Frohes Neues Jahr, or Happy New Year! (Or, as Isi’s sister Katharina taught us: Hab einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr; Have a good slide into the new year!)
I did not actually go home to the U.S. for Christmas, but my family (parents and sister) came to me! To me, I think family is what really makes things feel like “home” to me, so in a way I did get to go home for Christmas by having them come to me! Honestly, I can’t imagine having done it any other way. Much as I would have enjoyed seeing friends and other family back home, Germany is a truly beautiful place to spend the holidays, and I would have missed out on some of that if I’d left. Instead, I got to enjoy the best of both worlds – the magic of Christmas in Germany, complete with Christmas markets and special German treats, and family to enjoy it all with!
My family arrived in Bonn on the 22nd; I got there early, holding pretzels, which my roommate suggested I buy as a proper way to welcome my family to Germany. The waiting was honestly quite stressful, though! Watching other reunions going on nearby was sweet to see, but I wanted my own reunion to come! Waiting and eyeing like a hawk where the people are coming out, every moment on alert because I didn’t know when they might come (I could see that their plane had just landed, but so had about six others), was a bit emotionally and physically taxing. But obviously very worth it, too! When they came at last, Leah jogged toward me past the barrier, and then we all started hugging (tears were also present). It was a great reunion! Mom said later that she saw a lady watching our obviously-enthusiastic and long-anticipated reunion with a smile.
Fortuitously, the Bonn Christmas market was open just long enough for my family to enjoy it! After munching on our pretzels and dropping off luggage, we headed directly to the market. I had been there many times before, of course, but it was so much fun to get to show them around. Moreover, with them I got to look slowly at things I hadn’t paid much attention to before, and generally, to experience it all with new eyes! We tried lots of good food throughout the afternoon – roasted almonds, Currywurst, Käsekrakauer (a cheese-filled sausage), Flammlachs (roasted salmon) for my dad, champignons, a roasted apple, and. of course, Glühwein, Kinderpunsch, and hot chocolate! That part was especially fun for me, as I had been eyeing certain things for weeks – e.g. Flammlachs for dad, roasted apples for Leah – with particular family members in mind. Now I got to watch them actually try those things! Thankfully, while both my mom and sister eyed some candleholders with interest, neither decided to purchase one – I had purchased each of them one as a Christmas present, so that was a sigh of relief for me!
Before the evening got too late, we headed back to the hotel and to my WG (where Leah stayed with me) to sleep. It was a bit early for me (yes, even for me!), but they were all jet lagged, and we couldn’t sleep in too much – because the next day we were traveling to Braunschweig!
The next day, after traveling a few hours by train, we were met by Isi in Braunschweig! While I had seen her just a few weeks before, this was a really special moment, as it was the first time all five of us had been together since 2011. After many hugs and lots of smiles, Isi drove us to her family’s home. With typical (at least based on my experience) German hospitality, Isi’s mother warmly welcomed us with hot chocolate, tea, Christmas cookies, and cake!
A few hours later, Isi and my family headed off to see the Braunschweig Christmas market, where we were later joined by Isi’s mother. This market was new to me, too! We tried lots of different foods – chimney cakes, meter-long bratwursts, poffertjes, and little puffy fried donut things, to name a few – gaped at the nearly mile-long line for the most popular roasted almonds stand, admired the jewelry, candles, and other handicrafts, and generally enjoyed the lovely environment of a Christmas market on this last day before Christmas Eve. (My mother and sister continued to admire the candle holders, and thankfully, continued to abstain from purchasing them, too!)
The next morning (Christmas Eve) we enjoyed a delicious breakfast with Isi and her family – including not only typical German bread, meats, cheeses, and jams, but also Keksebrot! Essentially, you take a piece of white American-like bread (Toastbrot), add butter and/or Nutella, place cookies and/or mashed marzipan balls on top, and then enjoy! Apparently Isi’s mother grew up with this tradition in Sweden using just butter and cookies, but Isi and her siblings found that Nutella made the treat even tastier, and Isi’s brother introduced the marzipan balls! (Perhaps it’s not the original, but I must say that the Nutella and marzipan combo was my favorite, too!)
Later in the day, we decorated the tree – with little chocolate rings, apples, candles, and ornaments – and prepared fondue sauces for later on. Our two families also enjoyed another lovely tea with Christmas cookies, before getting ready for the evening.
That evening, we attended a beautiful Christmas Eve service – naturally, in German. I found that part of things quite fun, as having recited the Christmas story in church myself many times (in English), I know it quite well, and was able to follow along fairly well in German. Most of the Christmas songs were also the same – familiar tunes, with different words. We may have been in a different country, but in many ways, my family and I were able to sing and participate almost just as we would have at home!
Back at the house, we lit the candles on the tree (yes, real, live candles on a real, live tree)! While this might sound a bit dangerous to some, it was lovely – an especially beautiful and unique sight for my family – and no mishaps occurred! As is customary in Germany on Christmas Eve, we then commenced opening gifts! I received some nice presents, and always enjoy watching others open theirs, but I must say that my favorite moment was when my family opened Isi’s and my gift to them – a CD with a recording a flute duet and a voice duet, performed by us. Many of you may know that it is my family’s tradition to make music recordings as gifts to one another. Because I was in Germany, and we couldn’t do our usual group recordings (my mom, sister, and I generally record something together) I think my family had simply thought the tradition would be put on pause for the year. Isi and I having made a recording was entirely unexpected (I think!), and Isi and I were beaming with about as much happiness as they were when they opened it! (And I must here acknowledge the extraordinary talents and kindness of several of Isi’s friends who gave of their time, as well as lending us space, recording equipment, page-turning talents, and fantastic piano accompaniment skills, which allowed us to make our CD!) Watching them open and listen to the gift – a home tradition, sustained while in Germany – was definitely one of the highlights of my Christmas Eve.
A bit later in the evening we retired from the gift-opening for our Christmas Eve dinner of Fleisch (meat) fondue! A bit similar to Chinese hot pot, but also rather different, this involves cooking little pieces of meat, as well as a few vegetables, in fondue pots filled with hot water (I think? Feel free to correct me in the comments if this is incorrect!). In this case, the meat was very fresh and very high-quality, as it came from a recent hunting expedition Isi’s parents had been on. After cooking, the meat can then be garnished with cranberry preserves or any of a variety of sauces we had prepared earlier in the day – creamy herb, curry banana, avocado, egg-and-mustard, cocktail, and more! Lastly, for dessert we enjoyed a delicious orange soufflé made by Isi’s brother!
The next day (Christmas), we enjoyed a lovely, relaxed day with Isi’s family. We played games, went on walks, ate more Christmas cookies, and enjoyed spending time with one another. We concluded the evening with a delicious meal of Raclette, and later, homemade cinnamon ice cream! The next morning my family departed for Nuremberg, and Isi’s traveled to Hamburg to celebrate Christmas with Isi’s sister’s family there.
This Christmas was a very special one – for me, for my family, and I hope for Isi’s family too! Isi’s family was incredibly gracious in opening their home to us and sharing their traditions with us. Especially on a holiday, and one as important as Christmas, I consider this no small kindness. I can’t imagine a better way to have spent and celebrated Christmas in Germany, and I owe much of that to Isi and her family! As we became Isi’s American (host) family when she stayed with us for a year back in 2008, so in some ways I feel that Isi’s family has become my German family this year (I may not live with them on a daily basis, but they have certainly offered me much kindness and support). All in all, it was a lovely Christmas, and I am so grateful to have been able to enjoy it with both my American family, and my second “family” here in Germany.