Friday, December 22, 2017

Swabian Traditions: Christbaum loben

"Welch ein schöner Christbaum!"

After five years in southern Germany, I believe I have learned about most of the customs, traditions, and events connected to the Advent and Christmas holidays. Sankt Nikolaus, Christmas markets, Glühwein, Adventskalender, Adventskränze, Heiligabend (Christmas Eve), Dreikönigstag (Epiphany), Weihnachtspyramiden, Räuchermänner and Weihrauch (incense), and "Dinner for One" on Silvester (New Year's Eve).

There's one Swabian tradition I haven't written about yet, though, and that is Christbaum loben - Christmas tree praising. M and I had the opportunity just last year, but now that I've learned more about it, I realize we botched it and need to try again!

Christbaum loben is something that Swabians do "zwischen den Jahren" - between the years, or between Christmas and Epiphany. Traditionally the Christmas tree goes up and is decorated on Christmas Eve, so this can't be done in the weeks before Christmas, as it could in Wisconsin where Christmas trees and decorations are often up the whole month of December.

Here's the procedure:

  • Visit a friend's, neighbor's, colleague's, or acquaintance's home, even unannounced.*
               *Do not ever visit a Swabian's house unannounced at any other time during the year. Phone first.

  • After being invited in, make your way toward the Christbaum.
Photo & tree credit: Heather (one of my students)
Used with permission

  • Proceed with voluminous, enthusiastic, very un-German praise** of the Christbaum.
    **It does not actually matter if you like the tree or not; this is the one situation in Germany when sincerity and directness is tossed out the window. Even the negative qualities of the tree should be lavishly praised: "Look at that beautiful bald spot! Where there are no branches at all, it's so easy to grab hold of the trunk to move the tree! How convenient!"  "How ever did you get such a lovely stumpy tree to lean so far to the left?!"  "The wall color shows so nicely through the branches!"  "Look at that - the entire tree is decorated in only one color! And what a lovely shade of brown it is!"
    Praise the shape of the tree, the Schmuck (ornaments), the candles or lights, the Standort (location) stuffed into the corner between two sofas... Every conceivable trait.

  • After every single guest has generously extolled the virtues of the Christbaum, the hosts bring out the reward. Act pleasantly surprised and over-pleased at this, even though it's obligatory: the Schnaps (or wine)! The hosts also offer Christmas cookies or Stollen, or leftover Christmas fruitcake that nobody wanted in the first place.

  • After a dram and a nibble, it's time to make your way toward the door - not forgetting to throw a last bit of additional praise at the Christbaum as you pass - thank your hosts for their hospitality, and decide which house you'll visit next.

  • Repeat at each subsequent home.

Sometimes with a Verein (club), the members will make an afternoon and evening of visiting each other member's home, or the hosting duties are rotated from year to year. They sometimes make a competition out of it, using actual score sheets to rate each tree on its size, symmetry (or lack thereof), Nadelfestigkeit (are the needles still strongly attached or are they starting to shed already?) straightness, decoration creativity, etc.

If, for any other reason, you happen to pop in to visit someone "between the years," you should be ready for "spontanes Loben" - spontaneous tree praise. Basically, whenever you find yourself near someone's Christbaum, praise it! It's enough to use the line with which I started this post: "What a lovely tree!" You may probably will get a Schlückchen (nip/dram) for your trouble, because Swabians always have a bottle of wine or Schnaps on hand.

What if you go visiting and your host doesn't have a tree? After all, some people don't bother if they're older or the kids aren't coming home anyway. No problem! There's a solution for that as well (Germans are great planners) - "Loben mit eigenem Baum" (praising your own tree). If you think you might face this potentially awkward situation, just bring your own! Most flower shops have small tabletop trees which fit in the back of your car - just bring it in and set it in the middle of the room for everyone to compliment! The host is still obliged to provide the Schnaps, and you can take your tree with you when you leave.

Swabians apparently started this tradition around the end of the 19th century. There are several theories as to why it developed, one being that Swabians don't have time during the year for social contact - because they're working all the time. Many people are off "between the years," so the Swabians get their socializing for the year accomplished then. It also makes for a good excuse to share a medicinal dram without feeling guilty. It's tradition!

We wish you and your  loved ones a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays
and a good slide into the New Year!

1 comment:

  1. What a fun idea! I particularly like the idea of praising the tree's failings.