Published December 20, 2023

This holiday season, asking about the origins of a family tradition could reveal more about your roots than you might imagine. I usually ask other people questions about their cultural practices, but last year I interviewed my mother, Judy Boehnert Clune, about how we celebrate Christmas.

This is the time of year I feel closest to my maternal grandmother, Margaret Anna Schumann Boehnert. Goggy, as we called her, handed many of our annual traditions down to us through Judy. 

black and white photo with two women in the background and two girls in the foreground, the youngest in the front is holding a doll and there is a Christmas tree to her right
Judy (center), delighted by a new Barbie, with her sister Krista (left), Aunt Elfrieda Boehnert (top left) and mother Margaret by the family Christmas tree, 1963.

Margaret immigrated to the United States in 1925 when she was five years old with her mother, Anna Martin Schumann, to join my great-grandfather Ernst Schumann in Lockport, IL. The Schumanns were from Planitz, in the Saxony state of east Germany. Plantiz is near the Ore Mountains (or the Erzgebirge in German), which straddle the border between Germany and the Czech Republic and were mined for silver, tin, copper, and iron beginning in the thirteenth century. Today the region is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Margaret’s grandfather was a miner. Mining declined in the 1700s, but as those opportunities dwindled, a new industry was born. Locals developed a distinctive style of wood carving, recognizable for its clever miniature depictions of everyday scenes and bright colors that contrast with unpainted grain.

My family’s most treasured Christmas decorations are from the Erzebirge. A few years ago my Aunt Krista gifted us each a schwibbogen (candle arch). The shape harkens back to the mine entrance, which miners would illuminate with hanging lanterns.

A candle holder carved from wood depicting a miner. He has white pants, holds two red bases for candlesticks, and a green hat.
A miner is a common Erzebirge figure, such as this candle holder. Miners are depicted wearing a green hat with symbols of a hammer and pickax. This miner also has a lantern on its belt.

As a young girl in the North Riverside suburb of Chicago, my Mom remembers visiting her grandparents Anna and Ernst in Lockport. They kept their small Christmas tree on a table on the porch, where its needles stayed cold and dark green. Under the tree they assembled a village of Erzebirge carvings, bound by small lengths of wooden fence carved by Ernst. 

“It was always kind of magical because it was so different from our Christmas tree at home,” Judy shared. Her father Bill (Bop to us) would trim their full-size Christmas tree, which he coined Fred the Fir Tree, out in the garage, and string it with lights before Margaret and the girls hung ornaments and tinsel. 

“We were friends with all the people on our block and they all had young kids, because it was shortly after the war,” Judy said. “Our neighbor Herb Smith, who lived two doors down from us, would dress up as Santa Claus. Our parents would buy us each a present and put it outside the back door. Herb would collect the presents in his sack and come to the front door. We were both horrified and thrilled!” 

black and white photo with Santa Clause in the center, surrounded by four children
Judy, far left, with her sister Krista to her right, and cousins Carla and Buddy Schumann in 1956. Neighbor Herb Smith would dress as Santa and visit homes and hand out presents.

Another neighbor from North Riverside introduced Margaret to houska, a Christmas bread from (then) Czechoslovakia seasoned with lemon zest, slivered almonds, and raisins. Each year we eat slices of it, spread with butter and sugar, on Christmas morning with coffee and tea as we open presents.

“My mom used to make stollen, the German Christmas bread. And then I think she got tired of all that work,” Judy shared. “She was surrounded by Bohemian neighbors, which was very close to where she was from. I have a hunch Jean Brejcha gave her the recipe.”

“Ideally, when you bake houska, the bread comes out beautifully golden brown and shiny because you glaze it. When you cut the pieces they look sort of like cumulus clouds because of the pile of braids. You start with a braid of four strands of dough on the bottom, then three strands, and a twist of two strands on the top.” Krista soaks her raisins in rum and adds citron to the sweet, eggy dough.

A black and white photo of an older woman in the process of baking, pouring flour into a mixing bowl in a kitchen
Margaret Schumann Boehnert, my grandmother, in her kitchen, baking.

A few years ago my sisters and my mom started a new tradition: the “houska follies,” an exchange of text messages sharing their houska results. Sometimes the braids slump off, or the dough doesn’t rise enough, but no matter the shape or texture, houska is as delicious as it is essential.

A braided bread on a metal pan
Judy’s houska, 2022.

Now I display my own little Christmas village. Each year when I unpack its tiny distinctive pine trees made from curled thin ribbons of wood, I feel subtle pride as I arrange them next to two Erzebirger smokers that hold pine-scented incense (also manufactured in Saxony). Sometimes I’ll make German paper stars for the tree, family or friends.

This year, for the first time, I’ll spend the holidays with my in-laws instead of my parents or sisters. I’m going to attempt my first houska and bring it with us to Virginia Beach. As our family grows and changes, I know it is my responsibility, along with my sisters, to choose how we continue and adapt Margaret Schumann Boehnert’s Christmas traditions into the future. 

If you celebrate a holiday this time of year marked by special foods or decorations, consider asking how the tradition was started; the answer may surprise you. 

No matter how you mark the end of the year, all of us here at Virginia Humanities wish you comfort and ease in 2024 and beyond!