Europe Meets D.C.: Christmas traditions and friendly Americans

Christine Amdam, of Norway, and Alina Braun, of Germany, are WTOP interns experiencing American culture. (WTOP/Melvin Chase)

Editors Note: They traveled 1,230 miles to come to Washington, D.C. — Christine Amdam flew all the way from Norway and Alina Braun from Germany. This fall, they are studying journalism at American University and working as interns for WTOP. They quickly discovered that Washington and the American culture are very different from their hometowns Oslo and Mannheim and decided to document their experiences. Check each weekend to read about Christine and Alina’s “culture clashes.”

Where is the glow wine and Advent Calendars?

Alina Braun, special to

With less than a month until Christmas, the preparations are well underway. I live close to the National Zoo, where the ZooLights display is lit up, and many houses in the neighborhood have set up all their Christmas decorations. I think Americans decorate their homes a lot more than Germans. Lightings, like the one at the zoo, are rather unusual in Germany. Here, they seem like a big tradition, which I really like.

Nevertheless, there are some nice traditions in Germany, which don’t exist in the United States at all. What I probably miss the most are the German Christmas markets. They start shortly before December and crop up in about every German town. In Mannheim, the city I study at, there are two Christmas markets. The town squares are lit up and at wooden stands people sell, gingerbread, homemade cookies, roasted almonds, crepes, Bratwurst and Gluehwein, which is hot mulled wine. I can’t remember a single year in which I did not meet friends at Christmas markets and had a bratwurst, crepe and Gluehwein in Germany. The only Christmas market I saw in the U.S. so far was one in New York at Union Station.

Gluehwein, my favorite drink before Christmas is not known among Americans either. It is basically heated red wine spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves, star aniseed, citrus, sugar and at times vanilla pods. At Christmas markets people often drink it with a shot, mit Schuss, which means with some rum or other liquor. Another variant of the Gluehwein, which is very delicious, is the Feuerzangenbowle. It is basically the same recipe, but a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire and dripped into the wine. I searched a lot at local supermarkets, but so far I haven’t found any Gluehwein. Thus, I decided to do it myself. Here’s a recipe if you’d like to try it.

Two other prominent German pre-Christmas traditions, which are not really present in the U.S., are the Advent Wreath and the Advent Calendar. The Advent wreath, Adventskranz, is adorned with four candles. One is lit on each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. The first wreath appeared in the mid-19th century and originally had four big candles and 19 small ones, so that each day before Christmas one candle was lighted. Nowadays, only four candles are used. In my family, my mother normally makes the wreath herself. In schools and clubs people often meet to craft them. As a child, I was always very excited to light a candle on Sundays. My sister and I sometimes fought about who would be allowed to do it. I found some wreaths in stores here, but in Germany nearly every household has them. Unlike in the U.S., it is an extremely common tradition.

The same holds for the Advent Calendar, which is a German invention that was designed to involve children in the festivities leading up to Christmas. The calendars have 24 small windows or sometimes 24 little bags. One window is opened on each day leading up to Christmas. Behind the windows are usually pictures or chocolate. In calendars with bags, parents often put little gifts in the packages. Again, in about every German household I know, children get Advent Calendars from their parents.

As much as I love all the Christmas lights, decorations, Christmas music, the many Christmas concerts and shows here in Washington, I miss the little German traditions a lot. Maybe some day Christmas markets, packed with people coming from work or school, will become normal here too, and you will be able to buy Gluehwein and Advent Calenders everywhere. Who knows? We adopted lights from the U.S. Maybe Americans will adopt some of the German traditions in the future.

Alina Braun is an intern at WTOP this fall. She is studying journalism and foreign policy at American University for two semesters. In Germany, she is obtaining her master’s degree and studying, in which she is majoring in linguistics and minoring in psychology. She works as a freelance journalist for the German public radio station SWR.

Friendly – or not?

Christine Amdam, special to

I think people are more friendly and more open minded here in D.C. than in Norway. I sat on the 31 Bus traveling on Wisconsin Avenue the other day, and I witnessed a really nice scene.

An old lady entered the bus. She had been to the grocery store and had a lot to carry. A father and a son sat opposite her and asked her if she needed any help. “I love your jacket, the color looks so nice on you,” the son said. I saw that the old lady appreciated this compliment, and she left the bus with a big smile on her face.

I wish more people, including Norwegians, could do things like this more often. Small efforts in your daily life can make a difference for people and make their day better.

I have heard that Americans on the East Coast are known for being less friendly than Americans from the Midwest. I can reassure you that all Americans are friendlier to strangers than most Europeans. When you get to know people from Europe, we are of course friendly people as well. But Americans are nice to everybody – that’s the difference.

I was in Minnesota and North Dakota during Thanksgiving. People there always smiled at me, and more people asked me questions about where I was from or commented my hair or my outfit. I felt people were less stressed and had more time there. One of the bus drivers talked to me the whole time I was on the bus, telling me all these funny stories. I love that Americans open their hearts for a total stranger, but sometimes it can be a little annoying. You have days where you just don’t want to talk to people.

Here in Washington I have done yoga at Hot Yoga in Tenleytown and taken some dance classes at Joy of Motion. After the classes, people always ask me where I am from, how long I have been dancing and say that it was great to see me in class. “Hope to see you next week.” This is so nice, and it makes me feel so much better. Of course, I want to come back.

However, the friendliness on the street, the looks and comments from strangers, are not always a positive experience. “Hey, sexy,” “Wow,” “Hello, beautiful!” I have started to get used to strangers saying things like this to me when I walk down the street. It is always men, but men of all ages and races. In Norway, this happens rarely. Sometimes I get a whistle from a passing car, but it doesn’t happen as often as here.

Whether I am wearing a short skirt or my sweat pants doesn’t really matter. I get comments anyway. Of course, I sometimes get embarrassed, and it can be annoying. You usually don’t want attention like that from strangers. Should I look them in the eyes? Should I answer? I have tried to make the best out of it. If someone tells me that I am beautiful, I look in their eyes and say “thank you.” If they shout at me after I have passed, I never turn around.

At American University, I take an elective course called War, Peace and the new Media with Prof. Colman McCarthy. We have talked about peacemakers, the coverage of wars in media and also sexual harassment and street harassers. We read a text by a young girl from Washington D.C. who was sick and tired of all the people yelling at her on the street. She described one instance when she was sexually assaulted while ridding the Metro.

Why is the society like this? Why do some men yell after women. Do they feel dominant? Does it make them feel better? I don’t have a good answer to this, and I don’t think they will stop. It is important for us girls to deal with it, and find good ways to answer or ignore them.

I like that people are friendly to strangers here, but there are limits.

Christine Amdam is a WTOP fall intern. She is studying journalism at Oslo University College in Norway. Christine is studying at the American University Washington Semester Program in D.C. for one semester.

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