"The layers of meaning in a new society are never explained explicitly to newcomers and sometimes I wish that I had been handed my bible of In Germany thou shalts and thou shalt nots as I crossed the border.
Our first Christmas was one case in point. Christmas is a serious, more contemplative time here and full of old traditions. During the season of Advent, every German family has a pine wreath with four candles on it. On each of the four Sundays in Advent, the family sits down for afternoon tea and Stollen—the traditional fruit loaf, eaten only at Christmas time—and another candle gets lit, until all four are burning on Christmas Eve. It is a wonderful tradition but not mine, and my children have suffered from their non-German mother’s inability to “bastel”—to make things with one’s hands—and to make an Advent wreath ourselves.
Our first Christmas here, my husband decided, as the German contingent in our marriage, that he would make an Advent wreath with Louise, thinking it couldn’t be that difficult. He and Louise sat down on a Sunday with some wire and pliers and pine branches taken from the neighbour’s trees. After much intense work, I was called to admire our very own and first Advent wreath. I had to bite my sharp tongue and suppress a chuckle, while hypocritically telling them how great it looked.
On the table was a rather South African, rugby-ball-shaped advent wreath—it was after all 1995 and the year of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. MM looked at me apologetically, “I’m sorry! The wire frame just did not want to bend round.”
I was despatched the next day to get some candles for our very own wreath. I was lost. Germans love to burn candles in their houses during the dark months and one gets them in all shapes and colours and designs.
There is nothing I love more than to put on candles for atmosphere in the winter months and there I have adapted to my new home. MM, on the other hand, cannot read with dimmed lights and will always walk in and switch on the brightest light.
The other fear MM has is that his house will burn down because of us burning candles. So there I was standing in the DIY shop, trying to make my choice. Finally I found some sturdy, if not the most attractive, long- burning candles in a thick red plastic cylinder shape form, with white wax inside. Red is the colour of Christmas and the form looked ideal to me as the candle was protected. The dry pine needles could not catch fire and that would shut my husband up. As it was my first Christmas here, long-burning looked like a good additional feature—the candles had to last a month after all. Proudly I put them on the Advent wreath as a surprise for MM and Louise when they got home.
MM was rather horrified. “Those are grave candles!” It was still November, the month of remembrance in Germany. Inadvertently, I had bought candles that people put on the graves on All Saint’s Day. They are long-lasting and extremely safe candles, as they are supposed to last through the winter on the graves.
That first year we had the only rugby-ball-shaped Advent wreath with grave candles on it in the whole of Germany! Germans can sometimes be incredibly polite to bumbling foreigners: no one who came to our house that Advent commented on our unique wreath."
(C) Anli Serfontein 2008 - Extract "From Rock to Kraut" / Basteln, Wandern and Putzen. From South Africa to Trier - Chapter 5 Faux Pas!