Main piece: In the informant’s family, they celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve rather than the normal American practice of opening presents Christmas morning. They call this Heiliger Abend, or Weihnachten, which translates to Holy Night. When a family’s children are young, all gifts from family members were exchanged during Heiliger Abend, while gifts from Santa (mainly gifts to the kids) are opened on Christmas morning. However, if the of the children grow up and therefore move away from the Santa myth, each present gets opened on Christmas Eve. During Heiliger Abend, pierogi and potato salad is served, and whole family gathers together to sing Christmas Carols (both in English and German).
Context: The informant (DB) is a first generation immigrant from Germany; her mother is from Silesia, Germany, and her father is from what was previously known as East Prussia, so she is fluent in both German and English. She was raised Christian but does not consider herself very religious. She grew up in Orlando, Florida, has two kids, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Our conversation took place while eating quesadillas for lunch in our home in Atlanta. DB said that the custom of Heiliger Abend originates from her German roots, but that she adapted the traditions to her modern, American family. DB has kept the tradition alive because, as a child, it took her a long time to realize that celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve was abnormal in the U.S – “it never occured to me that Christmas in the morning would be any fun anyway.” She feels very close to the rest of her family in Germany when she celebrates Heiliger Abend as well as her family in America, as the tradition feels intimate and unique. “As you get older, it isn’t even about the presents anymore – it’s about the experience.”
Personal thoughts: DB does not perform some key traditional practices commonly associated with Heiliger Abend (i.e. placing a boot outside for Saint Nicholas on December 5th, attending a church service the morning of December 24th, ringing a bell to signal the arrival of presents), which perhaps speaks to the ways in which modernity causes individuals to shave down their traditions to make them more palatable or modern. However, DB has also added a tradition of her own that make her Heiliger Abend unique – Christmas Caroling, which is certainly not a simple or easy tradition to perform. Hence, maybe the informant is simply customizing traditions to her own liking rather than feeling forced to cut certain actions out; modernity can be used and viewed as a tool for evolution, rather than a weapon for deconstructing age-old traditions.