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A Holiday Reprise: European Union

(by Désirée Willmes)


My family is made up of different nationalities, so Christmas was always the culinary highlight when everyone got together in our house in the Sauerland in Germany.


My mother’s mother was born in Spain. Her father was born just outside of Salzburg in Austria, emigrated to South America when he was 18, and in his mid-20s made it to the northern coast of Spain where he fell in love with my abuela, Consuelo.


Dad´s parents were both from the Sauerland, but it was as if they were from two different countries too. During World War II, my opa was a soldier in the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Germany, and was deployed to Norway. While he was away,Oma Mia hid a young Jewish girl in her basement for almost a year. Opa never knew this. I sometimes wonder what he would have done if he had found out.


Opa was not happy that my dad had married a “foreigner.” He made my mom’s life very difficult. But at Christmas time, there was peace in the house, and we would celebrate a German-Spanish feast.My mom tried to recreate her own happy memories of growing up in Spain by having big family lunches or dinners at our house, despite the fact that she was not accepted. My brother and I also experienced rough times at school and in the community for not being 100 percent German. Once my swimming teacher almost drowned me as he wanted to teach me to swim like a "good German.” The kids used to call us "knoblauchfresser," which means "devourers of garlic." Germans in our little village considered garlic disgusting and used this term for the Spaniards and Turks, the so-called "guest-workers.” (Italians were called spaghettifresser.) Thanks to our love of garlic, my mom eventually convinced the local butcher´s wife to use garlic in "fleischwurst" (a bologna-type sausage). When my brother and I had birthdays, Mom would bring amazing food treats to school—maybe it was a peace offering so that the kids and teachers would accept us, or maybe, since Mom has always been in love with food, it is the one thing that brought her peace.


My oma was an angel, the only one to protect my mother from her husband. She taught my mom to cook hearty German meals like sauerbraten, goulash, grünkohl, and wirsing, and she taught me, at a very early age, how to make the typical spritz-cookies called weihnachtsspritzgebäck. The most fun part was pushing the dough through the cast iron meat grinder, which had a special cookie attachment in the form of a star stencil. I used to love making "O" shapes with the dough while singing "O Tannenbaum.” We would start baking on St. Nicholas Day, just in time for the Advent season.

Christmas Eve was a somber occasion—a true silent night. Opa did not like any fuss or jolliness. I’m not sure if I ever saw him laughing. The meal was dark rye bread with cured pork sausage and potato salad. But Christmas day was a whole different story: After we opened the presents that the golden-locked Christkind had left under our tree, all of my mom´s siblings and their families would arrive, with my abuela and abuelo.