A Child’s Christmas in East Prussia

Thinking back on it all now, it would start for me in the spring, when on my way through the woods I’d begin to keep an eye out for the next Christmas tree. And it seems that I did always find it, quite early at times, but sometimes very late indeed, for the old woodlanders used to say that it was just as hard to find the right Christmas tree as to find the right wife! From then on, a few times a week, I would sit down before it – while its height was still not much more than its girth – and dream about how I was going to bring it home on my back and about how we were going to celebrate the festival beneath its branches.

This pleasant duty was not abandoned even when one Christmas Eve, as I came with an axe on my shoulder to fetch it, a wild boar of majestic size and bearing sprung out from under its branches and, snorting furiously, vacated his disturbed lair. I have a particularly warm memory associated with that tree for I then looked around me in awe to see if the roof of a Stable with a light over the Crib could be seen through the snow-covered woods since all the creatures of the forest were believed to respect it as a Sanctuary.

The further I try to go back to the land of the blurred memories of childhood the more it seems to me to be bound up not with the first time a Christmas light rose up before my eyes out of the darkness of Christmas Eve but much more with my first memory of the sound of bells playing ‘From Heaven Above’. On that evening of that Sunday of that final week of Advent it came right up to the windows of our living room. The farm lads that we had during my childhood may have differed quite a lot in their levels of competence and reliability but in one respect they all had a skill worthy of equal admiration. You see, each one was a master of the art of sending the sound of sleigh bells from the door of the stalls all the way to the window so subtly that even the most hardened sinner would be forced to kneel. There was no doubting but that this ringing of bells, blown about with the snowflakes, gently wafted on the wind, had come down from Heaven and that its tinkling had settled outside on the window-sill. Then the stillness – it came right in – a stillness that could only live on the two folded wings of an angel.

I cannot believe that the “shepherds in the same country” (Luke: 2, 8) were more overwhelmed by the radiance and choir of the heavenly host than I was at that time. The grown-ups turned their faces full of solemnity and of excitement to us as we joined our hands and one by one said the prayers we had been taught. As we prayed our hearts beat up into our throats and our eyes were glued to the curtained window behind which no shadows lurked – an angel or even God the Father might have been standing there in front of it. Then came the dark and strange voice from the other side of the stars: “Are they good children? Are they naughty children?” And the clear sturdy reply of our mother: “They are good children!”
Then the bells went away up, ever higher, ever fainter and ever further until they faded away into silence and the blood began to flow in our hearts once more. A little while later our mother took us into the front room where on the corner of the table lay a gingerbread treat for each one of us.

So that world of mine existed in the gentle light of the oil lamp and there all the magical things that are special to this enchanted time took shape in our hands. There were chains made from red and blue silver paper, nuts and apples painted silver and gold and there were bronze-painted pine cones. We also had to prepare in secret the things we were going to put on the presents' table. So under the guidance of the Last of the Mohicans our upstairs room with the green tiled stove and the smell of baking apples turned into a paradise in which we acted as freely as God the Father when He painted the animals and the birds colourfully and cheerfully so as to fill the glad Earth with them all.

And the ‘Holy of Holies’ of this festival had the grand advantage that leading up to it was a series of ‘antechambers’, the last of which could already be imagined. Not least among them was where the Christmas baking took place. From the grating of the almonds to the preparation of the marzipan icing it demanded all the skills we had. It was not so much the right to wasted and leftover bits that was the cause of our bliss, rather it was the lovely festive spirit of old customs and old recipes, the sense of harmony, the peace, the quiet security of the snow‑covered house and the love of parents that took on a special intensity at this time.

And though despite all the activity the days went by with frightening slowness the morning did finally arrive when the tree was brought in and put in its stand before it disappeared into the front room. Then the house and life itself divided into two halves, the one earthly, the other heavenly. The house was tidied up earlier than usual and we sat on the feed bin by the light of the storm lantern while the horses were fed and the cows were milked and the great shadows of the beasts moved up and down the walls, chains rattled quietly and from the woods the hooting of the owls spread over the snow-covered world.

Then we listened to the tales told by the labouring boy and the maid, biblical, earthly and supernatural tales told with the conviction of uncomplicated souls. The house and the stalls appeared to our trembling hearts to be the still and lost centre of the whole world. Surrounded by heavenly hosts and illuminated by the Star of Bethlehem we ourselves were embedded in an unshakeable way in the divine hand of a Father from which no life nor no death would ever be able to drive us.

Endless hours pass by the fireside in the living room while not far away, behind the closed door, footsteps and voices go furtively by, papers rustle and now and then a gentle tune strikes up as if someone had picked up a violin or perhaps it was a mystery instrument brought by the angels to our woods. Hope, despondency, bliss and fear. Until all at once the door opens and the ‘All Holy One’ enters and comes into our wide opened eyes and beat‑missing hearts.

What is there on the little presents' table what I still want to have? A dove-cote, one and a half spans high, and when you turn a handle a very sweet, quiet and out-of-tune melody begins to play. A hurdy-gurdy on a wide green band and when you open the top you can see the cylinders with their shining pins turning towards each other. A pair of ice-skates for us three brothers together, a skittle-alley and a cannon. A book about the Blacksmith of Ruhla and another about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Animals made of wood with stiff legs and there are wonderful trees that you can put wherever you like which are so green that they surely do not come from this world. And my first small gun that I take to bed with me and a sword over which I join my hands on my chest before I go to sleep so that I lie there like a little knight in a church tomb.

Does my memory deceive me or is there a tiny ache alongside all of these joys? And is it not because my mother is crying quietly beneath the blazing tree? First of all it is my dead brother whom she never forgets and then it is some little sadness about many things that happened during the year and many things that never happened that she knows never will. And then it is the thought that death will come to her sooner than to the rest of us and that she will go without knowing what will become of us and if we will ever really forget that God sees through all walls.

But for a child that is just a little worry because he thinks that when the tears are gone everything else is gone as well. And this Christmas Eve can never end because he carries it with him in his dreams still, his hands joined over the precious gifts, and every awakening assures him of the bliss of yesterday and of tomorrow.

Translation: Barry Tobin.

From Wälder und Menschen (‘Woods and People’), by Ernst Wiechert, published in 1945.
Born into a forester’s house in East Prussia in 1887 and wounded during World War One, he fell foul of the Nazis and was imprisoned in Buchenwald (‘Beech Wood’ — what a bitter irony) in 1938 for four months.
He was released a changed man, his childhood faith in God destroyed by what he had seen and endured. He spent the war under observation by the Gestapo. After the war he moved to Switzerland and died there in 1950.

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