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The Most Perfect Gift Of All

Reconnecting with family values

Photo courtesy of Gabriela Schütt
The Holiday season is encroaching, putting behind us that dreaded day we Canadians have adopted from our American neighbours. On Black Friday this year, I stood in the store where I work, watching throngs rushing through the shopping mall in pursuit of “that perfect gift.” I wondered, Haven’t we commercialized Christmas enough yet? Is it really necessary for us to add Black Friday to our pre-Christmas experience? The questions only left me asking, What happened to the times when Christmas was a nice, quiet, family holiday—the times before I worked in retail, before I moved to Canada from Germany, before I grew up?

The season held such mystery and wonder then—the four weeks of Advent building excitement for us children. We couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive, but not just because of the presents under the tree. It was a special time when our family gathered for meals and conversation.

It all began with a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6th; we’d leave an empty shoe in front of our bedroom door before going to bed the night before, and it was always filled with chocolates and candies in the morning. Strolling through the Christmas markets left me in awe of all the lights on trees everywhere and the wooden booths in the market with crafts and delectable foods that we could buy only at this time of year. The sugar-roasted almonds were my favourite treat—sweet, crunchy, hot in their paper cones.

But stores were closed by noon on December 24th so everyone could enjoy the holiday with their families. After breakfast that day, my brother and I would go to our grandparents’ place, where Opa played piano for us and Oma sang Christmas carols. In the afternoon we watched a kids’ TV program called Wir warten auf’s Christkind (“We are waiting for the Christchild,” who brings the gifts to children in Germany).

Meanwhile, my parents back home worked hard to get ready for the arrival of the Christkind—cleaning the apartment and decorating the tree, which was never put up before Christmas Eve. They wrapped the gifts and placed them in big, white duvet covers under the tree. By late afternoon, household preparations finished, our family attended Mass. Freshly cut Christmas trees in the church twinkled with white lights. If I close my eyes now, I can still smell pine and melting candle wax. (I’d never seen an artificial Christmas tree before I moved to Canada!)

We arrived home to a locked living room, so we could catch only a glimpse of the Christmas tree through the frosted glass door panel. After dinner my father disappeared for a while and eventually rang a little bell, the signal that the Christkind had been to the living room to drop off the gifts. We gathered around the tree, and my father read the nativity story, and we sang carols.

Thinking back on it now, I laugh; my family was so organized! We children were not allowed to storm the gifts and rip them open. Dad took them out of the bag one by one and read out each recipient, and we waited until a gift was opened before he handed out the next.

Over the next two days, households throughout Germany rested; stores were closed until December 27th. It was a time for family members to be together. Life seemed much simpler then—or is this just my childish perspective? Possibly, but I also believe that the celebration was more about families sharing their traditions than it was about shopping and gifts.
Working retail for the past dozen Christmases has made me cynical. I see families not able to spend as much time together because we’re all expected to work more, taking only Christmas Day off. Everyone is stressed about “getting it all done in time.”

I’m sure we each have Yuletide traditions we remember from our childhood. I’ve kept some I loved and added others that work better for my family now. Perhaps this season we all could make the effort to find our way back to these memories and even add new traditions for our families. We can’t do anything about the opening hours of stores, but we can participate less in the race for the best deals. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could re-establish the basic values instilled by our parents and slow down a little for the holidays this year and spend more time with family and less time shopping?

It doesn’t really matter if we get it all done. What really matters are our families. Let’s show our children that Christmas is about more—so much more—than gifts under the tree. Perhaps that would be the “most perfect gift of all.”
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