A Raleigh native melds Christmas traditions with her Swiss husband — and finds the best in both.
by Hampton Williams Hofer
In the still-dark hallway outside of my parents’ bedroom door, my three siblings and I whispered in our nightgowns and socks, holding whatever noisemakers we had scavenged from our rooms: a whistle, a Wake County-issued recorder, my brother’s church shoes with the heels that clapped like hooves.
We counted down with the pounding in our chests — three, two, one — and then unleashed our strange chorus, hooting and stomping, messy hair flown back, a barbarous symphony: Wake up wake up wake up! It’s CHRISTMAS!
Parents and grandparents emerged, moving at a glacial pace through the ritual at the top of the stairs. We sat poised for our wild descent, arms around shoulders, sleepy smiles. The camera flash was the starting pistol. For once, we didn’t care who elbowed us on the way down. At the bottom waited the glittering, merry scene, proof that the visitor had come, and we slid in on our knees, tugging at ribbons and paper, gasping when it was more than we’d wished for. Somehow even more.
Later, when the frenzy had settled into little mountains of festive detritus flickering with the lights on the tree, when we had folded up the nicer gift bags to go back in the drawer of Mom’s wrapping chest, when we had eaten the buttered love feast buns and Dewey’s bakery sugar cake, Barbies and baseballs at our feet, I would sit on my grandmother’s lap by the fire.
In a hangover of delight, I would lean my head back to breathe in the smell of her Elizabeth Arden face cream, with no notion that there would ever come a Christmas when I wouldn’t hear the tsk–tsk of her slippers on a hardwood floor. It was a morning when the best of everything was real: Dolly Parton coming home with bells on, a gingerbread house now ripe for little fingers, and still in my head the ringing of the sleigh bells I was certain I had heard.
Two decades later, I heard something different: “Yeah, we don’t really do Christmas morning,” my then-fiancé said, his Swiss accent still thick, his dark hair without a gray in sight. “You what?” I blinked at him. The horror. I knew that marrying an immigrant would involve some cultural blending, but by God there had to be Christmas morning.
“There’s no Santa in a sleigh, colorful lights, stockings — none of that,” he said. He had only ever known nighttime present-opening, formal Christmas Eve celebrations in blazers, organized singing with snow-capped mountains outside like the picture on a hot chocolate box. A Raleigh Christmas would be a lot to learn. And since I knew that it was too late to call Jim Adams the priest and change our plans, I would simply have to teach him, to win him over to the better side.
Our season starts and ends with black eyes, I explained: the first from a Black Friday brawl outside of Target, and the last in the form of peas stewing next to collard greens for good luck. He was already looking at me like I was nuts. But in between comes the magic. It’s breathing on your hands as you size up the Christmas trees at Logan’s. You’ll know the one when you see it.
It’s Ira David Wood on a stage, and spiced Moravian cookies, and the little red kettles of the Salvation Army, and that house on Whitaker Mill with the best lights. I’ll show you the one. It’s a lot of hanging: stockings, lights, garland, mistletoe. Get ready for the Clark Griswold jokes. It’s an old book and new pajamas and visions of sugar-plums dancing in heads. It’s going straight outside in those pajamas to try the new bike, because this is North Carolina. I’ll tell you about 2010, the only white Christmas we’ve had in a century. It’s kneeling in a wooden pew, touching your candle to your neighbor’s until the whole church comes alive, as we sing together. Glory streams from heaven afar, with love’s pure light, a savior is born. It’s Christmas.
A couple years into marriage, at our first Christmas with my husband’s family in Switzerland, I traded eggnog for mulled wine, strings of colorful lights for real candles on small, natural trees, lit only on Christmas Eve. I traded Santa Claus for the Christchindli, a fairy-like child with angel wings who delivers presents through the window. (I had a lot of logistical questions on that one, but I went with it). It turned out “Silent Night” sounded pretty good in German after all. Morning or night, dress clothes or pajamas, there was still a room full of people who love each other, bellies full of good food, gifts both seen and unseen. It was just like the Christmas mornings of my childhood — more than I had wished for. Somehow even more.
Now, come December, I turn on Mariah Carey as my husband hangs a stocking with his name next to mine, next to four more that we’ve added through the years. He says y’all hop in the car as he pulls an NC hat over his salt-and-pepper hair and we take our children to meet the elves at Marbles. We come home and light real candles on an Advent wreath, the house warm with the smell of Swiss mulled wine, and we’ll bake Mailänderli and Chräbeli for our neighbors. Because of course, just like on Christmas Day in 1914 somewhere in a field in Belgium — when the soldiers put down their guns to sing “O, Holy Night,” voices in English and German echoing across the battlefield — there isn’t a better side.
I recently asked my sister which one of us started the whole wake-the-house-on-Christmas routine in the hallway with the instruments, and she couldn’t remember having done it at all. She remembered making up dances to Sir Mix-a-Lot on her boombox after the sugar cake kicked in. Even in the same household, we had lived it all differently.
As I watch my children create their own little snow globes of memories, I realize it doesn’t matter which bits they hold onto, because when time sends all that snow and glitter to settle at the bottom, it will be the joy that remains.
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of WALTER magazine