Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our German Christmas Tree

Holidays are about tradition and Christmas time is the time of year our family celebrated with friends and family for 2 weeks during the holiday break, between Christmas and New year. Our family’s tradition was our German Christmas tree. As the story goes…my Mother’s Great Grandfather resided in Leisnig Germany as a Jeweler. It was during the U.S. Civil War era, he became quite patriotic toward the United States. There, he fashioned a traditional German Christmas Tree with an American flair, from materials around his shop and village. The completed tree stands about 6 feet tall, fully assembled when displayed on its wooden packing crate.

Every other year, we would visit my Mother’s Brother and family for Thanksgiving when we would exchange the multiple boxes containing the tree. Being 100 yrs. old by the time I was born, the contents were much too fragile, not to mention valuable, to ship. At first, I remember going to our Gram’s home where she proudly featured her Husband’s family heritage. After that, Gram spent Christmases between my Uncle’s house and ours, following the tree religiously. With antique toys and live candles, we were verboden to go anywhere near the tree.

One year when I was in high school and my older sinister was on break from college, we decided to take it upon ourselves to tackle the assembly which had become a “Rubik’s cube”-like challenge with its warped platforms and bent fan blades. The tree required periodic maintenance and I can picture My Dad and Uncle touching up the red, white and blue paint coating the picket fences and peg-legged farm animals rigged by wooden matchsticks. Many pieces spent the night in the vice so as to fit into its respective place, or the integrity of the entire product would fail. They meticulously numbered and labeled each piece for repacking and reassembling.

I was assigned “Great Expectations” to read over the Christmas break, which is the only reason I got out of church that morning. The otherwise privileged college student & I figured we were now old enough to raise the tree, let alone even touch it. Nonetheless, no one was home to tell us otherwise. We collectively managed to put it together, invoking the precision of a Swiss watchmaker and perhaps, our Great, Great Grandfather. Our parents were thrilled and impressed so we were "permitted” to assist in future years. It was a rite of passage until we all married, had families of our own and were never “responsible” enough to house The Tree ourselves.

The years we were blessed with the German Christmas Tree demanded an open house. Neighbors, family, friends and the local press, approaching 200 in number, would flow in and out of our house all evening. The periodic cold blasts of air from the opening of the front door would temper the heat that built up from the 45 Angel Chime candles illuminating the tree. This reprieve was essential for the tree to function properly. You see, a German Christmas Tree mechanically constructed of merely wood, is an engineering marvel of moving parts. The tilted fan blades topping the tree would catch the rising heat from the candles, causing each tier to turn. The animals were antique German toys originally filled with candy and positioned on each turntable. Wild animals donned the first, birds on the second, domestic farm animals on the third, and a miscellaneous collection (from over the century plus), on the fourth. When the surrounding air became too hot, the tree would come to a halt and when there was too much heat beneath the tree, each turntable would spin wildly out of control causing the animals to literally go flying! We would laugh at the familiar “chunk-ing” sounds from the fallen creatures. It was our cue to notify Dad that some candles needed to be extinguished. We soon understood why so many of the less stable critters had prophylactic limbs.

I mentioned that the impetus for the “spin” (pun intended) on this tree was my GGGrandfather’s patriotism for this country, inspiring him to paint the hand-carved picket fences from wooden jewelry boxes in white with red points. The blue fence posts on each corner supported the metal candle holders from watch cases. The top level featured Uncle Sam painted in the American flag, a now politically incorrect Black Sambo, an elephant, a donkey and a black cat representing superstition. Each blade of the fan alternated red, white and blue, affixed to a bent center support rod pivoting on a pin on the base of the tree, adorned by the Nativity. Old Hummel-like figurines shared the scene with more animals and a handcrafted manger cradling a wax baby Jesus. The wax Jesus was original and feel the true miracle is that it hasn’t melted into oblivion under the extreme heat all these years! When we had our own homes and incorporated our own family traditions, our Mother presented each of us with a table top version of the carved wooden German Christmas Tree. As touching a gesture as that may be, it undoubtedly alleviated her of a little guilt. This tiny tree is much easier to put together, remaining in mostly a single piece where both animals and people are permanently affixed to each layer. I take great pleasure lighting it several times during the season and remembering what it represents. Now my daughter would like it to grace her home for her children. Someday…

Whatever you celebrate or honor or recognize at this time of year, traditions like these are the most cherished and memorable. Our ancestors passed down these traditions from differing cultures to share a little bit of home and themselves, during this special time of year.


Ben G said...

Thanks for sharing your memories. What a fantastic legacy to be a part of. Who has the tree now?

Jane said...

What a wonderful story and tradition! We did a live candle tree at my German grandparents when I was a very small girl and I remember the bucket of water sitting nearby and someone always telling me to stand back. When I think about it now I can't imagine trying to do that.
How wonderful that you have a miniature version to keep the story alive. The original is a museum piece!