Once upon a time…
in November 1956, as an eight-year-old California kid, moved to Germany with her family for her Air Force dad’s three-year tour of duty.
We were posted to Bad Kreuznach where there was a huge army base. My dad was Air Force and did not work on the base. He did something arcane and secret with codes, working in a locked facility close enough to the Rhine River to toss a rock into it from his window. My mother was having none of living on an army base with THOSE people.
To her way of thinking the vast herd of army people (in the 1050s) were small town culture-free morons. For my family it was total immersion in the European community for which I will always be grateful.
I wasn’t so grateful in November when we moved from California sunshine and the 70s to snow and frigid temperatures. We arrived at night and were driven to our temporary housing, which was an apartment on the fourth floor of an eight apartment building, until our house was ready for us.
It was like falling down a snowy rabbit hole, everything was different. I remember vividly dragging up and down the stairs with a coal scuttle to the basement to get coal from the bin several times a day. It was terrifying to go down into that dark place, but facing my mother’s wrath by resisting her orders to fetch the coal to fill our wonderful old ceramic stove was worse. over the course of the next few weeks my little brother and I met all our neighbors coming and going on the stairs with our coal buckets.
We spoke no German at that time, and that was terrifying too. To see smiling faces chattering down at us in a completely unknown language, to see signs I could not read, to always be cold was scary, my whole life was scary and I lived in terror of getting lost and not being able to find my family.
The fear passed with the enchantment of getting out of our apartment and discovering I lived in a fairytale. The houses were old and looked like something in my books. There was a river, the Nahe, and a bridge with little shops on it stretching over the river. The streets were cobblestones and people shopped with string bags at bakeries, butcher shops, and the open market. There were no grocery stores and I loved it.
Downtown there was a wonderful department store that smelled amazing inside, and just outside the store there was a pretzel vendor with warm pretzels in a basket and next to him was a lady selling hot chestnuts. Chestnuts and hot pretzels are still two of my favorite things in the wintertime.
The first place my mother took us and her dictionary was to that store. I got furry silvery reindeer hide boots with silver metal zips and red trim, long woolly stockings fastened by garters that were part of warm pink silk undershirts, and warm woolly sweaters and a thick coat and hat. The American kids in their Mary Jane shoes and anklets laughed at me–for about five minutes, until they realized I was warm and their bare legs were turning blue.
To this day, the smell of burning coal in the evening air makes me happy. I associate it with those magical holidays long ago and it brings back so many memories. My very happiest Christmas memory was made even more intense because I was still a lost little American kid figuring out my new world.
We got to Germany just before Christmas and somehow, the other apartment dwellers got it across to my parents that we should put our shoes outside the door on December 6th because Saint Nicholas would come and leave presents in our shoes, and if we were bad we would get a switch (rute) instead of treats.
In trepidation, my reindoor boots and my brother’s reindeer boots went out on the landing to wait for St Nick. In the morning, we ran to yank open the French doors that led to the landing outside our apartment. Our boots were full of oranges and chocolate! We were dancing around and squealing with glee at our bounty. My mother shushed us when we started hearing the neighbors doors click open, echoing up the open stairwell.
When she turned to shoo us inside and shut the doors we saw it. There was a giant green wreath with a huge red ribbon hanging on our door. We had pushed open both doors to rush out to the landing and see what was in our shoes and the open door on the left had hidden the wreath. It wasn’t until we turned to go inside that we saw the wreath.
It must have been three feet across and it had a red ribbon bow across the top. It smelled like Christmas, but even better were the toys and candies and cookies and fruit fastened all over that wreath. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
We were the only kids in the building, just two noisy little American kids clattering up and down the marble stairs, tracking in snow and mud and spilling coal. We were lost and lonely and completely confused in our new life and our neighbors knew that. They had gotten together and purchased that wreath and the toys and cookies and candy tied all over it to surprise us. It was 1956 and there were still ruins from the war everywhere, bombed out buildings and broken hearts. No one had a lot of money and I know that filling our wreath was a sacrifice for each of those people. To us it was St Nicholas who made the magic and it wasn’t until many years later my mom told me it was our neighbors who wanted us to be happy that cold winter morning in our new home.