Rejoice!

2010_Gaudete_04Gaudete Sunday is the break that we get in Advent. Its equivalent in Lent would be Laetare Sunday. They are days in which the penitential aspects of the season are ever so slightly Gaudeterelaxed. For Gaudete Sunday there is a hint of rose in the incense, the vestments are a rose (pink) colour, and at home we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath as we pray:

Lord, we beseech Thee, give ear to our prayers and lighten the darkness of our hearts by Thy gracious visitation; who livest and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost now and forever. Amen.

It’s a bit odd that this is the one Sunday in Advent that the collect does not begin with the words “Stir up,” yet this is the day that I’m stirring up batter for cookies: Lebkuchen and chocolate shavings (a secret family recipe). But, it’s somehow appropriate that I should be making sweets on Gaudete Sunday. In addition to my Christmas baking I wanted to put up some sort of celebratory, and perhaps seasonal, titbit for this the third Sunday in Advent; perhaps a little something with a hint of Christmas; perhaps something that, like my cooking, reflects my German heritage.

Some time ago I came across a German television program of folk music, and I thought that I may want to share that with you, but there are so many problems with sharing this particular program, even though it is appropriately seasonal and includes a short section discussing local customs that lead up to Christmas and the New Year. For me these problems are very much related to the experience of growing up a German-American. Even though I am a fifth generation German-American, my family has maintained many German traditions, especially around this time of year. It seems that so much of how we celebrate the Advent/Christmas Seasons is in fact German. The Advent wreath and the Christmas tree are the most obvious, but my family, in a very Germanic way, has always celebrated Saint Nicholas Day. I remember my grandmother teaching me to sing Ihr Kinderlein kommet; our Christmas cookies always had a rather German flavour; and throughout the year side dishes like spaetzle were common on our table.

LutherPlate42It may be surprising that many of the ways in which Americans celebrate Christmas have Germanic origins including many of our favorite Christmas hymns, Santa Clause (an Americanization of Saint Nicholas), and even the Christmas tree. It may be said that much of an American Christmas comes from Victorian England, but even there it was a German who introduced the Christmas tree to the English people: Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. Before Prince Albert, the English celebrated Christmas by decorating their homes with holly and ivy rather than evergreen trees. Christmas lunch was a boar’s head rather than a goose or turkey.  The English did not have a great love of the German monarchy and the introduction of a tree into Buckingham Palace was a bit of a controversy, albeit a controversy that was soon forgotten. But what of other German controversies?

This is where it all gets sticky, and a bit personal. Germany is no longer thought of as the land of the Reformation, philosophy, and Art. (Even when one thinks of Romanticism there is a connection to national identity and just what a strong national identity can bring about.) The first thing to come to mind is not the work of Luther, the Grimm brothers, or Goethe. One’s first thought is not likely to be Schiller, the song Die Gedanken sind frei, or the music of Bach or Beethoven. The change in perception started, in the USA, during the Great War. Until that time my family spoke German at home, but once my grandparents married, shortly after the War, in the early 20’s, they decided that, due to the unpopularity of things German, they would not bring up their children speaking German. And so, My parents did not speak German and neither do I. The Second World War did not make the situation any better for German Americans. Even though my Grandfather fought the Germans in the Great War and my Uncle fought in WWII (Dad was fighting in the Pacific Theater) my experience as a child was one of being questioned when I would express any sort of pride in my family’s German traditions: “So, are you a Nazi?” Golly! What a question! But somehow understandable. Everywhere on television, growing up, there were World War Two movies, even our television comedies had Nazi villains. Think Hogan’s Heroes, And this obsession with Nazism continues today. The History Channel might rightly be renamed the World War Two Channel. Despite my family’s immigration in the 1800s, it was, and often still is, difficult to be proud of my German heritage under the stigma of Germany’s more recent National Socialist past, a past that has nothing to do with my family.

Hogn's Heroes

However, I have now married into a German American family that does have a much closer connection to National Socialism. My husband’s Grandmother was a concert singer who, it is rumored, once sang for Chancellor Hitler and supposedly accepted the gift of a watch from him. Oddly enough, though, he did not experience his connection to Germany the same way I did. His emotional connection to things German is less fraught. It is much more full of gemütlichkeit. Yet it was he who advised me against posting the video. Part of the problem is the location of the program: Berchtesgaden.

[This is the husband talking…I wouldn’t say that my experience of my German heritage is more gemütlich.  It’s a lot more complex than that.  Being German and all of the German heritage things that go along with being a family of German immigrants and their children didn’t so much provide a connection to a German past as much as it told us who we are and where we came from.  That having been said, you don’t really think of your German heritage when your German dad and your German aunt are talking in German with your German grandmother because it was never especially remarkable.  I mean, that’s just how the family worked.  That’s what I knew and how I grew up.  That’s what I was.  I don’t think water is particularly profound for a fish–being German wasn’t particularly profound for my family.  So all of the German traditions I grew up with weren’t so much German as much as they were just…us.  And all that Germanic stuff was what you did if you were us.  I thought being German was great and lots of fun because that’s what my family was and I loved my family.  And yet…

At the same time, I grew up very conscious of the fact that everyone seemed to think that Germans were Nazis.  When I looked at depictions of Nazis, though, I never saw my family.  And anyway, my family didn’t talk very much, if it all, about Nazis.  So I always had the sense, however naive, that actual, real, living-in-the-world Germans weren’t Nazis…because they weren’t my family.  Nazis were caricatures.  And they belonged to the past…or more specifically, to the “Old Country,” which is, of course, both a place and a time, but ultimately not a country on any map at all.  It’s more a way to describe a way of being and relating to others and to the world that doesn’t relate anymore to who we feel we are or have become.  As such, the Old Country is a conflicted and atavistic place: it’s an endless source of both nostalgia and embarrassment, if not outright shame.  The problem is, though: you can leave Germany and live in America, but you can never actually leave the Old Country behind–it’s a place you’ll always carry with you.  I would later discover that the reason why my family rarely spoke of Nazis is that my grandmother was, for whatever inexplicable reason (I say inexplicable because any reason is ultimately unacceptable), a Nazi Party member.  I think that this reticence to speak of the past was related to an ambivalence regarding the horrors of the Third Reich: a recognition of the horror, a suspicion of complicity in the horror, but an inability to actually confront and deal with that suspicion on account of the magnitude of the horror.  Knowing this about my family’s past is a complicated thing.  I don’t love our German identity less.  I don’t love my family less.  At the same time, I consider the knowledge a burden and I experience it as a source of shame.  But I also experience it as a kind of responsibility: it demands that I be conscious in a very particular way which I guess I can get into here, but I think I’ve taken up a lot of space already.  Suffice to say, I think I know now a bit of what the Old Country actually looks like–it’s no longer a completely foreign country.  And when I look back on my childhood, even in amongst all of the fun and good stuff that being German meant and with which my family chose to identify itself (because it could make that choice–or at least attempt to make that choice–in America), I recognize that the Old Country was never very far away.  Moreover, I think that as a child, I actually knew that.]

All of which is to say:

Of course Berchtesgaden is where Hitler built his “Eagle’s Nest.” Some years ago I read a book about Berchtesgaden: On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood. One of the things that I most remember about this book is the description of just how Hitler secularized Christmas. Replacing Saint Nicholas with Der Weihnachtsmann is just one example. Hitler’s Mountain is not an easy read. The text is not difficult, but the subject mater, and perspective are unsettling as Imgard A. Hunt boldly confronts her childhood growing up in the shadow of the Eagle’s Nest. There is none of that confrontation in the celebration of things Berchtesgaden presented by Maria Hellwig in 1973. Perhaps that is a fault with Heute aus Berchtesgaden.

How do you spell gemütlichkeit?

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