fbpx skip to Main Content

A Behnke Christmas

Stephanie and her cousin Victor with their grandfather, Albert Behnke

Growing up, I lived with my mother and brother at the little house at the nursery still there today. Until I was 7 or 8, I was lucky enough to be right next door to my grandparents, Albert and Rose Behnke. But even after they moved away, I still saw them every day since they just moved to Burtonsville. This past weekend, I found myself talking about how we would celebrate Christmas for one reason or the other.

Living at the nursery, our customers always came first, so we would be open on Christmas Eve. While everyone was working selling those last Christmas trees and poinsettias, I would find myself in the kitchen with my grandmother helping make our Christmas Eve dinner. This, of course, involved Spritz cookies, German apple kuchen, and typically a beautiful crown roast (which I have never attempted to make by myself in my life). We also would make a gorgeous braided loaf of bread ever. There would be German music playing, and we would all have a wonderful time. But we were not allowed in the living room. At ALL!! The doors were always closed.

After going home with my mother and brother to get ready for the evening, we would arrive back at Oma’s and Opa’s (what we called my grandparents) and gather outside the living room doors. We would all sing Silent Night, and as we finished, we could hear the sounds of sleigh bells ringing and Opa saying “Goodbye Santa.” The door would slowly open, and there would be the most beautiful tree ever. I later found out my mother would somehow show up and help my grandmother decorate the tree. When I was a little older, I sometimes would help put the nativity scene under the tree, but always before it was decorated.

On Christmas Eve, we would enjoy presents and food and family.  And…a smoked eel from Germany. Yum! (Years later, when my husband first spent Christmas Eve with my family, he was shocked at how we all devoured it. Poor guy thought the long white box Opa had him open was going to be a rose.)

It was then back to our little house, and my brother and I would be sent off to bed to dream of Christmas day. My mother would get us to sleep, get a beautiful Frasier Fir into our house, decorate it, and put all our presents under it for the morning. How she pulled it all off, I will never know. We must have been so tuckered out from Christmas Eve that nothing would wake us. Maybe my brother, who was four years older, knew the truth and helped mom after I went to sleep, but he never let on. To this day, I can still see a footprint in the fireplace ashes and, of course, the half-eaten cookie. But it was the Christmas tree that always made me just gaze. It was perfect. Tinsel hanging carefully off of each branch along with all the ornaments we had.

Our stockings would be filled to the brim hanging on the fireplace. We knew exactly what would be in them: Scotch tape, pencils, rulers, erasers, glue, and sometimes some candy. Christmas morning was always the three of us as far as I can remember. My grandparents would show up at some point during the afternoon to see our presents. I am sure that some years it was a little different, but for me, those were the memories of how we spent Christmas.

I find it interesting to share our family stories with others and hear how their traditions were similar or different. I never could quite get a handle on putting up our tree on Christmas Eve with my children, but we did keep some of the traditions from my family and added some of my husband’s family traditions to keep the holiday special. Now I am watching my children make their family traditions. The one constant thing is the love of family and being together, if not in person, then by phone.

I would love to hear about your family traditions. Please share them in the comments sections below!

by Stephanie Fleming, Behnke’s Vice President

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. A small village in Portugal – Christmas Eve day a large tree root would be placed in the center of the village square – in the eve it would be lit and tended all night and on Christmas Day – friends and family could gather around to keep a vigil. Bread soaked in egg and cinnamon (similar to French toast) was kept at room temperature to serve to guests – especially children – with warm sugar water. Of course, Portuguese Port wine was served as well (to the adults). It was a Portuguese tradition to serve Cod on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day

  2. I am going to have to ask my step father to translate. My German is no the greatest but thank you so much for sharing. Amazing how little things can remain the same, from family to family but then there will be the differences. Merry Christmas to you

  3. You almost made me cry, Stephanie… how can the memories you told hit home so deep. Our Christmas in Schlesien – l o n g time ago – was exactly like yours… the food, the no-way-see the tree before das Christkind da war. Oh, I see, there is a difference. Der Nickolaus kam am 6.12. und wusste alle “boesen Taten” von mir. Scared of the “RUte und den Sack”, but still hoping, we had to say little poems like: Lieber gutter Weihnachtsmann, seh mich nicht so boese an, stecke deine Rute ein, ich will immer artig sein” … With very strict warnings he managed after all, to dig up a present or two and marched out the door. Don’t think the German Santa ever used the chimney.
    Love your stories – Frohe Weihnachten,

    You would not like to hear the most terrifying and sad story of my “post-war” Christmas’ care package…

  4. I just got into this blog site and saw Sonja’s picture. That picture was taken out west on a tour that we were taking together. This one stop had costumes for us and had us put on a wild west show. She chose the mouse costume and stole the show with her adaptation of a mouse. I loved that picture of her and she didn’t want to buy it. I couldn’t let that picture go so I bought it and gave it to her. I was so surprised when I saw it on this blog which I accidentally found. I miss those trips we had together. Please give her my love.

    1. Which photo was it? Was it the one with the furry hat, leaning against the tree? I love that one also. I will let mom know you said hello
      Take care

  5. Wow! Thanks for sharing such beautiful memories. I love your mom and I am so touched at how hard she must’ve worked to give you those warm and wonderful memories!

  6. Hi Stephanie,

    Wow, what a charming story! Thanks for sharing. Our family would cut or buy a Christmas tree a few days before Christmas and store it outside in a bucket of water. We would usually bring it in 2 or 3 days before Christmas and decorate it with ornaments that my parents had purchased when they got married a few years before. Sometimes we would string popcorn and put the strings around the tree while eating an extra bowl of popcorn that we had made. We kept the tree in the living room until it shed most of its needles.

    We really loved our Christmas trees. I remember the lights that we strung on the tree. They were quite hot and we had small asbestos caps to place on them. The caps had small needles in the center and had conical lids to place on the caps. The lids had biblical themes and louvered tops so that as the warm air rose from the lights, the lids would rotate to show a different biblical scene. We have saved some of the ornaments that we used when I was a child. Later on we switched to artificial trees so we could leave them up longer with out worrying about them catching fire!

    That tradition stopped for a year after my parents passed and my sister moved to California. Later when Pat and I were together, the tradition was revived (and how!). Our home was graced with many poinsettias from Behnkes and other Christmas ornaments. Pat would always find room on our Christmas tree for one more ornament! We have kept them and one day I will resume that tradition. For now, my decorations are more modest, but the spirit is still there! I have many fond memories of shopping and browsing at Behnkes with Pat. Both she and I loved the time we spent there!

    Thanks, Stephanie for sharing your Christmas memories and helping me to relive mine. I hope you and yours have a Very Merry Christmas and a Joyous New Year!

    Harold, and Pat in spirit, Belcher

  7. Merry Christmas Eve Stephanie,

    I had to smile as I read your story above about trimming the tree on Christmas Eve. That was my husband’s family’s tradition. The tree was trimmed by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. When we married (52+ years ago) I said that tradition was not one we would continue and my husband readily agreed! He was one of 5 children and if his parents got any sleep on Christmas Eve it had to be a miracle! Our older daughter lived in Germany for 3 years and we visited her each year during Advent or Christmas. What a beautiful place to spend Christmas. When we can travel again that is one of the places we are scheduled to go.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family

    Gail Rucker

    1. Thank you so very much for sharing your memories. I love how different traditions change but still remain the same over the years. Christmas Even when my children were little always seemed so rushed. Had to see all the grandparents along with the great grandparents.
      Merry Christmas

  8. Thanks Stephanie, triggered my memories of my father buying Behnke Poinsettias for all the family, and even taking to his sister in Philadelphia several years. Somehow, only Behnke had the right plant. Also, the memory of opening a closet and finding some pointsettias ‘resting.’ Christmas was not Christmas without a trip (or two) to Behnke’s.

    Merry Christmas to you, your mother and the family.

  9. I remember taking my oldest nephew when he as 1 1/2 years old to pick out ornaments as Christmas presents at Behnke …but I remember the Christmas after my father died…early 1981…. after spending time with family on Christmas Day…she and I went and say The movie Yentile….saw the Yule log and the reindeer downtown….and then had Chinese food….that year was the first year after my fathers death…so mother and I kept moving….few people were in the movie theatre or the Chinese restaurant….. my mother and I did this routine for many years and family and friends joined us….and I always felt we had started the movement to movie theatres and Chinese food…?…it surprised me that more and more people were doing that on Christmas Day….

    Best of the season….and may your memories be wonderful..

    Charlotte T.

  10. On Christmas Eve, my father would “Ho, ho, ho,” as he carried in a yule log (ribbon adorned) for our fireplace. We also saved our Christmas cards to open as a family on that day. Lastly we had guests and brought out a huge variety of homemade cookies that we’d saved for the 24th. (except for those we had given as gifts)

    And we always went to a farm to cut our Christmas tree on the first Sat. in December.

    I cherish those memories.

    Enjoyed all your reminiscences, Stephanie!

  11. Thank you for sharing your family traditions. Love hearing how different ones start. I know a few people that also spend Christmas Day at the movies. I always thought it would be fun but my husband is not much of a movie goer. Been so many years since I have been.
    Enjoy your Christmas and stay safe,

  12. I just love hearing how others celebrated in years past. For my New Jersey family, a mix of Polish and Ukrainian heritage, we celebrated with 2 different family traditions. On Christmas Eve we would go to the Polish side of the family (my father) and have a traditional meal of Mushroom soup and pierogi. We would hear stories of my grandfather’s butcher store and the customers from the ethnic neighborhood. These celebrations would be held at my grandparents’ house or the home of my great aunt. My grandparents’ house was known in the neighborhood for the festive lights outside and had won ribbons for the decorations which go back to the 50s and 60s. They would pale in comparison to today’s decorations.

    In my immediate family, we opened our presents on Christmas morning, noting how much Santa had liked the cookies and milk we left. The tree had already been decorated by us at least a week earlier after we cut it down from a tree farm near my Ukrainian grandparent farm in northern New Jersey (my mother’s side). I remember that we would either have all the family over for dinner at our house, the dining table would stretch into the living room, (we had Crown Pork Roast also) or have a progressive type meal when we gathered at one aunt for dinner and another for desert along with our third aunt who brought my grandparents from the farm. And of course, our meals included stuffed cabbage and kielbasa for the Ukrainian tradition. I remember commenting that we needed double decker plates for all the goodies. If we were all gathering at one home, we would open presents between dinner and desert (which of course was all homemade).

    1. I sometimes think I should try to make a crown roast. Seems a little intemidating to me but my grandmother always made a perfect one. Do you have pictures of your grandparents home? What a treasure they must be along with your memories of your time there.

      Thank you for sharing,
      Merry Christmas and have a safe and happy New Year

  13. Stephanie,

    Thankyou so much for sharing your family Christmas tradition. I am 76, remember your Mom, you and grandparents, being along time costumer from Colesville, MD and working at nearby Beltsville Agriculture as a horticulture tech.

    I am german born coming to the US in 1947 when I was 3 years old and having many similiar Christmas traditions and food, my Mom baked several german type pastry called stollen which involved lots of prep., instead of buying packaged ground almonds, Mom bought them in the shell, had to be cracked open and nut put in hot water to peel off the skin it was my job to in a had grinder to grind the almonds that were added to the flour mix.

    Christmas Eve we would have various foods from then Schaffers Deli in Baltimore, and Mom would make ox tail soup and yes we had smoked eel too.

    Presents were open after Christmas Eve dinner My folks, older brother, and oma would speak german I would answer in English except with oma I spoke broken german with her but took basic german for 4 semesters at the U of MD and not monthlly I call my cousin in Germany and converse soley in german with her.

    Stephannie, Merry Christmas to you and your family, Frohe Weihnachten,

    Ken Lehnert

  14. This was enchanting.
    Although I have happy memories of early Christmases, they can’t match yours. You make me even want to try smoked eel!!
    Thank you so much,
    Victoria Boucher
    PS: We in the Hyattsville Horticultural Society miss you and your beautiful nursery beyond imagining.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back To Top