IT must have been in 1953 when I was a first-grader in the village in Saarland, which was not yet a state of Germany at the time after the French occupation. I rode on my father’s shoulder when we met the forester who selected a spruce that my father then sawed down.
It made for a marvelous Christmas tree with all the colorful bowls and wax candles, icings of glass and the angel on top. I stood awful with glimmering eyes and gaping for admiration.
Christmas presents were given on Christmas Eve. Grandma had knitted a pair of woolen knee-length stockings and my parents had a pair of laced shoes of real leather. That would keep my toes from freezing during the sled rides.
Also, the factory where my father worked cared for the children of their employees. It was a subsidiary of the French steel and smelting works of Pont-à-Mousson.
I got a social game called Prosper va-t-en. I played it with so much zeal that I got red cheeks and hot ear-lobes.
Christmas dinner traditionally consisted of potato salad and Vienna sausages with mustard. Grandpa contributed hot red wine. I was allowed to smell for the first time in my life the smell of cinnamon.
Towards midnight all four bells in the steeple called for Christmette, a particularly solemn carol service. The church was cram-full.
When the organ intoned “Great God We Praise You” and all the people sang at the top of their voices and the altar boys shook their jingles to the rhythm, I felt tingles down my spine.
But the best was still to come on the way home: The trumpeters of the village orchestra had climbed the steeple and now played “Silent Night.” Combined with the swirling snow it was the genuine Christmas feel for me as a child in my home village.
But later as an adult in the city of Berlin, that feel was killed by and by. The first time I got shocked was when I observed children exploding firecrackers during Advent season. A sacrilege for me who had ever lived Christmas as the feast of silence.
Then I saw stars in the windows with lights going on and off. And worse: reindeer-drawn sledges with Santa Clauses riding heavenwards. I wondered how Germans could display such kitsch. I took it for a desecration and a degradation of Christmas.
Later I learned where it all comes from: When I prepared for playing the Santa Claus for the children in our Catholic parish, I proposed to take up the song “Jingle Bells” in the program.
But other parishioners objected that it came from America and would violate the serious and solemn spirit of German Christmas.
In the Philippines I got a shock when I first read the word “X-mas.” Incredulous, I asked my wife what that means. I was flabbergasted how one could so badly bowdlerize a holy word.
By and by, I have become a Christmas Grinch.