Memories are a lovely thing. Although reason tells me that those early years were filled with poverty and hardship, my memory has a way of wiping the slate clean and leaving only the iridescent wonder of that magical season.
Ten months before we had arrived in a tiny village in Germany after fleeing the Russian invasion into Poland. The year was 1945.
My family lived in one room. The beds were narrow and strung around the room like wooden beads on a string. There were four of them, all covered with burlap mattresses filled with cut-up straw. The bed frames were six inches off the floor and consisted of roughly planed wooden slats, each placed on four wooden blocks. Loud and hurried activity began about four or five weeks before that great day. There was the noise of a hand-held saw and hammer together with much whispering.
I was not allowed to see what wondrous things were being created so my parents fastened one of their blankets to the wall above my bed. This blanket was then draped over me and I found myself lying cozily in this makeshift tent. Curiosity became intense and my five-year-old patience was stretched to the limit.
Sometimes I touched the blanket, wiggling it a little just to see if one of my parents was watching, when I immediately heard the warning “if you peek, you will not have a present for Christmas.” Quickly dropping the blanket I pretended to be asleep.
As we approached that magical day, there were delicious smells permeating our room. My older sister Annemarie and my mother baked some Christmas delicacies. How they did this puzzles me to this day because there was no oven.
There was a makeshift stove built of bricks on top of a thick metal plate which had been placed on the wood floor. A large black pipe stuck up and wound its way to the outside wall, where removing some bricks had made room for this pipe to belch smoke to the outside. Looking back, I am convinced it was miraculous that this contraption did not cause us all to go up in flames.
It had been snowing for several weeks and when looking out of our window we just knew it was the prettiest sight on earth. The old farmhouses in the village looked so warm and inviting whenever it became dark enough for people to turn their lights on.
Then came the day when our father walked in with the loveliest, greenest tree, small enough to place on top of the only table in the room. We had cut out cardboard stars and covered them with tinfoil. There were also ‘snowflakes’ artistically cut from newspapers. We took turns placing each one of these treasures on the tree branches. Then came the crowning glory – three real candles were fastened with wires to the branch tips. Now it was time to sing the beautiful Christmas carols we had been practicing for the past few weeks.
At last the day had arrived – Christmas Eve. We sat down at the table spread with mother’s only table cloth and laden with such delicacies as boiled potatoes, sour herring, pickles and cookies sprinkled with a thin coating of icing sugar. There also was tea with slices of lemon served in glasses sitting inside silver saucers.
The candles were lit and a festive glow filled the simple room. Our father thanked the Lord for this abundance and we ate until we were filled.
As we sat around the table singing praises to the One whose birthday we were celebrating, someone knocked loudly at our door. My father hurried to open it and in came a man wearing a long coat. A shawl wound around his face served as a disguise. He levelled his gaze at me and asked in a gruff voice “were you a good girl this year?” Fear and awe filled my little heart as I answered in a quavering voice: “y—-yes, I was good.”
He then went back to reach around the door and produced the most wonderful sled I had ever seen. It was made of packing material with real runners covered with metal strips that had also been used for shipping large items to the electrical outlet where my father worked.
He had been given permission to take this material home so that he could make this lovely gift for me.
On another year this packing material was used to produce a two-storey doll house together with furniture. My mother made the dolls from bits of wool and fabric.
But this year I could hardly wait for the next day to take my treasure to the only hill in the area.
The following morning when I arrived proudly pulling the string of this beloved toy, other children had already arrived, trudging uphill again and again and screaming with glee as they hurtled down.
Oh the bliss of it all! I just knew I was the most-blessed child in the village.
Christa Stegemann is a Saltair resident.