The night before Christmas Eve, my grandmother came to string the Zucker-kringel, stars made of chocolate and icing. We pulled a thread through the opening in the middle so the Kringel could be hung from the Christmas tree along with the glass trumpets and angels and bells. To keep the fine strings from tangling, she had improvised a holding device by putting a broom across two chairs. We would slide the threaded sweets onto the long wooden broomstick, where they dangled, their sweet scent wafting up, until the adults hung them “in secret” from the tree in the daylight hours of Christmas Eve. Once in a while my sister Corinna and I dropped one of the fragile sweets on purpose, so we could eat the broken bits.
In 1962, World War II had been over for many years, but it was very much alive in the minds of the adults who had lived through it. And it was still palpable in Berlin, where the remains of bombed-out buildings and the presence of thousands of Allied troops reminded us daily of the price paid for the war: occupation and division. In the story-lore that shaped my childhood, Christmas figured as a time of earthly miracles: a pork roast procured for the holiday meal in the hungriest of winters, fathers who unexpectedly returned home from POW camp just in time for the family celebration. Such tales inspired me to wish fervently, irrationally for things that were impossible: a dog, Cinderella dresses, a divining rod, a father who spent time with me, a mother who did not have to work so much.
Like all Germans, we celebrated on Christmas Eve. On that day, the daylight hours seemed endless. My mother dispatched Corinna and me outside so she could finish the preparations for the evening celebration. She blindfolded us before she walked us through our living room, which smelled of fir and spices. On the street, Corinna and I watched adults doing last-minute errands before the shops closed down for the holidays, scurrying with colorful packages, pulling Christmas trees on sleds. At dusk we were allowed back inside. We put on our finest dresses and pulled our handmade gifts—crocheted potholders, pine cone candlesticks, necklaces strung from apple seeds—from their hiding places. The tinny chime of a bell was our signal to enter the living room, which was illuminated by the flickering candles on the tree. My giddy excitement was tinged with reverence as I sat down to open my gifts—a set of watercolors, a book, a game and, of course, the plate filled with Lebkuchen, chocolates, nuts, apples and oranges, which were so precious then that each one came wrapped in colorful tissue paper.
When my sister and I had finished, the adults had their turn. Holding up an LP, my mother declared that this year, she had decided to give herself a present. “It’s not Christmas music,” she explained. “It’s Dave Brubeck.” For some reason that was the moment when everyone noticed that Uncle Ludwig was missing. Uncle Ludwig was the wild card in a family of women, the rebel, the darling who commanded everyone’s attention with his charm and his daring adventures. To my delight, he had come to live with us for a few months. He was a 9-year-old’s dream: an actor who could talk like Donald Duck, recite Goethe and impersonate just about anyone. I squealed when he made coins disappear and retrieved them from my ear. The women he brought to the apartment were hopelessly in love with him and he always handed my sister and me some change so we would go and play outside “for at least two hours.”
When Ludwig didn’t show up for family events, there was a gap, a blank space. It was different when no one expected him—we did fine without him then. But when he promised to come and did not, the adults seemed to be in “pause” mode. Waiting for Ludwig. When the women set out plates for the traditional meal—a herring salad with potatoes and bread—their cheerfulness seemed half-hearted. The doorbell rang as we sat down to eat. It was Ludwig, with his usual impeccable timing: he always arrived right when everyone missed him the most, just before they became angry with him.
He entered the room with a gust of cold air and a uniformed stranger by his side. “Meet my new friend, Troy,” he said grandly. “I saw him standing alone at the subway station so I invited him. No one should be alleine on Christmas Eve.”
“Merry Christmas, everybody,” Troy said, taking off his Army cap and smiling all around. I wondered how three words could be so melodious and how teeth could be so brilliantly white. Ludwig introduced us all by name and I looked down shyly when it was my turn to shake Troy’s hand. “Ein Neger,” I whispered to my sister, “a Negro.”
While my grandmother set out another plate on the table and my mother unfolded the ironing board for my sister and me to sit on, Ludwig waved me into our tiny kitchen. “Don’t say Neger,” he instructed me in what was my first introduction to the complexity of race, “because it sounds a lot like a bad American word.”
The dinner table conversation was an animated mix of English and German, with occasional translations tossed my way like delicious morsels: Los Angeles, Cadillac, turkey, sweet potato pie, homesickness. “We say Heimweh,” my uncle told him, clutching his heart dramatically. “Yes, heymway,” Troy agreed. He looked at his watch, which seemed especially large and shiny to me. “At home it’s 5 in the morning and my little brother is probably waking up right now. He’s your age,” Troy said, patting my arm.
After dinner we always sang Christmas carols a cappella, but this year, Troy played along on his harmonica. When he didn’t know a song, he improvised boldly, sometimes hitting a note so high that it made my spine tingle. Our singing had never been so heartfelt, never so upbeat. Always, we saved “Stille Nacht” for last. Troy joined in, harmonizing his English lyrics with our German words. His voice was confident, manly and daring. As if on cue, we all stopped singing so we could listen to him. He sang the third verse solo, embellishing it with unfamiliar side notes and quivers. “He’s decorating the song,” I thought to myself as goose bumps rose up on my arms, “just like we decorated the tree.”
In the past, “Silent Night” had always given way to a somber mood as the adults drifted off into their individual reveries and memories. Not this year, though—Troy went on to lively music, gospel songs that I had never heard before. Drumming the table with his fingers and working his voice like an instrument, his singing made me feel like I was going to burst. Laughing or crying, it was a toss-up, and then he made a face at me and I laughed and laughed and had no idea that this was the sound of my heart overflowing.
Later, when my sister and I were sent to bed with our new books, Dave Brubeck was playing “Take Five.” I am not sure, but I think our mother was dancing with Troy and Ludwig. I remember seeing her tossing her head back.
I never opened my book that night.
Christine Schoefer likes writing for The Monthly because she comes into contact with so many of its readers. She is working on a book about “sustainable thinking,” called Change Your Mind and the Rest Will Follow.
Oy Tannenbaum! | By Anna Mindess
A nice Jewish girl tries her hand at making Christmas cookies—on television no less.
Anchor Made of Wood | By Ransom Stephens
A 6-year-old boy pounds nails and spills blood to fashion an unusual Christmas present for his aunt.
Dolliver’s Neck | By Sarah Weld
A family house binds relatives together in a web of memories and ghosts on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Visitor | By Christine Schoefer
A foreign guest thrills a young German girl in the 1960s and adds excitement to her already thrilling Christmas Eve in Berlin.
The Ledger | By Melinda Clemmons
Home for the holidays in Illinois, a family uncovers a relative’s diligent accounting of every penny spent from 1877 to 1900, offering up a glimpse of his daily life.
Oma | By Mike Rosen-Molina
A young man’s hasty trip halfway across the world to see a grandmother still bursting with life despite her aging and failing sight.
Home Cooking | By Rachel Trachten
Empty-nesters turn on the stove for their returning children only to discover who they’re really cooking for.
Guacamole and Turnips | By Veronica Chater
A trip to Wales in search of a Dylan Thomas holiday sheds light on one family’s typical balmy Christmas at home in California.