“It’s the Christmas Man,” my two-and-a-half-year-old son cheered, pointing to the large inflatable red-clad figure bobbing in the wind outside a men’s clothes shop. In these first unseasonably barmy days of early December, we were yet to talk about the intricacies of Christmas, beyond the odd explanation of holly-bedecked shop windows and the singing reindeer-head installed outside our local shopping centre. The name of the man who would bring presents had certainly not been discussed. So how did he know about Father Christmas, and what was this name the “Christmas Man”?
One of the joys of living in another country and having your children grow up in a bilingual environment spending half, if not more, of their time speaking a language that is not your own is that they are constantly learning things you could not possibly have taught them. The Christmas Man (I should mention at this point that Germans refer to Father Christmas as the Weihnachtsmann – it’s direct translation being, therefore, the Christmas Man) was just one example in a list of many, which includes animals, nursery rhymes, foods and songs. Mostly, these instances delight and intrigue me. My German is good enough to understand the meaning, whilst still being enriched with a whole new level of childhood vocabulary one cannot learn sitting down with a grammar book, or spending a year here as a carefree exchange student. And beyond the words, I am constantly fascinated by my (and all) children’s outstanding capacity to absorb and manipulate new information minute by minute.
For all the usual pleasure, however, I was oddly put out by this Christmas Man. It was only a few days later whilst being serenaded with “O Tannenbaum” in those unmistakable, high-pitched childish tones that it occurred to me why. If I was completely honest with myself, I was a bit jealous about this predominance of German Christmas over English traditions. I wanted my children to think about Father Christmas: Nikolaus could take the shoes with him – my children were going to be hanging out stockings on the 24th, and, why yes, I’d be teaching them to sing “Oh, Christmas Tree” just as heartily before the season was out.
So, it would seem, there is a more problematic side to the beauty of bilingualism; that of linguistic preference. My children live in Germany, their father is German, they spend their mornings in a German-speaking nursery, most of our friends are German. Their afternoons with me and the odd trip to Britain are islands of English immersion in a deep and powerful German sea. Mostly, I feel relaxed about this, indeed I positively think it is the best way round for them to end up being truly bi-lingual: if we were living in England, their access to German and all things German-speaking would be infinitely more limited than the way round we have it now. It’s easy to see, hear, learn English – German is harder to come by. For now, I will have to accept that their Christmases are inevitably more German than they are English, and for my part, I should be pleased in the fact that their Christmases are simply happy ones, knowing deep down that not much beyond that really matters in the end. But wisdom aside, I can report that I have successfully changed the Christmas Man’s name to Father Christmas; the lyrics to “Oh Christmas Tree” are turning out to be a slower burn.