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December 23, 2023

Our Christmas Tree was Adorned with Real Candles - What Stress!

A Famous German Children's Book for Christmas

When I was a little girl growing up in Northern Germany, my mother would read to my older brother and me from a famous German children’s book called “Der Struwwelpeter” (loosely translated as "shock-headed Peter" or "Shaggy Peter").  The book is a collection of short stories written in verse (poetry), authored by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, a psychiatrist, and it was published in 1844.  (To read more about this book on Wikipedia, please click here.)

Dr. Hoffman had been searching for a children’s book to give to his 3-year-old son as a Christmas present.  However, not satisfied by what was available in local book stores, he purchased a blank notebook.  In it, he wrote and illustrated his own stories.  When he finished creating the book, he put it under the Christmas tree as a Christmas present for his son.

The book delighted his son and the boy's friends.  When friends of the family saw the book, they were so impressed, that they eventually persuaded Dr. Hoffman to have it published.

The book is supposed to be humorous and portray morals for children to follow about what NOT to do.  The stories range from making fun of strangers, thumb sucking, torturing animals, and, among other subjects, not playing with a lighter (or fire).  It was illustrated according to the customs of the time, namely the 1840s.  The preface of the book reminds the reader that in order to receive a present from the Christ child for Christmas, here are the things a good, well-behaved child should never do.  

It was the story about playing with fire or matches, which had a profound impact on me.  It is about a little girl, Pauline, whose parents had stepped out of the house.  She discovered her parents’ lighter.  Pauline thought it was a toy since she had seen her parents using it.  Her cats warned Pauline not to play with it.  They warned the little girl that it was dangerous.  But she ignored the cats’ warnings and played with the lighter until it flicked on.  As a result, her dress caught fire, then her apron, her hand, her hair, finally the girl herself was ablaze.  Only a pile of her ashes remained at the end.  I used to have nightmares about this story.  Below, is one of the terrifying and scary drawings from this children’s book illustrating what happened to the little girl.

Paulinchen from Der Struwwelpeter

The consequences of playing with fire and the dangers of fire were thus ingrained in us children from a very young age.  This leads me to expand on my previous blog post: Naughty or Nice - Memories of Advent Season in Northern Germany

Real Candles on our Christmas Tree

So, yes, as the title of this post suggests during my early childhood, our Christmas tree was adorned with real candles!  As strange as it may sound to Western ears, this is still the custom in some European households this very day.  In our family, due to the extreme fire danger, the candles on our Christmas tree would only be lit a few times during the festive season: on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, and then on New Year’s Eve.  

Each time, Mom would carefully place new candles into the special clip-on candle holder that one could attach onto the branch. 

Mom would then measure the distance to the nearest branch above it to make sure that once the candle was lit, that the flame would not reach the branch and set it ablaze.

It was a very precise procedure.  In the meantime, my father who acted as the family’s official photographer, set up his tripod, affixed his camera to it, and fiddled around with the lenses, lighting, and aperture.

Next Mom would gather my two brothers and me, and we received the big safety lecture.  “Stay away from the tree.  No fighting, no pushing, and NO running around.  You might bump into the tree and knock it over, setting the house on fire.  If that happens, we will end up homeless, and have to sleep outside in the freezing snow.  And remember what I tell you: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE FROM THE TREE!  Then she would point and look directly at my older brother and me: “You two!  Pay particular attention! Make sure you keep your baby brother AWAY from the tree!  He is your responsibility!  If something happens, you two are responsible.”

Childhood Christmas Stress

Oh no, Mom put an eight and a six-year-old in charge of “the wild child”!  My baby brother could do no wrong in her eyes.  Never ever!  My older brother and I always got blamed for the little one's misdeeds.  “He’s too little and does not know, what he’s doing.  But you two, you should know better!”  (Oh, really!?!)  Her lecture and the consequences she laid out scared the life out of me.  Have you ever experienced Christmas stress?  This was it for me!

I grabbed my baby brother and tried to lock him into an embrace, so he could not escape and dart for the tree.  Very carefully, Mom started lighting the candles on the Christmas tree.  It looked so beautiful and absolutely magical.  The light of the candles reflected in the glass ornaments and in the Lametta (tinsel).  Wow, it was so incredibly beautiful!

We were mesmerized, if only for what seemed like fleeting seconds.  Because you see, the reality still was, that our house could go up in smoke. I was so stressed.  In addition, I was so petrified that I could hardly move.  Baby brother in the meantime tried to wiggle free from my panicked grip.  Then he started crying and screaming.  My mother shot me THE look, now what have you done to your baby brother? Luckily, my older brother came to my aid, he grabbed and tried to control the wild child.

Smile, Please! Oh no!  

My father then ordered us children to stand in front of the tree, so he could take our portrait.  I was too afraid to get close to the tree.  I did not want to bump into it and knock it over.  Had Mom not just warned us about this danger just a few precious minutes ago?

“Back up, get closer to the tree”, my father commanded, “you’re not in the picture. Closer, closer.  Come on, you are too far away.  Closer, closer.”  I started crying because I did not want my beautiful Christmas dress to catch on fire, nor my long braids.  I did not want to end up like Pauline.  Those images in the book were indelibly etched in my brain!  I became inconsolable. No matter how much my parents tried to reassure me, I stayed far away from the tree and its burning candles.  Finally, the photo session with the lit candles was canceled. 

Finally: Electric Christmas Lights

That was the last year when we had real candles on our Christmas tree.  The following year, my parents purchased a string of electric clip-on candles to decorate our tree.

To me, that was the BEST Christmas ever.  Our Christmas tree looked more beautiful with these candles than ever before.  Rather than only lighting the tree three times during the festive season, it was lit up every night.  That was glorious!  And, Christmas stress for me was a thing of the past.


Unfortunately, these days we still read about Christmas trees catching on fire during the festive season.  The majority of them are caused by frayed wiring of the prior year’s string of lights.  So, please before installing them be sure to inspect them carefully.

I wish everyone a safe and happy festive season.


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