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a boy’s christmas (anno 1949)

I don’t recall having many family Christmases while growing up: ours was not a steady troupe. Already our mother had died, a new one had joined us that year, and father would soon be off on his wandering ways. Overshadowing everything was The War and its aftermath, with grief and shame running deeply. Yet this day, December 24, Heiliger Abend (holy eve), was THE big long-anticipated day when the Christ child would arrive and we’d see the tree (“O Tannenbaum …”) for the first time.

cemetary-crossesIn early afternoon, my stepmother’s mother (a.k.a. Oma) bundled us two boys off to a long walk across town to visit the cemetery. I imagine all cross-town walks in December would seem long for a six-year old. We walked along rows upon rows of graves. We first stopped at grandmother’s husband’s grave—no m ore than an unmarked white cross among rows of unmarked crosses, dedicated to those who’d “fallen” and whose bodies hadn’t come back. Next our mother’s grave: she’d died five years earlier while giving birth to what would have been our sister. At every grave we lit a candle set in a red glass jar. All over the cemetery other dark figures were enacting the same ritual of loss and remembrance. Slowly the huge park began to glow in flickers of red.  

tub1Impatient, but not showing it for fear of reprimand, we trundled back home. Church bells began to ring from all directions, calling the faithful to early evening masses. Back home in the small apartment we shared with another family (due to a housing shortage resulting from Allied firebombing having destroyed 75% of the city), a zinc washtub had been set up on two chairs and filled with hot water from a stove-top canning pot. One after another we used our allotted time to play and to splash, turning water more and more grey with soap. Meanwhile our parents were nowhere to be seen but known to be closeted in the living room. We were under strict orders not to peek through the keyhole, lest an angel blow sand in our eyes. 

tannenbaumDressed in our best (only other) clothes, hair combed, boots shined, we waited for the bell to call us to the living room. The door opened and there it was … in all its splendour and mystique: the Christmas tree, hitherto hidden by hanging upside-down outside the kitchen window, now adorned with hand-blown silver angels, trumpets, coloured balls, and topped with an even bigger angel sporting wings of spun glass. But the thing that made the greatest impression were the 24 candles, real wax candles in little clip-on holders, illuminating the darkened room and reflecting in our eyes and on our cheeks. 

There we huddled, a fragile little family, staring into the flames, singing our first Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night) of the season. Remember, this was well before round-the-clock jingles on the radio and in stores—we’d hear these lovely words, sung by ordinary voices a capella and in much awe, for the first time that year. Next we boys stepped forward, one at a time, making an offering to the parents. Lacking ready funds (and, to be honest, not knowing otherwise), we gave a drawing, recited a poem, or sang a song.  

schaukelpferdOnly then did we each receive a gift (yes, 1 gift), a toy most likely, plus something practical such as new lace-up boots or a hand-knitted glove and shawl combo. Along with that, each person, children and adults alike, received a plate of cookies, nuts, and a single orange to have as their own. That was that, essentially. We played with our new toys for while, quarrelled over them as boys will, gathered around a board game with the adults, sang more songs, blew out the candles, and went to bed in anticipation of early mass on Christmas Day.

Do you have a lasting Christmas memory? Please write a “comment” below.


5 responses »

  1. Peter –
    Reading your wonderful description of that Christmas in 1949, made me think about a Christmas i had 40 years ago in Switzerland. I was volunteering at Chateau de Montcherand, where children from the poorer sections of Paris, could live in the fresh air and nature of Switzerland. My most vivid memory of that year was waking the children at midnight on Christmas Eve, and watching their beautiful little faces as they saw the Christmas tree light up with candles for the first time.

  2. My most magical Christmas memory was on a year that my Dad had to work Christmas day. He was a firefighter. We were told we would have to wait to open gifts until he got home from work Christmas evening and to my sister, brother and I, that seemed like an impossible feat. Christmas eve the whole family went out to visit friends. We didn’t know it – but while we were out my parents arranged for the neighbours to bring out the gifts and turn on the tree so it looked like Santa had been there. When we got home we were convinced for another year that Santa was real – because our parents were with us, it couldn’t have been them! I think my Dad had as much fun (if not more) seeing the looks of wonder on our faces.

  3. Peter, your story brings to mind my daughter who loves to tell how her stocking at Christmas was one of her grandfather’s wool socks hung on a nail by the wood stove stuffed with an orange (taken from the bowl on the table), nuts that were still in the shell, and maybe a small toy. We were never much on presents as a family but the meals were fabulous! My father would power up the generator to run the electric lights for the house and the Christmas tree. The rest of the year we would get by with gas lamps in the past and now propane lights.

    They still live without electricity and only have wood heat. I just finished talking to them and they were laughing about how they had played a board game so late with my brother and his family that they had used a whole tank of fuel for the generator.

  4. Terrill, where DO they live? please give them my greetings when you next talk to them.

  5. My parents live in north central BC, Canada and are about 27 miles outside of the nearest small town of Vanderhoof which is 60 miles west of Prince George. They live about 4 miles up the Stuart River from where my grandfather and then my mother grew up. Now in their early seventies, they are still farming – using their pensions as a buffer when livestock prices fall or it is a bad hay year.

    Their lives are simple but not always easy. Sometimes they consider selling and moving into town but then they ask “what would we do?” or “I don’t think I would like it if I couldn’t pee off the back porch without someone waving at me” or “we have it pretty good here – the garden keeps us in fresh vegetables and we can at least grow our own meat” or “town is no place for a dog!”

    The house is on its last years of habitability and I fear that it might not outlast them. They have been meaning to build a new house since I was 12 – I turned 50 this year. As the years go by it seems more and more unlikely that they will have the resources to build. But as long as they have each other and at least one of them can see to drive, I don’t see them leaving for “one of those boxes on a crowded street in town!”

    Here is a link to some photos that I took in November when I was up visiting that you might enjoy…


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