German traditions live on in Baltimore Customs: Many of the things associated with Christmas, including a decorated tree, started in Germany.

December 25, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As legend has it, Martin Luther was walking one night in a snow-covered forest and was so enchanted by the sparkle of the moonlight off the glistening evergreens that he cut one down and brought it home and placed lighted candles on its branches.

The story is suspect, but the tradition of the German Tannenbaum continues at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore, a red-brick edifice cater-corner from City Hall.

To the right of the sanctuary of Zion Church, home to Baltimore's German Lutheran community since 1755, stands a towering pine tree -- 24 feet tall -- cut from land owned by a member of the congregation in Upperco.

As is traditional, on its branches sit white candles that were lighted during yesterday's Christmas Eve service. But in a bow to modernity and fire regulations, the candles are electric.

"We used to have real candles," said the Rev. H. J. Siegfried Otto, who is just the 12th pastor in the 242-year history of Zion Church. "You had two men sitting up there in the balcony with buckets of water, just in case the tree caught fire."

Many of the customs we associate with Christmas started in Germany. First there is the matter of the Christmas tree. Despite the quaint story, Otto doubts Luther deserves credit for this most enduring Christmas tradition.

"Somebody said Luther invented it, but I think that's a legend," he said.

Still, the decorated Christmas tree is believed to have originated in Germany, as did the Advent wreath, a circle of evergreens with a candle for each of the four Sundays in Advent, plus one in the center that was lighted on Christmas Eve. The Advent wreath was first employed by Lutherans in eastern Germany.

Zion tenaciously hangs onto its German heritage. The first German-speaking church in Baltimore, it is the only one in Maryland that still has a regular German service. During its heyday, before the turn of the century, the congregation included prominent Baltimoreans, many of them wealthy merchants. "We had 17 brewers in the congregation before the turn of the century," Otto said.

Nowadays, the congregation has dwindled to just over 350 members as fewer immigrants have arrived and the second and third generations have assimilated. The last big wave of immigration came after World War II, and had tapered off by the 1960s, Otto said. A wave of immigrants anticipated after the fall of the Berlin Wall never materialized.

Still, each Sunday there is a service in German. Reflecting its changing membership, there was a German Christmas Eve service yesterday afternoon, a bilingual family service yesterday evening and a midnight communion service in English.

Even the traditions of Christmas are in transition. This year, for the first time, the beloved Advent wreath was not suspended above the sanctuary. "The people in the English congregation said, 'Why can't we have it be down so the children can see it?' " Otto said. "It stirred up quite a fuss in the German congregation. They said, 'You're killing a German tradition by having it down there.' "

Karl H. Fink, a retired machinist from Joppa who is an usher for the pews on the left side of the church, said he has been coming to Zion Church since he arrived in this country in 1958.

"To me, it's important" to maintain the German traditions, he said after the Christmas Eve service. "This is the way I was brought up."

Otto realizes that in order to survive, the congregation will have to look beyond its narrow confines.

"The romantic sentiment of 'Silent Night' needs to be offset by the wood of the cross," he said he told the congregation in his Christmas Eve sermon. "We have to find our mission. We have to decide if we want to serve our community or not. And serving our community means a partnership with the homeless and the poor.

"There is a hesitancy in the congregation to be really involved in the community," he said. "If we're not involved in the community, we don't have a mission. We can't wait for Germans to come here."

Luckily, some traditions are being passed on to new generations.

On Saturday, as he has for about as long as he can remember, Thor Breden went to Zion Church to help set up the Nativity set. At Zion Church, it is a tradition that the Christmas tree and Nativity scene are not set up until the Saturday before Christmas, in order to preserve the Advent season of preparation for Christ's coming.

"It was always an occasion to go down the Saturday before to set the tree up and then the manger scene," said Breden, 31, of Sykesville. "It's nostalgic for me because of childhood memories. The older men were always setting up the tree, and as I got older I could help set it up."

Then he would help his mother, Margareta Breden, set up the manger scene that she bought and painted in 1969 in memory of her father, who had died the previous December. Margareta Breden is now the Rev. Margareta Breden, with her own Lutheran congregation in Shamokin, Pa., so she couldn't make it this year. Thor, with his wife, Carla, and daughters Timiri, 2, and Ciana, 9 months -- the sixth generation of that family at Zion Church -- took up the mantle.

In another Zion Church tradition, the last song of the Christmas Eve service was "Stille Nacht" -- "Silent Night." As the voices of the congregation swelled, accompanied by an organ, the lights in the church dimmed, leaving only the electric candles on the Christmas tree illuminated.

There, in the church of his ancestors, Thor Breden says he is filled with a feeling that he can only express in German.

"The Germans call it gemutlichkeit, a warm, comfortable feeling," he said. "Just warm and dark and kind of safe."

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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