, beside the door or somewhere in the house where they could easily be found. In the morning the shoes would invariably be filled with small toys and other goodies.

In the ensuing days mothers were busy baking gingerbread men and other things for the holidays. The gingerbread men could not be touched till Christmas, but mothers always had a few pieces left over the kids could nibble.

Only a few people could afford a live Christmas tree. The majority made do with homemade ones, some of which had been in the family for years.

On December 24, the children were packed off to Grandma’s or a neighbor’s house for the day or the afternoon. During this 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 no one was to see the tree till Christmas Eve. The tree was customarily placed in a guest room that contained the best furniture but was seldom used by the family. Those who didn’t have such a room put a small tree on a table in the living room.

At suppertime the wheat, now a mass of emerald sprouts, was placed in the center of the table with a candle in the middle. This marked the beginning of Christmas. 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 Christmas tree. When all was ready the door was opened, and there stood the tree in all its glory. As the candles cast patterns of light on the walls, the youngsters stood in awe.

The family, usually including grandparents, sang carols and other vocal treasures from the rich store of German music. Later families sat quietly in the living room, which doubled as a bedroom. Children were told to be on their best behavior, for on that night the Christ child would come to their house to bring gifts for good little children. At the right moment the lamp was turned down. In the semi- darkness the kids were quieter than they had been all year.

Unlike the Pelznickel, who was never seen, the Christkindl came visibly to reward children on the eve of his birthday. The children’s hearts beat fast when they heard the tinkle of a bell outside. A sudden 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 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 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 stick. The Christkindl turned out to be a fully grown person. Even its voice was not as childlike as it should have been. It knew all about the children’s pranks, however. It threatened the children with sticks if they did not promise to reform and even landed a few light blows to make sure it was understood. With the Christkindl still brandishing it’s 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. He wished everyone a happy Christmas. When he was about to leave, it turned in the doorway, opened its bundle of goodies and rolled the contents across the floor. Walnuts, apples, hazelnuts, “Salonzucker”, candy kisses, figs and oranges. This was the payoff the children had been waiting for. They lost no time, scrambling for goodies the like of which they had not seen in a long time.

In the 1920’s and ‘30’s oranges were not an everyday item in Danube Swabian households. They came from groves established by German settlers in Palestine. Since that was also the Christkindl birthplace, they were very special.

The rest of the evening was spent 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, figs stuffed with hazelnuts and of course Mom’s gingerbread goodies.

When the children were abed, some adult would baby-sit while the parents went to Midnight Mass. For this service there was standing room only, for practically the whole community was in attendance. On Christmas Day, mother or whoever did the cooking in the house rose early to attend the 6 am “Shepherd’s Mass.” The others would go to church later, while she prepared the Christmas dinner.

Roasted goose with vegetables was the most popular choice for Christmas dinner. The family and guests throughout the day enjoyed “Torten” and other baked goods.

After dinner the children went to relatives, friends and neighbors to wish them a personal “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas).

Godparents were an institution every child had. They were usually good friends, not relatives of the parents, and took their duties seriously. Not only did they hold the child when he or she was baptized, but they took a personal interest in its development.

The “Godl” was a 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 horses of Christmas trees.

On Christmas Day the streets 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 “Fröhliche Weihnachten.” Older people were greeted with the customary greeting “Gelobt sei Jesus Christus” (“Praise be Jesus Christ”), to which they invariably replied “In Ewigkeit” (“In all eternity”) Amen.

While parents visited, or received visitors, children played in the streets.

This was not a hectic time in the Danube Swabian communities. It was more like the steady tick-tock of a grandfather clock. Everything was done without undue haste, with time to relax and enjoy the good things in life and to savor the friendship of those close to you.

It is not generally known, but the Christkindl immigrated 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 its name was anglicized to “Kris Kringle,” which is another name for Santa Claus. “Christkindl” sounded like “Kris Kringle” to Americans.

I could count it as my good fortune to be born in a homogeneous German community in the heart of Batschka County, Yugoslavia. It was at a time when, as the Danube Swabians are wont to say, the world was still in order. Though I only spent the first 10 years of my life there before my parents brought me to Canada, I have not forgotten Christmas in the old country.

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Republished with the author’s permission

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