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.
In 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.
Impatient, 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.
Dressed 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.
Only 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.