The 37 Days of Christmas
The greatest German achievement is making Christmas last half the winter
29 November 2019
In my last post, I talked about how Germans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. What I neglected to mention is the most significant hindrance to this, namely that they start gearing up for Christmas in late November – and the festivities continue through the second week of January.
If you have children, you are required to create a so-called advent calendar for each child. This is a wall hanging that comes in various shapes and sizes (usually something Christmas-themed: a Christmas tree, a snowman, Santa, etc.) and has 24 little pouches for treats, one for each day between December 1st and 24th.
Think about that for a moment. Twenty-four little treats – for each child. They’re going to want the same ones, too, so if you have two kids, you need two of whatever it is, so to fill the whole thing you’ll need 48, so these items shouldn’t be too expensive.
My first amateurish advent calendars began with one pile of chocolate lollipops, another of red-foiled Santas and a third one of glitter pens. Then I methodically filled each calendar with exactly the same item for each daughter (for all parents live in constant fear of the phrase “I wanted that one!”), tying the little strings at the top of each pouch. There! They looked perfect.
Then I showed my husband.
“All that candy?” he grimaced when I showed him my masterpieces.
“Didn’t they just get piles of candy for Halloween? All that sugar, ugh. When was that anyway?”
“Oh, Halloween was ages ago! Way back in October!” A whole month. The world could have ended dozens of times over. A government could have been overthrown in that time. Hahahaha, I know, right. Sigh.
My husband did have a point. It’s one of the hazards of celebrating the holidays from two countries. They can overlap or even contradict each other (such as with Santa Claus and Bavaria’s mysterious Christkind – but more on that in a later post). The United Nations needs to form an international committee to streamline holidays in the interest of cutting back children’s candy consumption – but mostly to make it easier on the mothers who are trying to orchestrate holidays from multiple countries.
I took another look at the calendars lying on the table. The pockets were so neatly stuffed, but it was a lot of candy. I took it out, leaving only the glitter pens. There was still time to buy other useless stuff for the now-empty pockets, but what?
A trip to Aldi was the answer, Germany’s go-to cheapo-store known here as a Discounter. It has weekly specials timed to hit the season just right and provides all those products that you didn’t need before you walked in but now simply cannot do without. I elbowed my way past other moms to the huge bins of seasonal merchandise and loaded up on colored pens and craft kits which I immediately dismantled by taking out the colored glue, rubber holiday stamps and stickers.
The calendars were improving, but now they were craft-biased. The little girl aspect was still missing. I had two cute little girls; to not use the license to indulge in cute little girl stuff would be to miss a great opportunity. The stores had entire aisles of it! How could I resist?
This whole advent calendar thing had seemed fun at first, but it was quickly developing into a logistical nightmare.
I embarked on another trip, this time to one of my favorite stores, DM – Drogerie Markt, meaning drugstore, where they sell makeup, toys, baby food and shampoo – anything but drugs. Apparently something got lost in translation at some point. In any case, there I found hairclips with unicorns or glitter and erasers shaped like dinosaurs. Dinosaurs may not be strictly girly, but I was paving the way for my daughters to be future scientists. One can’t start too early with these things. Also, feminism. Why can’t dinosaurs be girly? Not to mention I’d officially run out of both steam and ideas. I ended up getting dinosaurs and little plastic ponies with fluorescent manes and tails.
The calendars were finished at last. Except now I had to take everything out again. Otherwise my kids would remove not just that day’s treat but poke around in the pouches for the upcoming days to see what was in store.
“Hmm, what’s this? Purple glitter glue! Mom, can I have this now? I really need it for a craft project.”
“Hey, where did you get those hairclips? They were scheduled for next week!”
“How come all the chocolate lollipops are missing? And what happened to this Santa’s head!?”
December 1st finally arrived, the first day of the advent calendars. That morning, I discovered a nice side effect they had, which was that it was a lot easier to get the girls out of bed for school. The first thing they would do is head straight for the calendar. It was a little Christmas morning, every morning. Wonderful!
This also meant that I had to play Santa every evening, too. Once the kids were finally in bed I could relax and watch the news. After sitting for more than five consecutive minutes I would start to nod off, but just as the weatherman came on, it would dawn on me: the advent calendars!
Awakened by a surge of maternal adrenalin, I would spring off the couch to retrieve the goodies, carefully filling one pouch on each calendar.
By December 25th, my kids would have had twenty-four mini-Christmases. Glitter pens, animal-festooned hairclips and stickers littered kitchen counters, coffee and night tables. Soon they would be found under the beds, between the sheets and in the silverware drawer. I would discover rubber-stamped shopping lists and fairy stickers on my calendar, wallet and theater tickets. Glittery hairclips would appear on the floor of the car and at the bottom of my backpack.
I later heard from my kids that their friends got CDs and books in their advent calendars. What? How did their moms fit those things in those tiny pouches, I wanted to know? Unfortunately, my kids weren’t privy to this inside information. And what was left to give them for Christmas? For that would surely require ramping up the game considerably. Maybe a motorcycle? A trip to the moon?
There are also the easy, prepackaged versions of the advent calendar. They come with regular (lousy) chocolate, or fancy (expensive, but edible) chocolate. Others have beauty products, a different one for each day, the perfect gift for someone who needs something to do over the Christmas holiday: they can spend the whole time putting on makeup, various colored facemasks – and then take it off and start all over again.
The advent wreath is also mandatory for advent for all Germans. Beginning mid-November, these wreaths start to appear in all the stores. One candle is lit for each of the four weekends of advent.
There’s also a charming little rhyme describing this ritual:
Advent, advent, ein Lichtlein brennt
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier
Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür!
In English: Advent, advent, a little light burns
First one, then two, then three, then four
Then the Christ Child is at the door!
Oddly enough, the last two lines of the English translation rhyme – but the original in German doesn’t!
As exciting as this all is, it’s just the lead-up. Christmas hasn’t even arrived! The advent season in Germany is an eternal drumroll that just won’t culminate in the final BAM (Boisterous Annual Merriment. Not many people know that acronym). In Bavaria, the Christmas season officially lasts all the way up through January 6th, Epiphany, known in Germany as Heilige Drei Könige or Three Kings Day, when the kings were supposed to have arrived with gifts for baby Jesus. It’s a full 37 days of advent this, Christmas that and why do we get that day off in January again? Who cares, it’s a bank holiday. You can completely immerse yourself in the Christmas season.
The second week of January, fattened up like the nonexistent Christmas turkey (they don’t do the turkey thing here, but I couldn’t find a better simile) and decked out in colorful new sweaters, everyone returns to the office, refreshed and armed with New Year’s resolutions to take it all back off. If I had known about this new, improved version of the holiday before I came to Germany, I might have come sooner.