In the 1950s, my father spent every Christmas in Alsace with his grandparents. Every year, he took a train with his family from their home in St. Denis-en-Bugey, a town in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, to Hochstatt, a little Alsatian village where my grandmother’s extended family lived. She had grown up there on the farm where her family had lived for generations. Her parents spoke Alsatian, a French-German dialect, along with some German and a smattering of broken French.
As a borderland between Germany and France, Alsace is home to a unique blend of French and German culture, including its unique hybrid of Christmas traditions. When my father was there as a boy, the only Christmas decorations were the Christmas trees. Once all the family arrived in Hochstatt, my great-grandfather cut down an evergreen tree from the woods. They decorated it with balls, liqueur-filled chocolates, candles, garlands and sparklers. In the evenings, the candles were lit. (A pot of water was always kept nearby because the tree frequently caught on fire)! Nightly, after dinner, the family gathered around the tree to sing carols in German and French: O Tannenbaum, Mon Beau Sapin, Stille Nacht, Douce Nuit…
The high point of the holiday was Christmas Eve, when, following a dinner of ham and salad, a knock was heard outside on the closed window shutters. It was Pere Noël! Outside beneath the window was a pile of presents for all. My father remembers especially the year that the pile brought him a bow and arrow from his uncle. Presents were followed a dessert of pain d'epices. Dessert was followed by Mass (in Latin) at 11:30 PM, when all the new toys had to be put away until the following day. After Mass, bedtime. On the next day, the toys came out again before a breakfast of kugelhopf, a traditional Alsatian sweet bread, then extended family would gather at my great-grandparents house for Christmas dinner.
Try these recipes for your own Christmas celebrations this year: