Last updated on June 20, 2020
My neighbors in Ferndale are putting up ambitious displays of Christmas lights and decorations. I’ve only gotten as far as getting some holly trimmings from the Waschke Homestead and wiring together a wreath for our front porch. My neighbors’ work reminds me that Christmases sixty years and more ago were quite different.
Whatcom County settlers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were mostly northern Europeans: Scandinavians, Germans, and Dutch. My great grandparents were born in Holland and Germany, migrating to Whatcom County via Michigan and Minnesota in the Midwest. They brought Christmas traditions with them.
My Dutch grandparents were stern Calvinists who preferred their holidays on the solemn side, but German Lutherans reveled in Christmas tradition, an occasion for noisy family gatherings and extended visits. I grew up in the same house and later across the road from my German grandparents, so I know their traditions best.
Christmas trees are a German custom. My dad told us about Christmas trees in the old farmhouse decorated with burning candles and balls of cotton. Grandpa would cut a fir or hemlock in the woods and put it up on Christmas Eve afternoon. First lighting of the tree was after Christmas Eve church. They kept the tree and lit it regularly until Epiphany nearly two weeks later. Without water. Yikes! The rest of Christmas was less hair-raising.
My German grandmother was born in Germany, arriving on Ellis Island when she was twelve and travelling with her family directly to Whatcom County. She was my most direct connection to German Christmas traditions.
Grandma had cookbooks, but I never saw her using one. She cooked by taste, instinct, and practice. At Christmas, her talents flowered. Christmas dinner was a roast goose, not a turkey, stuffed with a sweet stuffing made from dry bread, apples, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon.
One secret of her roast goose was her bread, which she always baked herself. My mother baked bread too, but I liked Grandma’s better. Grandma saved the water from boiling potatoes for bread baking in a large Horlick’s Malted Milk jar that we now have on display in our living room. She may have used some milk also, and I am sure she used ordinary white flour. I remember watching Grandma bake bread, but the only other detail I recall is that she used a yeast cake that she would soak in water on baking day mornings. She had a combination wood and electric oven and she had a fire burning in the fire box when she baked, which may have had something to do with her results.
I’ve never had bread like hers anywhere else. Her loaves were rounded, and the crust was crisp like a French baguette, but not as tough. The texture was coarser and dryer with larger air holes than my mother’s bread. The taste was floury without sourness. Grandma would give me thick slices with butter as a snack. For herself, instead of toast, she cut bread into cubes and fried them in butter in a cast iron frying pan. I still remember the smell.
Few days before Christmas, Grandma put bread slices in a large sky-blue enameled steel basin to dry. Early Christmas morning, she would crumble the bread and add sliced apples, raisins, and a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. She would also lightly fry the chopped giblets in butter with salt and pepper and mix them into the stuffing. If she decided the mixture was too dry, she’d add milk. At this point, the scent of apples, raisins, and cinnamon began to whisper that Christmas dinner was coming soon.
Unlike folks today who are cautious about contamination, Grandma stuffed her goose rather than bake dressing on the side. She sprinkled the goose with sugar, cinnamon, and crumbs from the stuffing before putting it in the oven. The smell of goose roasting with my Grandma’s stuffing is the smell of Christmas for me. Add to that sweet and sour red cabbage with apples and you have the tastes and odors of Christmas day.
Before Christmas, Grandma baked Pretzel. Her Pretzel was nothing like the pretzels you buy in sacks at the grocery store or the soft pretzels they sell at the mall. It was a sort of plump raisin roll made with her homemade bread dough. She would pat out her dough in a round maybe an inch thick, spread it with butter, raisins, and sugar. Then roll it up like a big cinnamon roll and bring the ends together and cross them. Sprinkle with sugar and bake. Grandma’s Pretzel was a bread and not sweet enough to be called a dessert. She would serve it sliced for breakfast or with coffee. I think it was a variant of German Neujahrsbrezel, New Year’s Pretzel, but Grandma’s was special for Christmas breakfast.
She also baked Springerle cookies and her variant of Lebkuchen. Her Springerles were similar to many recipes you can find. She had the usual carved rolling pin to mold them. They came out, like all good Springerles, hard as stone and strongly flavored with anise. Her Lebkuchen were also flavored with anise and hard, so hard that slamming them down on the table to shatter them into dipping size for dunking in coffee was a good way to avoid cracking a tooth.
She began baking her Lebkuchen early in December. After mixing the very stiff dough, she let it rest to develop flavor for a few days. Then she rolled out the spicy mixture in a thin layer and cut it into two to three-inch squares and rectangles. My mother made them also, but she used Christmas cookie cutters in wreath, star, Santa Claus, and, for me, cowboy shapes. After baking, Grandma frosted them with a hard and shiny powdered sugar glaze. When they were dry, she put them in a crock with a towel on top to age, to soften, in theory, I suppose.
We called them Christmas cookies, not Lebkuchen. There are many variants on Lebkuchen in Germany. Most of them are more like a soft gingerbread than ceramic tile. One variant I know of is Aachener Printen, which are hard like my grandmother’s. Another variant is baked on communion wafers to prevent sticking.
When I was young, I didn’t much care for Christmas cookies. Even the cowboy shaped ones. They were too hard, not very sweet, and I preferred chocolate and caramel to anise and spices. But today? My grandmother’s hard Christmas cookies with coffee on a winter mid-afternoon after throwing down silage and mixing a batch of feed for the cows, or cutting stove logs in the woods, sounds closer to perfection than I will ever approach again.