At the business end of a sleek concert grand piano sits Jonathan Rufino, a sophomore from St. Albans School, filling the reception hall at the German ambassador’s residence with the sounds of the season. At the other end stands Huberta von Voss-Wittig, the wife of Ambassador Peter Wittig, patiently explaining to me the intricacies of German holiday traditions.
Of five nutcracker figurines on the piano lid, she singles out a big glossy red one with a tuft of white beard. “This is Nikolaus,” she said, going on to explain that children awake the morning of Dec. 6 to discover whether the shoes they put out the night before are full of chocolates, fruit and nuts (if they have been good) or little switches (if not.) These days, it’s invariably more Lindt than lash, but traditions run deep in the Germanic lands, where Christmas is not just a holy period but sacred to German culture and identity.
Many American holiday traditions are drawn directly from the German playbook, with one glaring exception. In the old country, the tree isn’t put up and decorated until Dec. 24, and in the Wittig family’s private quarters above the residence’s more formal rooms, von Voss-Wittig has picked out the spot for this year’s tree, a corner in the cozy living room now occupied by a reading chair.
But below, in the official rooms of the residence, two fresh, cut trees are already in full regalia, the larger a towering 15-foot fir softening the gridded fenestration of Oswald Ungers’s magnificent contemporary architecture. One of the most conspicuous diplomatic pads in town, the residence is a Bauhaus-inspired take on classical Washington and looks stylishly undated more than 20 years after it was constructed high on a hill next to Foxhall Road NW.
For the Wittigs, the nod to American traditions has a practical purpose. At this time of year, their home is not so much a machine for living as one for entertaining, and hundreds of guests will attend events here expecting to see a Christmas tree or two well in advance of Christmas Eve. (In a recent profile of the couple, the German newspaper Die Welt described the residence under the Wittigs as a nexus of Washington high society and intellectual debate.)
If the trees are precocious, they are decorated as they might be back home — that is, no tinsel, a few bows and a generally subdued array of ornaments, including exquisite angels, stars and other figures handcrafted from straw.
On the main tree, von Voss-Wittig and her team have hung simple red baubles deep within its branches in a style popular, she said, in East Prussia. They are illuminated by the reflected glow of white tree lights. The glass balls are from Germany. “Okay, the lights are from China,” she said. Back in Germany, the light strings might well be replaced with real candles at branch tips. You learn not to wander far and keep a bucket of water ready.
It is away from the tree where you get to see the elements of the all-important month or so leading up to Christmas — the period known as the Vorweihnachtszeit — where the nutcrackers, wooden carved figures, Advent candles, calendar and greenery are not trappings of the season, but talismans of rituals that go far deeper than festive decoration.
“Our country is very strong on family traditions at Christmastime, coming together, going to church, having elaborate family meals,” she said. “Christmas is a month-long celebration in Germany.” The tree can wait.
For a recent house tour organized as a fundraiser for St. Albans, she decorated rooms as they might be seen in a German home. The Wittigs and their predecessors have been constrained by Ungers’s cubic design ethos that extended to the furniture, the china, the cutlery, even the salt-and-pepper pots. In the Ladies’ Sitting Room, the only salon where circles are permitted in a house ruled by the square, von Voss-Wittig laid out her own china and crystal on a round table. Around the central arrangement of pine cones, greenery and red- and buff-colored roses she placed small chorister figurines, family heirlooms that made it through the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
On the other side of the reception hall, the dining room annex was decorated as the family’s gathering table — in the morning to mark the progression of the days during Advent and in the afternoon for coffee and stollen (a sweet Christmas bread), and cookies. At the center of the table sat an Advent wreath with fat red candles, to be lighted sequentially on the four Sundays before Christmas. The Wittigs have four children, and each gets to light a candle, starting with the youngest, 7-year-old Felice. Their eldest, Valeska, 25, is due to arrive from London, where she is a student, in time to light the last candle this Sunday.
The table is also brightened with cookie tins from the Nuremberg Christmas market, the most celebrated of the markets that emerge across Germany and Austria in December and become essential places of gathering and celebration. The mulled glühwein helps keep the chill at bay. It is in these markets that you can buy the decorations that are often specific to a region, such as the glass baubles or kugeln, the carved smoking men, and the wooden arches that many place in their windows to frame Nativity scenes and candles. Many of the items are handmade in small workshops, and although the markets are places of commerce, they don’t feel commercial, according to my German friends. The tail does not wag the dog.
Some Germans get their trees from lots, but many families make an annual ritual of going out to cut a tree. Getting the tree is not an errand, it’s an occasion, and von Voss-Wittig has fond memories of this. “It’s freezing and there’s a big fire, and you have people who make music and we sing together. It’s a lovely family thing. You’re not rushed and you know it’s going to take half a day,” she said.
The Wittigs know pretty well how Christmas will play out: They will decorate the tree on the 24th, go to church, return for a toast and a hug or two, and then read aloud letters they have written to one another. “That’s a family thing. And then we sit down to a very heavy meal [two gooses]. And then I fall asleep and the rest of the family continues the party,” she said, laughing.
With strife in the Middle East and a refugee crisis that has turned Germany into a place of sanctuary for displaced families, Christmas will have a special power this year. “The message of Christmas is peace,” she said. “Peace is so fragile and precious — we should never take it for granted. We see it in the most frail person there is, a baby born to poor parents who were basically refugees.”
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