Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Traditions - Weihnachtsteller - Christmas Plate

The Christmas Plate - As a kid it was impossible not to love this. How could you not... Each plate had a fun festive design (snowmen, santa, Christmas scene) on it which was made of cardboard, aluminum or ceramic and it could be a nice keepsake afterwards as well.

Of course the plate was of little consideration by the kids since it was usually burried under the treats which usually consisted of the obligatory Christmas Santa but also had...
  1. A Niederegger marzipan loaf
  2. Christmas cookies - a wide assortment of shapes and styles - star, round, christmas tree shaped shortbread, Pfeffernüsse, marzipan, lebkuchen and the list goes on
  3. Dominoes - a cube with 3 layers (gingerbread, Jam and Marzipan) covered in chocolate
  4. Jellies in the shape of circles and stars
  5. Marzipan pig (it represented good luck)
  6. Gold chocolate coins
  7. Marzipan balls
  8. These cool little chocolates in the shape of christmas packages wrapped
But as my dad said along with the treats you had to get healthy things as well
  1. Walnuts & Hazelnuts
  2. An Apple
  3. Clementines
My dad  had so much fun putting these together for each of the kids on Christmas Eve. As you can see from the list you can really go overboard

And no, this wasn't something I got, but you have to give the guy who put this together credit. Like all Christmas traditions these days it seems quite commercial, it was for the kids and could be quite simple and made completely with home made cookies and treats.
The hardest thing about this tradition was that they'd give us these before our Christmas Eve dinner and we couldn't eat anything from the plate until after we finished our meal. But boy did the "goodies" taste good after having to wait.

Christmas Traditions - Christmas Pyramid

The Christmas Pyramid was one of the other things that never really caught on in North America as much as it did in Germany. Although there are some parts of the U.S. where they are quite popular. A neat little bit of science that added another dimension to the Christmas decorations in the house. If anyone remembers Christmas Vacation, this is what kept being knocked over and Clark kept trying to rebuild. Unfortunately I couldn't find a picture of it. But I had to get a shot of Eddie in here.

They say it was the predecessor to the Christmas tree. A kind of Carousel with 4 - 8 sides and anywhere from one to six or more tiers it has a propellor at the top. Each tier has a specific type of scene portrayed usually involving Christian motifs.

The neat thing is that they have candles at the bottom and the heat from them turns the blades of the fan at the top. This then moves all the levels of the carousel. A really cool bit of technology.

In some of the Christmas Markets they build them to over 45 feet. These Weihnachtspyramide are from Dresden and Aachen

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Traditions - Stollen & Fruit Cake

The fruitcake... The brunt of endless jokes at Christmas time. Some say it's heavy, not sweet and that there is only one in existance, circling the earth, being regifted from one person to the next. As I am not a fan of this Christmas cake I would tend to agree with the above statements. I am however a fan of it's sister... The German Stollen.

Dating back to the early 1400's the first Stollen was made in Dresden. During the time of Advent, Catholics were not allowed to use butter and milk in their baking so it was rather tasteless and heavy. Forty-years, several petitions and 6 popes later the bakers Guild of Dresden was given permission to use butter and milk in their Stollen but only for the Prince-Elector his family and household. Others could do so but would have to pay a fine which would go to building of a Minster (Church) in another city (Freiburg - quite a distance away)

It is now baked throughout Germany and the world and goes by many different names in German: Stollen, Dresden Stollen, Strutzel, Striezel, Stutenbrot, or Christstollen. The traditional German Christmas cake, is a colorful collection of nuts, raisins, currants, candied orange and lemon peel, traditional spices of Christmas such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, mace or cloves, brandy or rum and lots of butter. Personally, it has to have Marzipan in it as well. It's that little extra sweetness that does it for me

However,  just like "bubbly" can only be called "Champagne" if made in Champagne, only in Dresden can you get the official Dresden Stollen. Only 150 bakers make this "brand" which carries an official seal.

The shape of the cake was originally meant to represent the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes but now it can carry many different shapes and sizes. Although not as dense as fruitcake they have made one weighing over 4200 pounds

This was made in the city of Dresden for, get this, "Stollenfest". A festival for cake...
I am so there.

Christmas Traditions - Gingerbread House

Ah, gingerbread houses. Where would they be without Hanzel and Gretel?

Gingerbread was brought to Europe about 1000 years ago and was baked for religious ceremonies. Since Germany was the centre of the spice trade, ginger was in abundance. Due to this abundance the bakers were very creative baking gingerbread using molds of animals, fish, and bible scenes wieghing over 100 pounds.

Although no one knows when the first gingerbread house was made, odds are Nuremberg and it's Christmas Markets dating back to 1614 were probably where it was sold to the general public. In fact there was a Guild of master bakers called the Lebkuchlers that had exclusive rights to baking gingerbread in that city.

It probably wasn't until the brothers Grimm brought the tale of Hanzel and Gretel to the general populace of Europe and North America in the 1800's that the houses really caught on (went viral so to speak).

Now you can get completely insane creations

Our family cheated a bit with our gingerbread houses. My dad actually made ours out of cardboard. Decorated it with all the goodies... Marshmallows, gumdrops, icing etc... And then applied a very liberal layer of a shellac or something like that. At the end of the Christmas season we'd pack it away and pull it out the next year. I think one house lasted us on average 5 years or so, looked pretty good and it was as solid as a rock. Even the marshmallows.

Christmas Traditions - Weihnachtsmärkte

Liepzig Market

Something that I haven't yet experienced are the Christmas Markets in Germany. From my understanding, they pop up in nearly every city and town in Germany at the beginning of the Advent season in the town squares. Lights, music and the traditional food in the area are served up. Oh... and did I mention the drinks. Beer, this is Germany we're talking about after all, but also apple cider and a wonderful hot mulled wine called Glühwein.

Lübeck Market

They date back to the 14th century and you can buy baked goods, decorations, candles, toys and everything else Christmas related and yes, just like American malls, it gets incredibly busy.

Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt

The Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt is one of the older ones and has been going for almost 400 years.
As much as I don't like crowds this must be an amazing enviornment to be in.

Christmas Traditions - St. Nikolaus's Boot

Although North America has adopted a lot of European Christmas traditions (Christmas tree, Advent Calendar etc...) one that didn't catch on was St. Nikolaus's boot. This is a tradition that lots of European countries have (in the Netherlands I think they use clogs).

On the evening of December 5th, St. Nikolaus came to your house and put something in your boot. If you were good it was a small treat. If you were bad it was a lump of coal or a switch to punish the kids. Yikes. I always got a treat :) .

My parents took it a step further... They had St. Nikolaus come every day between the 6th and the 23rd. I think it was their attempt to keep me in line for the weeks leading up to Christmas. But if I was bad, very seldom I might add, they wouldn't put anything in the boot. I'm glad they didn't go the switch route.

Sometimes my enthusiasm to see what St. Nikolaus got the better of me. To this day I remember the night when I was around 4 years old and I didn't go to sleep right away. I heard something at the door and when the coast was clear I peeked out. When I checked, there was something in the boot. My parents weren't too pleased about the initiative I showed. I didn't sneak a peek after that incident.

This was a really fun tradition and I still have the boot (above) that I used, more than 35 years ago, that my 4 year old uses today.

Christmas Traditions - Advent Wreath

An Advent Wreath with candles was another sign that the Christmas season was here. It would be placed out on our living room table 4 Sundays before Christmas. We would light the first one on that Sunday night, two the next Sunday, three the next and all four on the Sunday before Christmas. On Christmas eve we would light all four and place a big candle in the centre and light that one too.

I loved the smell of those candles. The TV went off, Christmas music came on and we just relaxed and enjoyed the time together. The candles had such a warm glow and created such a cozy atmosphere.

This is a wonderful tradition that I'm carrying forward with my family.

The Advent wreath has some very powerful symbolism which was something I didn't realize growing up. The 4 candles can represent many things. Literally, it represents the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas. Metaphorically, each candle can also represent 1000 years of the 4000 years that passed between the time Adam and Eve and the birth of Christ.

The candles also remind us to remember those that we love and are with us today and those that have passed on. The candles also have a more formal reminder...
The first candle recalls the Patriarchs; the second recalls the Prophets; the third recalls St. John the Baptist and the final candle recalls Our Lady. The progressive lighting of the candles also symbolizes the growing expectation and hope of Christ coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming.

We usually used red candles but the symbolism can be carried further by using 3 vilot and one rose coloured one (used on the 3rd week). This represents the colours used by the priests during the mass for that week. Cool.

The circular wreath itself represents eternity and the greenery is symbolizes hope and renewal.

It's such a small thing but it is such a powerful reminder of why we celebrate the Christmas season.

Christmas Traditions - Advent Calendar

I loved advent calendars. They were the first signs that Christmas was getting close. Aside from the Christmas decorations going up in the stores right after Halloween.

For some reason, the ones with the glitter made it a little more special. They all have 24 windows/doors and the first few that were given to had a cute picture of a toy or Christmas theme when you opened the door. I didn't get ones that had chocolate behind each door until I was older. I think I prefer the ones with the pictures now, although I've actually order one with Marzipan treats inside from my hometown in Lübeck, Germany. Although, It had a market scene like the calendar above.

Now everyone seems to make one. Lindt, Nestle; Even playmobile and Lego have them now. The marketing machine at full power.

I bought one for my eldest (4 years old) and it helps her learn the days and, best of all, keeps her from asking every day if it's Christmas yet.

One of the nicest things about the calendar scenes is that you could emmerse yourself in the scene and image what a wonderful time everyone is having there.

Friday, November 19, 2010

My dad loved big cars. Thunderbird, Buick Riviera, Mercury Cougar.
He owned a couple of these monsters and we also had a plymouth caravelle (diplomat). I loved looking through the little back window and sticking my head out either of the windows. Remember... No seatbelts.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


My father worked as a building superindendent for a few years and owned a  cleaning company for several more. Due to these jobs he spent an lot of time in them, using them, moving heavy equipment in them, understanding how they work and with all that time in them... getting stuck as well. It's this experience that he passed along to me. I remember him telling me that whenever he got stuck in an elevator he would pry the doors open and climb out to the closest floor.

It's due to this advice that I've been able to not have to wait for building security to open the elevator doors for me. I've been stuck 3 times so far and each time I've been able to open the doors and get out. Twice I was alone and the third time I asked the group if it was OK to do so. For some reason they didn't seem to mind. The trickiest part is to get a good grip on the door which can sometimes be difficult, especially with those shiny stainless steel doors. Pressing hard enough while pulling the door open with your fingertips just enough to slip your fingers into the opening and from there you can pull the door open.

Thanks for the advice dad

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It's not KFC

Had the double down a couple of days ago. Not bad. Great chicken breast but a bit salty for my taste and not sure I'd pay $8 for it again. Besides... Nothing beats the original recipe and format.

Also... We're talking Kentucky Fried Chicken, not KFC. Taking the direct reference to fried in the title doesn't make it healthy. Loved the 3 piece meal which used to be accompanied by the standard fries. They got rid of these and replaced them with ones that had a weird crispy batter around it. I didn't think they could make fries less healthy but I guess it holds the grease better. Then I always had the nuclear green coleslaw with it and even though I love it, you can't convince me that that is a naturally occuring colour. There was also the garlic bread. I always enjoyed this part of it. Simple and good. It's something I really miss that I wish they would bring back.

It was really all part of the packaging. From the red/orange, white and black colours on the box to the lemon scented wet wipes they included with the cutlery, pack which also had a fork, knife, spoon, salt, pepper and napkin. Now you're lucky to get a fork and the wet wipe. I'm sure it gives shareholders an extra $0.01/dividend by taking all those things out of the pack.

One of the reasons I think this is etched so deep into my memory is because it was part of a family tradition. On sunny Sundays we used to go and pick up a bucket from the KFC on the corner, which is still there, and go to the park to have a picnic. It was a time where we would invite relatives along to enjoy the day and soak up the sun.

It's strange how something like Kentucky Fried Chicken can be associated with a family tradition but I'm sure this is something that most companies would kill to achieve

Here's a piggy bank my grandfather had that I found a picture of on ebay. I always thought it was neat. Looking at a sanpshot of it now though, it looks kinda creepy.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Seat Belts?

We don't need no stinkin' seat belts. When I was young the province of Ontario in Canada didn't have any seat belt requirements for kids, let alone the use of booster seats. What the heck was a booster seat. When I was growing up the seat of choice wasn't a seat. It was standing up behind the driver, typically my dad, grabbing onto the headrest like it was a second steering wheel. Man that was nuts, but did we ever have fun as kids in the back of the car. 

My best friend's dad had a station wagon which took the fun to a whole other level. We would pile into the trunk area of the station wagon and basically have a party back there. His parents didn't mind too much since there was an extra row of seats between them and the chaos.

Was it dangerous? I guess. But we really weren't as paranoid about safety as we are today. I thought my dad was fairly lax when it came to seat belts. I'm thinking this family's safety wasn't top of mind either.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pressure Points

It seems that my dad had a knack of finding which points on my body would lead directly to a nerve. Pinching the nape of your neck if me or my cousin were acting up was one of his favorites. He was very strong and had powerful hands but he knew how to use his strength and never abused it with us.

That's how you get respect. You have the power but you choose not to use it.

Another one he liked to have fun with was the hand shake grind. With my little hand in his he would place his thumb on my index finger knuckle and his third finger (his hand was a lot bigger than my 6 year old hand) on the knuckle of my pinkie finger. He would then proceed to move his fingers back and forth causing my knuckles to grind against each other. Man, that was painful but he was definitely holding back. The bizarre thing was that while I was looking for information regarding this for the blog I found quite a number of websites dedicated to discussing this. I even found a counter technique... Point your index finger toward the other persons wrist and it's supposed to prevent the knuckles from rubbing over each other. Ah, where was the internet when I was young?

Then there's the one we both enjoyed. He'd grab the muscles on either side just above my knee and squeeze, REPEATEDLY. It really tickled. I begged him to stop and he would, eventually. Sometimes he tickled me till I cried because I was laughing so hard. I think that, because of this, I now have an immunity to being tickled.

Now that I'm a parent I can somewhat understand the twisted pleasure of doing the tickling thing. Not only that but I will pass down the wisdom of the ages to the next generation.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Risky Business

This was the Finn Leonhardt. It had it's own built in crane system so it could unload containers in the ports that were less equiped and didn't have the facilities to unload regular ships. This allowed them to go to the more out of the way, exotic ports. This was also the last ship dad worked on before he went back to school. Why did he decide to go back to school... Not for the main reasons you might think.

They had been at sea for some time and were trying to avoid a fairly rough storm by trying to steer around it. On the radar, the captain could see that the storm was growing bigger and gaining speed. Realizing that they couldn't out run the storm he needed to prepare the boat for the big waves and he sent a few men down to the cargo hold to make sure all the cargo was firmly tied down. "Batten down the hatches".

My father was one of the men that went down there and as he was securing the containers the waves had begun to pick up. The storm was gaining on them and they didn't have much time before they were right in the middle of it. The waves started getting bigger and bigger. Then finally a huge wave hit the ship. The containers, these are 20 foot long, 10 feet wide and 10 feet high containers, ended up flying around like cardboard boxes and almost came crashing down on my dad.

It was at this point, this near death experience, that made my father rethink his priorities. Having been recently married and with a child on the way he thought it might be best to stay close to home.

Even though there was phenomenal money to be made at the time and he truly enjoyed his life on the ship, he decided that his family needed him more.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Blue Monday

My dad used to have a huge collection of albums when he was on the ship. Lot's of Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Buddy Holly you name it. All the people on the ship loved it because anytime they threw a party my dad would bring his albums.

So to get your week off to a good start, start thinking about Saturday. Thanks Fats.

Blue Monday how I hate Blue Monday
Got to work like a slave all day
Here come Tuesday, oh hard Tuesday
I'm so tired got no time to play
Here come Wednesday, I'm beat to my socks
My gal calls, got to tell her that I'm out
'Cause Thursday is a hard workin' day
And Friday I get my pay
Saturday mornin', oh Saturday mornin'
All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey
And I'm out on the stand to play

Sunday mornin' I'm feelin' bad
But it's worth it for the time that I had
But I've got to get my rest
'Cause Monday is a mess

Sunday Drives

This is the bridge between Prescott, Ontario and Ogdensburg New York. It was a bridge I knew very well since, one of the things we did almost every Sunday was to go out for drives all around eastern Ontario and northern New York State.

When I was young almost everything was closed on Sundays. You were lucky if you even found a gas station open. Even television seemed to take a break. It was a time where people, just, STOPPED. A time to spend with family, to relax, rejuvenate, to reflect on the week past and to dream about the week ahead.

It was on these Sundays that we went for drives around town, the little townships in the area, had picnics and went to the U.S. My dad always liked going to towns along the St. Lawrence seaway. It gave him the chance to watch the ships go by and reminisce about days gone by.

We had so much fun as a family going to these places and taking the day off. Even though we don't have a designated "day off" anymore, I really do believe individuals and families should try and create this oasis from the day to day chaos of life. Bring back some peace. I've found my world perspective becomes a bit brighter when I do.

Thanks for the memories dad.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hot Wheels

After leaving the shipping industry, my dad decided to return to school. He studied in Hamburg, Germany which was about an hour and a half from our home town of Travemunde. Because of the travel time he would study there during the week to devote his time to his studies and then come back home during the weekends. This left me, a rambunctious 1 year old, alone with my mom.

When he would return home for the weekend my mom and I would always meet him at the train station. On his return he would always bring a hot wheels car. I ended up amassing quite a collection and I had a great carrying case for all the cars. As you can guess, these went with me wherever I went.

This included our flight to Canada. I don't know if I would have been allowed to bring a case full of metal onto the plane with all the security restrictions these days. I would like to think so but I give people the benefit of the doubt.

I don't have these cars anymore but the memories are still there. Besides, there's always ebay :)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Church Bells

This was the church in my home town of Travemunde in northern Germany. A small resort town of 20000 that balloons up to 80000-100000 during the summer months.

Even when my dad was growing up he was a bit of a trouble maker. Ok, let's be honest... He was a S**T disturber. When he was young he made the life of the Lutheran minister quite difficult. One of the things he loved doing was to sneak into the church and go to the church bell tower. He would proceed to ring the bells. Aside from the great noise it would make it had another benefit. You could ride the ropes up and down as the church bell was ringing. He could probably get a good 5 or 6 feet in the air doing this.

This only went on for so long before the minister would hear what was happening and try to chase him down. When my dad saw him coming he would dash down to church basement where there were tunnels that ran to the neighbouring school (which was another source of mischief for him).

He was only caught a couple of times but the punishments never really deterred him.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Zebra

My father left home to work on cargo ships when he was 16 years old. I can honestly say that, even though my dad passed away at the age of 65, he had an incredibly full life. How many people can say that they got to travel around the world and get paid really well to do so at the age of 16.

Now you can imagine, that, getting a bunch of sailors together can create some interesting circumstances and situations. My father has shared some of these with me, mostly the G rated ones, but I'm sure it was just the tip of the iceberg, especially the not so G rated ones.

When you're out on a ship for one or two months at a time you get a little restless. So when you finally drop anchor you have to release some of this energy.

Well... They found themselves in Mexico after a long journey and they all decided to spend some time out at the beach. You'd think they would want to be out of the sun after a month at sea close to the equator. So after a few hours on the beach and not so few "beverages" they noticed that there were horses being riden by the tourists in the area. Somebody then got a bright idea. They went over to the owner giving out rides and asked to take a beautiful white one out for a ride. Seeing nothing wrong with this proposition the horse owner gladly agreed.

While one of them was out for a ride with this white horse, my dad had someone get paint from a nearby store. They ended up painting the horse with black stripes to make it look like a zebra. Would you expect anything less from a bunch of drunk sailors? Let's just say the owner of the horse wasn't too pleased. Luckily, when you work on a ship, you don't really have many opportunities to spend money at sea. So they had enough cash to compensate him accordingly and not bring in the police.

Back in the 60's I'm sure this was a fairly original idea. It looks like it's been done a few times recently too as you can see by the picture at the beginning of the story. The picture is from Moscow where they were trying to bring attention to using the crosswalks.

 I think I have a picture or video of this that I'll try to convert and upload eventually.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kenny Rogers

I think I only saw my dad without facial hair once in the 34 years that I knew him. When we emmigrated to Canada in 1976 my dad had a full beard which later became a goatee.

We never thought he resembled Kenny Rogers all that much. However, from time to time during the late 70's and early 80's when Kenny came to play concerts in Ottawa, my dad would have women running up to him screaming and asking for his autograph. Pretty surreal, but I`m sure he loved every second of it.

Now, my dad was a good looking guy and all, but I doubt he would have had a reaction like that if he didn't look a little bit like him. I guess he resembled Kenny more than we thought.

This might be why I have a strange fascination with Kenny Rogers songs and his movies. I'm sure it didn't help that my parents would play his albums all the time and, even though I haven't listened to one of his songs in years, I could probably recite several of his songs by heart. Lucille, The Gambler, You Decorated My Life. Classic Kenny. 

I also loved the movie Six Pack. Still do, and I'll play the movie for my kids when they`re older. Kenny was a race car driver who ended up taking care of 6 orphaned kids who worked as his pit crew. Kind of like Talladega nights without the Will Ferrell zaniness. It was a really fun movie and probably one of Anthony Michael Hall's first films.

On a side note: In his later years, my Dad`s physical appearance and Kenny`s deviated quite substantially. Probably due to the fact that my dad never had plastic surgery. It`s nice to see what Kenny would have looked like if he never had the plastic surgery.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The bicycle

When I was 7, we lived on the ground floor of an 8 storey building called Knollwood Terrace. In my life, I've lived in more than 15 places and this was by far my favorite home. It was a great apartment condo that had all units facing the Ottawa parkway. Along the parkway there was an orchard of trees that would explode with beautiful pink blossoms during the spring. It had a bikepath that followed alongside the parkway that meandered along the Ottawa River. It truely was a cyclists dream. Till this day they shut down the parkway on Sundays during the summer months so that cyclists and walkers can take over the road and enjoy the scenery.

 It's one of the things I miss most about Ottawa.

One of my favorite memories of my dad was when we lived here. I had just come back from riding my bike along the bikepaths and had left my bike, like all 7 year olds, lying flat on the ground at the front of the screen door to our living room. I closed the screen door and proceeded to watch TV and play with my toy cars on the floor of the living room. Multi-tasking at it's best.

Seeing as I was so engrossed with my cars I didn't know how much time had gone by since I left my bike out there. All I remember was that all of a sudden I saw a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye followed by a loud crash.

What was that???

I looked up to see the warped screen door lying on the ground outside. I peeked outside and saw my dad escorting a guy, maybe 14, by his upper arm back from the end of our building's driveway. He was on his tip toes so you could tell he wasn't going to go anywhere. My dad brought him to our front lobby and the three of us waited while my mom made a call. I can still remember the look of dispair on the teen's face as he sat in the lobby chair that my father had "placed" him in. I didn't understand why he looked so sad. We waited for quite some time and then the police came. They placed him in the cruiser and drove slowly away.

Several days later we found out that this teen had stolen multiple bikes in the area and he had taken an interest in my bike. It wasn't anything special. A used 5 speed, that's right, 5 speed, "supercycle" that I bought for $60. My parents had made a deal with me when I was 5. Save up enough for half the bike and we'll pay for the other half. In any case, leaving my bike at the door was the opportunity he was looking for... He jumped on, and off he rode.

What he wasn't counting on was my dad seeing him taking my bike from inside the apartment, then blasting through the screen door and running him down on foot.

From that day on, in my eyes, my dad was Superman.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How this became to be

This blog will be primarily about my father. The stories he told me about his days working on ships, his youth and memories about world war II. I will also be posting my memories of him and the wonderful times we spent together.

From time to time I'm sure I'll deviate to other topics of interest but this is really to help me organize my thoughts and all the fantastic adventures that he had that formed his life.

For those that stumble across this blog, I hope you enjoy the stories I'm relaying here and that you share your stories too.