There is nothing quite like spending the holidays with family, but this year I got to experience something truly special: Christmas with my host family in Berlin! I'm from Boston, and my family celebrates Christmas similarly to most other Americans - on the 25th, and after weeks of wishing each other “happy holidays”. Like many towns across the US, mine tries to foster a climate of inclusivity around the holidays, so instead of referencing Christmas specifically in school, instead we talk about the holidays in general. In Germany I have found that to be quite the opposite. On the first Monday of December I walked into school to find a 10-foot Christmas tree in the main lobby, which stayed there through the month. There was lots of talk in the classroom about “Christmas break”, whereas in my town it is referred to as “Winter break”. I was startled by the focus that a public school would have on Christmas, especially where there are other religions represented within the student body. The most surprising thing, however, is that on the last day before break there was a whole school Christmas-sing along in a church right next to the school. The last two periods of the school day were cancelled, and all 500 students piled into the church and sang Christmas songs for an hour before getting to go home. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was a complete different experience than in public schools I have attended in Boston.
As for the traditions of my host family, those were also a surprising twist on what I was accustomed to at home. My host mom bought a 3-foot tall tree only a few days before Christmas, which we decorated with a few simple ornaments and candles, and on the 24th we ate a home cooked meal. Around the dinner table was my host-mother, host-sister, host-sister's father, and myself, with the dog getting to roam around the apartment. My host mom cooked a goose, which I had never eaten before, along with red cabbage and potatoes. After finishing, we each opened our gifts, which is a tradition in many European countries. Instead of celebrating on the morning of the 25th, many Europeans do so on the evening of the 24th. My host family has a personal tradition of how to open gifts, which involves rolling a die. Each person rolls, and if somebody rolls a one or a six, that person gets to either open one of their own gifts or give a gift to somebody else. My host sister and I had each been gifted board games, which we both love to play, so later on in the night we played them. My host sister, host mom, and I also all got matching pajamas; we sported those later that night. The rest of the night consisted of chatting, playing games, and eating gingerbread cookies.
The day of the 25th was relatively quiet and, as all the stores were closed, my host mom, host sister, and I spent hours playing our new games, as well as others that we already had. My game is called The Da Vinci Code (it has nothing to do with the book/movie). It is a numbers game requiring intense concentration and strategic guessing - the perfect game for me! My host sister got a game called Trans-Europa, to which we added several variations to in order to make it more challenging. For me, the day could not have been spent any better way, since I love to play games, and it was also great to speak German and learn new words that were necessary to play certain games.
The day of the 26th is also a holiday in Germany, referred to as the second day of Christmas. Unlike in the US, when this is a big day for retail with all the exchanging and returning of gifts, here all of the stores are closed for the second day in a row. Luckily we stocked up on snacks on Christmas Eve! For us, the day was used to relax, decompress, and enjoy each other's company. I used my spare time to watch a Christmas movie in German and eat the authentic Berlin candy that my host mother gave me. There are two full weeks of school vacation, so there is plenty of time to play more board games, read, walk around Berlin, or drink some heiße Schokolade (hot chocolate). The whole city is decorated in the Christmas spirit, with lights around shops and Weihnachtsmärke (Christmas markets).
This Christmas, with my host family, was one of the best I have ever had. I am so grateful to get to experience the German holiday culture from up close, with the ability to ask questions and see what the the traditions are. I missed my family back in Boston, too, so I'm very grateful that facetime exists! Now, on to New Years and a great 2019! Frohe Weihnachten und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr - Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year!