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A Christmas Tradition

The holiday season is fast approaching. Poinsettias in the greenhouses are showing color – red, white, pink & many more as they have for generations at Behnke Nurseries. Preparations for the holidays to come are well under way. Now, is the perfect time to make plans for special decorations, family gatherings, and traditions.

The holiday traditions that my grandparents, Albert and Rose Behnke, held centered around a German Christmas and the arrival of Weihnachtsmann (the guy who brings the loot!). They always decorated the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.

My grandfather, Opa, liked to have a live spruce as the Christmas tree. The aroma of a fresh spruce in the house made Christmas ring true. Opa would always set the fresh, balled and burlapped tree* in a large galvanized tub, which was then set on top of another up-side-down galvanized tub.

Albert Behnke at Christmas in 1965, with two of his grandchildren, Stephanie Thompson Fleming (r), and Victor Behnke.

After this, Oma, my grandmother, would close the doors to the room and decorate it in secret. Moreover, after the holiday the memory of each Christmas would be preserved as each year the live tree would be taken down and planted in a special place in the yard. (This was done within a week, 10 days at the latest, in order to reduce the shock effect of cold weather on the tree after having been inside.)

My childhood memories of Christmas Eve day at my grandparents house in Burtonsville, Maryland, include a traditional dinner in the late afternoon. In addition to the turkey and other favorites, we would have special lunch meats and cheeses – wursts, schenken, etc. from a downtown, Washington D.C., deli.

One time Opa even took me along to the deli to help! I knew this was special, because here was Opa buying lunch meat. Another food tradition was the smoked eel, which came through the mail. I will never forget the look and taste of it, dark brown skin and salty, and because it was so unique, it became a tradition that I looked forward to each and every year. The evening centered around the exchange of gifts, but before we could even set foot in the room with the Christmas tree and presents, the whole family would gather together and sing Silent Night.

After this, Oma and Opa would open the doors to the living room, and we would stand in awe of the beautiful Christmas tree and much anticipated presents. For a child, this was magic. The kind of magic that creates a lifetime of wonderful memories. For all of us at Behnke Nurseries, I hope this holiday season finds you safe, healthy and enjoying those traditions that are special to you.

By Mark Behnke(originally published in our 2003 Holiday Newsletter)

*Editor’s Note: Behnke’s no longer stocks the live Christmas trees with roots that Mark talks about; at least not very many. Even people with good intentions tend to leave them in the house for too long, and the mortality rate is pretty high when they are planted out.  They are also quite heavy–hard to load in the car, hard to move into the house–dirty, and hard to water indoors. In other words, just the perfect thing for an old nurseryman like “Opa” but not so good for the average family with a Prius.

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.

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