December 07, 2014

Not a Norman Rockwell Christmas – Ramona Heikel

Holidays should be exactly as Normal Rockwell paints them, according to my idealistic mindset.  But with that point of view, I’ll always come up short-handed in the hostess department.  Planning, decorating, organizing and cooking for the holidays have never been a talent or a priority with me.  Why is that?  Last night, as I was taking a trip down memory lane with my mom, I found some clues.

As is the German tradition, our family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve, and Saint Nikolaus and Krampus moved Santa Claus out of the picture.  My memories of that evening begin with Mom getting home from work around five o’clock to begin the wild activities.  “Hurry, jump in the car!”  Last minute shopping?  No, this was all of our shopping!

St. Nikolaus and Krampus

We’d go straight to Andel’s ski shop to buy ski socks, boots or other equipment.  Then off to the May D & F department store to linger over the animated Christmas displays.  Lovely ladies dressed in red velvet would bow and rise up again mechanically as they put tinsel on the tree; little children ice-skated on mirrors and a snowman would lean from side to side laughing in a deep voice.  Mom always made a point to put money into the kettle of the bell-ringing Salvation Army Volunteer.

Once inside the store, we’d make a strategy.  “Okay, let’s meet back here at seven o’clock.”  My brother and I would buy something for our mom, and it would always be magnificent and more expensive than I had budgeted for, but I was always glad he had such great ideas.  Sometimes we’d accidentally run into Mom, and she would shriek, “Don’t look!  Don’t look!”

Laden with bags, we’d throw them into the back seat of the car, and head toward our favorite Christmas tree lot across town.  You’re buying a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve?!  Tradition.  In Germany, my grandparents would get a tree from the woods on that evening, close the door to the dining room, and Papa would decorate the whole tree.  My mom and her siblings were not allowed to see it until after dinner when it was time to open presents.

“What have you got left?” Mom would call as we marched into the lot, ten minutes before closing.  He’d point us to his leftovers, the Charlie Brown trees.  “Seventy-five percent off again this year?” Mom would ask.  If he hesitated, she’d convince him to give her a deal, and he would.

Next stop, Ohle’s Delicatessen for weisswurst, rye bread and sauerkraut from Ernie, and sometimes a German record.  When we got home, often Dad would be waiting for us, carrying presents, asking us what took so long.  My Dad was a natural part of every holiday celebration, even though my parents had been divorced since I was four.  And later, his new wife and her children were warmly invited to every holiday celebration as well.

Then we divided the jobs.  I was usually in charge of wrapping presents, including presents that were for me (“no peeking!”), and lighting the candles under the twirling angels.  My brother and Dad would set up the tree.   Mom would make our European supper, and would insist that we eat before opening presents.  That was torture, but by then it was about 9 o’clock—or later!--and we’d realize how hungry we were.  We’d pray over the dinner, and I loved my mom’s “thee’s and thou’s”.  Sometimes we had company over, and I remember once walking toward the kitchen to help my mom, who was chatting with our guests and cutting the meat.  Suddenly, a big roast flew across the doorway!  Everyone roared, as we washed it off and cut it up.

We all decorated the tree, and the living room carpet would disappear under presents.  Dad cringed when we put real candles on the tree and lit them.   Every year he’d make the case that chopping down a tree in the Bavarian woods an hour before lighting candles on it was one thing.  But ours was not the freshest tree, in fact it was already quite dry, and a fire hazard—so true!  Dad had us laughing—he was a born stand-up comic—but Mom assured us it would be fine.  One year Dad showed up with a fire extinguisher!  When the candles were lit, we turned off the lights, leaving only candlelight and Christmas lights glowing in that moment of silence.

Sometimes it would be midnight before we’d start to open presents, and we’d begin by giving our dog Peppi his usual wrapped gift of GainsBurgers.  It was one or two in the morning by the time we finished; we just didn’t want the night to end.  As we blew out the candles, Christkindl—the Christ child—filled our heart.

I loved those madcap Christmases.  I miss all the excitement, laughter, blunders, surprises and togetherness.  So maybe that’s it: I’m more inspired to have that kind of holiday with my family.  It’s so much more fun than the Norman Rockwell kind!

[Images:  The public domain image, Freedom from Want, is a painting by Norman Rockwell made public in The Saturday Evening Post of March 6, 1943.  Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer for her Flickr photo of St. Nicholas and Krampus at

Posted by Ramona


  1. Ramona, maybe not Norman Rockwell but magical all the same. Thanks for sharing your memories. Made me want to join you and yours for at least one Christmas Eve back then.

  2. Thanks for the delightful story telling, I liked the line about the carpet disappearing under the presents.
    I felt like I joined you for one of those crazy Christmas. Norman Rockwell, move aside!

  3. I love your term, "madcap Christmases," and they certainly must have been exactly that. Your mom must have been an amazing woman and a person with a lot of energy and love to pull this off. How amazing it is that your dad, although divorced from your mother, was part of the celebration and that later his wife and her children were included in the Christmas festivities.

    Delightful storytelling and memories, Ramona.


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