Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Memories: A German Christmas

When I first came out, I wrote a lot of posts on my first blog about re-discovering who I am and reconnecting with the person I was before I joined the Mormon Church and got married. In December 2010, I wrote a series of posts about Advent, anonymously reveling in the process of reconnecting with beautiful music and Christmas memories that had rested without stirring for the better part of life. What follows is an edited version of the first of those posts.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I was raised in the Catholic Church. December was a special time, growing up. Not only was it the month of Christmas, but it was also the month of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a time of Christmas pageants at the Catholic school I attended, and a time when my mother baked all sorts of stuff which reflected in part her German heritage, including the quintessential German Christmas cookie, the Lebkuchen (her recipe being unlike any other I have ever seen, and a small taste of which to this day will transport me back to my childhood).

December was also the month, when I was seven years old, that I received my first communion. (My sister Martha was born a couple of weeks later.) Here I am in all my boyish purity, standing (far left) in front of my teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, with hands dutifully folded.

I remember Sister Mary Joseph as being kind. That couldn’t be said for the principal of our parochial school, Sister Eulogia, whom we nicknamed “Sister Chicken Lips” due to her enormous protruding lips. This tall woman was such an officious person that, one winter day, she actually came over to our yard from the convent (adjacent to St. Theresa's school, which was right across the street from our house) to inform me, my brother and our friends (most of whom were good Protestants) that having snowball fights was a sin. I think my oldest brother told her where to go (and later paid for it).

When I was very young, the mass was still said in Latin, and to this day, whenever I hear Adeste Fidelis or Panis Angelicus (particularly, in either case, when sung by Bing Crosby) or other Latin Christmas hymns, I am transported in my mind to that small stone Catholic Church (which seemed so big to me as a boy) with the choir loft in the back, hearing the Latin music waft down through the candle-lit darkness to where my family sat in the front.

The Interior of St. Theresa's at Christmastime.

I can vaguely recall when my dad was the choir director. He loved to sing in Latin. But his singing voice stilled when I was yet a young boy.

There was a snugness to that corner of my childhood that to this day gives me comfort. Even after joining the LDS Church, for example, I always had a soft spot in my heart for The Bells of Saint Mary’s and watched it every December.

Perhaps in part because of this Catholic upbringing and also because of my German heritage, I have had a special place in my heart at Christmastime for all things German. I used to purchase Stollen with marzipan filling every year from Siegfried's German Deli in downtown Salt Lake, as well as some special German chocolates for the kids’ stockings. We also made various German Christmas cookies, including Lebkuchen, and observed traditions associated with Germany. 

Christmas in Germany

One of these traditions was every year watching a Christmas special called Christmas in Germany, hosted by Loretta Swit (of MASH fame), that we had first seen on TV (and recorded with our VCR) in December 1988, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Swit arrives in Germany and stays with a family in Bavaria. She then proceeds to travel throughout Germany during the month of December. Particularly touching was her visit to the wall in Berlin, where at that time, people on either side placed lit candles in their windows as a form of greeting to those across the wall and an expression of hope that the day would come when the wall would no longer be there.

This tradition of watching Christmas in Germany and all of the German-related Christmas traditions came to mean a lot to some of my older children. My daughter, Rachel, who is currently working as a nanny in Philadelphia, recently wrote a blog post about the TV special and her experience of visiting a real Christmas market recently in Philadelphia. Among other things, she expressed that she "didn't know watching it every year meant so much to me until it came to December and I hadn't watched it yet." Well, guess what Rachel, Hannah and others: Christmas in Germany is on YouTube!

German Christmas Music

I also love German Christmas music, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, to his lovely hymn O Jesulein Süss, to one of my favorite Christmas carols Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, most commonly translated into English as Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming. The text, the author of whom is unknown, appeared in the late 16th century, and the tune with which we are familiar was written by German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609. (This melody is also used for the beautiful French carol, Dans une Etable Obscure.)

The text of Est is ein Ros is based on a scripture in Isaiah 11:1-2:  “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.”

The German word for “rod” or “twig” is reis.  Apparently, at some point, this word morphed into the word ros (“rose”), which was perhaps partly based on common symbolism of the wintertime feast. Long before there was a "Christmas" feast, Europeans used plants that thrive or flower in the winter as a symbol of hope and life in the spring to come. The Christmas rose was one such flower.  The point is that the “rose” in the hymn is Jesus Christ.

The following is the common English translation of the German text:

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When halfspent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God's love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When halfspent was the night.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.

Here is one rendition of this lovely hymn:

I am also including here a recording of a portion of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part I, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner:

And, lastly, a recording of O Jesulein Suss:

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

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