The pandemic Christmas holidays have arrived and there are only a few more doors left to open on our Advent Calendar! Although these Christmas holidays are like no other, Christmas magic is no-where near lacking in our home – and it should not be in yours. With our Christmas tree up and the smell of pine and Lebkuchen houses filling our home, gifts wrapped and decorations beaming we diligently practice Christmas carols every evening around our lit Advent wreath (our two-year old does not let a night go by where we do not need to sing “The-wheels-on-the-bus-go-round-and-round”), we are ready for Santa to arrive.
Having a smaller festive meal to prepare this year may leave time for greater reflection and for us to re-discover the true meaning of Christmas. Our little elves have been hard at work learning the nativity story thanks to our daily Advent quiz and the simple but striking nativity we made.
Growing up, Christmas time has probably always been my favourite time of year. I love to share a glimpse into my childhood Christmas.
Every year we would pack our suitcases and all the presents into our car on or just before December 24 and leave the city (Pretoria, South Africa) to spend Christmas with our family in the countryside in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Mpumalanga. The weather was hot, and only the elite had air-con. After a four-hour drive when the roads turned windy and transformed to gravel roads, it meant we were almost there. The excitement of all that would be waiting was immense!
“On our way home through the dark hills, a string of red lights led the way in front of us over rivers and streams and a string of white lights followed, until cars grew fewer and fewer as each family followed their own way home.”
Depending on which side of the family we celebrated that year, we often got to put up the Christmas tree with my uncle. He sometimes needed a little convincing to start, or maybe we were just too eager. My grandparents had a wooden pole with holes around from top to bottom, into which pine branches cut from the majestic pine trees in the back garden had to be inserted to make it look like a real tree. No easy task. My grandmother would take down the large brown suitcase from her top bedroom cupboard that was filled with all the classic ornaments for the Christmas tree as well as the beautiful nativity.
After the Christmas tree and nativity had been put up with care, we children had to take a dreaded nap, during which it was very hard to fall asleep. In the afternoon it was finally time for my sister and I to change into our white dresses and soon a convoy of cars would be on the way to church. The small German churches in the countryside are absolutely beautiful and how special it was to huddle on their designated bench with our grandparents and watch our cousins and other children in awe as they entered the church in their white dresses and lit candles, singing Christmas carols and delivering the nine lessons.
By the time the service was over, it would have turned almost dark outside. On our way home through the dark hills, a string of red lights led the way in front of us over rivers and streams and a string of white lights followed, until cars grew fewer and fewer as each family followed their own way home.
After a festive meal that could not end soon enough, it was finally time to light the candles on the tree and sing a few Christmas carols which drove the suspense to open the gifts even higher. Such hopeful anticipation of a gift with your name on in between the small mountain of gifts under the tree, and quietly observing what all the others got.
When all presents had been opened, it was time to hand out the brown old Missionsharfe and for the whole family to sing Christmas carols together. Besides arriving back from church to find countless gifts under the lovely tree, singing Christmas carols together brings back the fondest of memories. With so many cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents together our little choir harmonized just perfectly, and after we had sung “Silent Night” it was time for the big house with the wooden floors to quieten down and sink into a content sleep. Cradling the smell of new Barbies and Tinkerbell nail polish and with full full hearts.
With loads of family time on the menu for this December, I wish you all a very merry Christmas with many hours of creative crafting and never a dull moment. Whatever your traditions are, it is up to us to decide how to spend this pandemic Christmas. Let’s make it one to remember – for the right reasons!
Probably one of the most famous Christmas traditions is putting up the Christmas tree. In old German tradition, the Christmas tree actually only gets put up and decorated only on the morning of 24 December. However, conventionally the options seem to be at the beginning of Advent, 12 days before Christmas or then on Christmas eve.
The Germans are credited with first starting the Christmas tree tradition, and it is a widely held belief that Martin Luther first added lit candles to the tree. The evergreen fir tree became a symbol of Christ, and with its triangular shape, it represents the trinity. The evergreen nature represents eternity in heaven with God.
Although fairy lights have mostly replaced real candles on the Christmas tree, this year we have a combination of fairy lights and candles, that will be lit on Christmas eve. Since our eldest has finally managed to stay awake through two ferry rides after their bed time to see the 8pm light show in Kowloon (currently a meagre pandemic version with almost no spectators) and he discovered that there are settings to our Christmas tree lights, we now get a daily light show right in our living room. A Christmas tree that looks ready for take-off and wheels-on-the-bus. What next.
Decorating the tree is one of the most exciting activities of the year - not only for the kids! This year we made a lot of the decorations ourselves - have a read through through my previous blog (Playing Advent) to see how we made the paper stars and pine cones. Other decorations that go on our Christmas tree every year include an assortment of ornaments that we collected over the years when we could still travel, where we bought one ornament in each country that we visited - my favourite is probably still our sled from Alaska. Special ornaments from friends close to the heart also have a snug place on our tree every year.
The traditional Germans would probably be ashamed of us putting up our tree 1 week before 1 Advent! To be fair, we did decorate our tree twice, after we had to order more lights for a bigger tree than we had bargained for after a desperate move to reserve a real pine Christmas tree as most trees had sold out long in advance. With all the expats staying in Hong Kong this year, there has been a massive surge in demand for real trees! Luckily we did manage to find a gorgeous tree in Flower Market Road, Mong Kok, after a frantic morning of zipping through town in panic of being downgraded to a plastic tree again this year! With almost everything imported here, our tree has a similar story to tell - it travelled all the way from Oregon in the USA and we are honoured to have this beauty in our home.
Gift wrap is very easy to make and besides enriching the festive atmosphere, it adds a personal touch to the gifts. This year our 4-year old inspired a diversion from the more common potato print, and we employed a star fruit - it makes a perfect natural star and is easy to grip.
The custom of giving Christmas presents to one another comes from the example of the wise men, who travelled a long journey to present Christ with gifts to honour and adore him – Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. Star-printed gifts sound like a really bright idea to me in this gloomy pandemic year.
You will need:
1. IKEA MÅLA Drawing Paper Roll, or any plain gift wrap
2. Star Fruit
5. Ink Pad or paint
a. Cut the star fruit in half and blot dry the exposed surface with the tissue.
b. Dab your created stamp on the ink pad or alternatively apply paint with a brush and start stamping. Priceless gift wrap in no time.
In between all the rush and modern legends around Christmas, it is easy to forget the reason behind Christmas. When I asked our little boys whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas, they shouted their little cousin in South Africa’s name (who they have not yet met due to the pandemic)! I realised they could do with a little assistance to make the story of Christmas come alive. The figures and angels are super easy to make and are a fun activity to get the little hands dirty.
You will need:
1. Clay or salt clay (I used air-drying, paintable modelling material that I got from our small local art shop)
3. Dry leaves from the garden for angel wings
4. Paint, optional
a. Form a cone (body) and ball (head) from clay.
b. Insert a toothpick into the cone in order to connect the head with it.
c. Insert the dry leaves on either side to form angels, and add your own details to differentiate the other characters.
d. Let air-dry and paint if desired. We gave our figures a coat of paint to finish them off (chalkpaint: sheepskin).
A tradition initially unfamiliar to me, is the popping of Christmas crackers on Christmas eve. They form part of the celebrations in the UK and commonwealth countries.
Typically, Crackers are pulled at the Christmas table. The contents characteristically include a coloured paper hat, a small toy, a motto, joke or riddle.
We made our own Christmas Crackers this year. They are a quick and easy project to make with the kids and add a beautiful touch to the Christmas table, once again completely including the kids with the preparations and celebrations. What is inside them shall remain a secret :)
You will need:
1. A4 paper with a template (you can download one)
2. Gift wrap or paper of your choice, slightly larger than an A4 page
5. Double sided tape
Glue the A4 template to the back of the coloured paper you chose for your crackers. Fold along the lines and cut out diamond shaped openings where the ribbon will be tied.
Stick double-sided tape onto the edges to glue them together and form a paper roll, then fill with your content of choice and tie closed with a ribbon on each side.
Lebkuchen Gingerbread Houses
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century and became associated with Christmas tradition, maybe because of their not-so-Christmassy association with the fairy-tale of Hänsel and Gretel (which was published in 1812). Nevertheless, we all enjoyed playing miniature architect 😊
After cutting out wall and roof shapes from rolled out dough and subsequently baking, we cut out holes for the windows and filled the holes with gummy bears. We baked the pieces again at 100°C for about 7min, until the gummy bears melted into pretty translucent windows.
It is easiest to decorate the houses before constructing them. Once glued with royal icing and hardened, place a battery-operated light inside and watch the windows illuminate and bring the little houses alive!
This year each of us decorated our own little Lebkuchen house, which now form part of our Christmas tablescape. I love how each one looks completely different and how proud our little boys are of their houses. The only thing left do is devour them 😊