Christmas treeTook me twenty minutes to find the biggest tree I’ve ever attempted to stuff into my little 18’ x 28’ cabin. I always pick a tree from a crowded bunch.  That way the remaining trees gain elbow room and sunlight while the harvested tree has a gimped up side (or two) that I can shove into the corner.  Once lit, the tree stays lit day and night until take-down-time.
The magical traditional Christmas markets in Germany inspired me to collect my first few tree ornaments when I was seventeen.  I earned my exchange student tuition and airfare by painting bronzes for Harvey Ratty and Pamala Harr. A few graphic design jobs picked up on the side supplemented my savings.  Regardless to say, shopping funds were limited but I couldn’t resist picking out a few handmade beauties.  Memories of my first Christmas away from home flash vivid with sound, smell, and a mix of nostalgic emotion when I hang the miniature wooden Nutcracker ornament (complete with a mini moving nutcracker jaw).  Lordy was that really more than two decades ago?!   Hot spiced wine, roasted nuts, cold cheeks, festive little lights and a skyline framed by old European town square architecture are a vivid postcard memory of the romantic holiday spirit I experienced in a country 1/3 the size of my state back home. 
cathedral-of-st-peter-bremen-d099[1]Beyond the magic markets, Christmas was elusive and  homesickness leered.  My host family’s tradition meant that no trace of Christmas entered the house until Christmas Eve when the tree and presents were placed while we attended the Christmas program at the Bremer Cathedral.  A featureless sky was caught between between buildings in a snowless city.  I felt small, cold and a bit overwhelmed in the large cathedral where a priest spoke from his elevated box.  My host family engaged in a raucous frenzy of simultaneous gift unwrapping back at the flat where the tree had been put up complete with real candles. 
A second celebration with the Münck family later that night gave me another whole flavor and depth of Christmas.  I was their guest in a small country church where I sang “Silent Nacht” with a reverence inspired by midnight mass and the knowledge that I was singing the song in it’s native tongue.  Afterwards I gulped greedily from the starry night, thankful for a relatively expansive patch of sky pierced by the humble church steeple.  The Münck’s gave me a string of freshwater pearls.  I blushed when I unwrapped the underwear set.  Big white navel-swallowing undies with a matching undershirt had been gifted “to keep me warm” since I rode my bike everywhere.  I never wore the undies out of fear of embarrassment in the off-chance I got run over in the city and discovered dead or wounded in “granny panties.”