I remember the one Christmas when I was seven years old more than any other but the one that I spent in Rome with my love. We were not religious in our house, but we did celebrate this holiday in the sense of the old traditions of the northern European customs of the pagan mixed with the christian ones.
Early in December of this year 1952, around the first Advent, our town had a very much looked forward to event for children in our multi purpose hall, where movies were shown, where theater would be performed, where special events would be held. The red velvet curtains, with the long golden fringe on the hem, opened, a small choir sang festive music, a cappella. Normally it was our place as children to sing for events like this, but on this day we were the guests.
A "children be good" scene enfolded on the stage, with St. Nikolaus and his helper Ruprecht and his mean broom pointing at children to make them realize their naughty ways. We all sat enthralled and in big fear of what St. Nikolaus might read in our minds, for he looked at each one of us sternly.
Anticipated For So Long
One by one we had to step up on to the stage and were handed a cone bag full of nuts, some sweets, an orange. All this went by so fast, even though time also flowed like syrup. This strange mix of awareness of the event just happening right there and then. Anticipated for so long, and then it was over just like that.
Oranges were very rare for us at that time so close after WWII, I still can recall the wonderful aroma when I stuck my nose into the bag. All of us also got a piece of coal in a separate bag to point out that we would get only that kind of a reward for Christmas if we continued on the path that we had taken sometimes before. Many children got really scared and cried. I still feel the clump in my stomach trying to think back about what I might have done wrong.
After the curtains closed and we stepped out into the frosty air, we walked home, my parents and my brother being all warm and happy, I clutching my gift bag and the coal and walked and remembered what a beautiful coat St.Nikolaus had worn.
A red velvet with broad bands of golden and turquoise embroidery on the hem and the sleeves. Jewels glittered and reflected the light to throw sparks of color against the walls and backdrops around him. Ruprecht wore a simple brown coat, with a hood, sweeping the floor, it was held together with a hemp rope. His bag with the chunks of coal in it looked an awful lot like a sack that potatoes were delivered in to our cellars every fall. I wondered about that.
My much too large woolen skirt that I had rolled up at my waist not to step on it—I would have to wear this darn thing until I was ten—was slipping down while walking. I stepped into a puddle and my tight leather boots got soaked, my feet got really icy cold and I did feel cranky.
The Moon Rose
But then all of this vanished. We had to walk along a section of the forest, the trees being skeletal and barren off their leaves. The moon rose at that moment as huge as I have never seen it before or after. The filigree of the naked branches against the peachy rose color of the moon inspired me forever and I think that I loved intricate pen drawings and etchings ever since. I felt like touching the big orb, like it was possible, if I could just lift my wet feet off the ground and a breeze would pick me up and carry me away to the beautiful peach ball.
After getting home and warming up again we lit our first Advent candle while listening to some gentle music. The wreath was made from thick blue-spruce, a wide red ribbon twisted around it ending in a simple bow. We had collected some pine cones in the previous weeks, we let them dry to open up the scales and used them in their natural state. The 4 candles were made from pure deep yellow beeswax and spread their sweet scent to enhance the wonderfully pungent resin aroma of the wreath.
Then we ate and savored our oranges, cracked some of the nuts too. My mother had peeled the oranges by cutting the skin into sections so the juicy flesh would stand in a globe on top of an orange peel daisy. We kept the peels for several days until they shriveled and the aroma was gone. My mother stuck a few cloves into the skins to enhance the festive smell. I imagined to live where fruit like this grew, not knowing of course that some day in the future I would indeed call Florida my home.
A Perfect Tree For Us
Later, closer to Christmas, we ventured into the forest to find our tree. We walked up the steep hill that was our easiest access to the woods. This access also was our favorite sledding area, steep and curvy, dangerous at times as well, it ended in a plowed field and when frozen, it was like waves of water poured in concrete.
We had to pass by the huge sloe berry hedge, a hedge so wide and thick that there was a separate walk way inside of it. A wonderful place to play games in, to dare each other to eat the unripe sloe berries with their mouth puckering astringency. My mouth still pulls together just thinking of it.
In the woods there was a plot of planted fir trees to be picked over and harvested by families. Ours turned out to be a small tree with one side stunted, so it would fit against the wall in our living room. A perfect tree for us. We kept it hanging upside down outside the window, in the cold. When I looked out there were trees hanging on almost all the windows. We never had the tree up before the actual Christmas day.
A Christmas Day To Remember
On the afternoon of the 24th, my father, my brother and I were sent off by my mother to take a walk. We knew that we would come home to a beautifully decorated tree, so we looked forward to it with heightened anticipation.
Shortly before we left for our walk, my mother pointed to a packet that we had received from my father's sister. She urged me to open it. I found a white muff and huge collar made from white fur in there. The collar had a tip to look like an animal, with glass eyes and a mouth that was clamping over the other side, the tail. They were to be mine. Oh how soft they were, how warm they were. It was the greatest gift for me, a little girl full of fantasy and instantly making up stories about this fur, the pretty creatures that they were to me. Alive to me.
I paid very little attention to anything that happened on that walk, my hands were so warmly interlocked inside the muff, and I was thanking my fantasy friends for sharing their warmth. The walk seemed to take forever, we walked several rounds through town and along the lake.
Early afternoon the light started to dim, a low clouded sky pushed down on us. There was no wind, only a pressing of an unseen hand. And suddenly it began to snow, heavy and very wet flakes, covering all things around us very quickly. By the time we got home, a white blanket and small caps of snow had covered everything—my hands were still warm and I silently thanked the furry friends. It had stopped to snow and the evening turned pink then.
We were greeted by beautiful music and the sound of a silver bell that my mother held between two fingers and rang, the aroma of marzipan filled christmas bread stollen, the sight of the magical tree. My mother pointed out the window and said: “The little angels just left, but they helped me decorate this tree, and see the pink sky? The angels are now baking cookies, they will bring some tonight for tomorrow.” We smiled knowingly and looked forward to the hazelnut coins. I still make those every year and it is not Christmas for me without them.
The tree stood straight and proud. My mother had made stars from tin that she had cut out. She had hung up all the things that I had created for this season, mostly gold foil angels and stars, little animals. There were straw stars, strong and bold. And my favorites of all: glass birds in all colors and shapes, clipped to the branches and weighing them down. The tree was almost perfect, but something was missing. So my mother handed me the matches and I was allowed to light the golden bees wax candles. What an honor it was, what a joy.
I climbed onto a chair to reach all the candles and made sure they were straight and safe. Now the tree was perfect. We sang a few Christmas songs, my favorites were the song of the snowflake and the song of the falling snow. To this day they do mean Christmas to me. I love the simplicity and the sincerity in them. Utterly innocent like Christmas should be.
We opened our beautifully wrapped packages. Gifts were mostly cloths, a thick sweater, a pair of skates, a few little toys. The beautiful mood lasted till bed time, we played board games the rest of the evening. Then I took my little fur creatures with me, laid them beside my pillow and imagined romping through the fresh snow. I told them my secrets and slept feeling totally secure and happy, the wonderful aroma of this day still wrapping around me like a wide, warm, soft and very velvety ribbon.