In the evangelical church they displayed the holy infant every year at the deepest, darkest moment of winter. In a little red house lit from within, they showed everything in shadow play exactly the way it had been: Mary, Joseph and the Magi on their knees gaze into the manger, the cattle warm the child with their breath, as if a calf of their own.
The little house had its place under the fir tree that towered way up to the decorated vault. On both sides of the church in long wooden balconies, boys and girls, dressed for the holiday, their cheeks rosy, kept watch over the candles so the tree wouldn’t catch on fire. Each was armed with a long thin pole: when a wick flared high among the branches and ornaments, one of the boys, his face blushing deeper red with bashful self-importance, would snuff the flame.
The eyes of the children became radiant with the flickerings on the fir tree. But the grownup men, the grownup women . . . how did they look at things?
Their voices ascended to the arches, resonating in unison, the voices swirled among the columns like bare trees, trees like signs. The organ swelled from depths far below, the organ spiraled down from on high.
In rows on the wooden benches, all the world sang, people curling further within, worming into themselves. Earthly beings and heavenly beings. Hope and a tear between worlds.
At the end, gifts: apples cookies shining gilt walnuts little glittering goodies. Voices caroling, the organ soaring above everybody. Then people scattered in every direction.
You would leave but the music kept you company (oh gladness, goodness) beyond the walls of the church to the narrow streets, far into the distance. The voice of the organ permeating the gossamer of your bodily fabric, air and flame.
I was with my grandmother. (“They make it so nice, too . . . Do you see how they prepared a gift for you, as if you were among their own children?” She was whispering to me as we walked home in darkness. “Did you tell them thank you?”) The snow scrunched under our feet.
My jaw was stiff, clenched with emotion. Everywhere I turned my eyes—bright windows. “Think he’s been . . . he’s been to ours . . . to our house?”
Usually on Christmas Eve while the two of us were at the German church, Father Christmas would come with the tree and gifts, but he had to hurry away to visit other children. Faithfully, he forgave my mistakes—year after year he was kind. Every year he also left behind a number of duties for me.
Our tree was nice, the nicest. And Father Christmas never forgot the white angel and the little stars and the funny clown as fat as a barrel. And the Hess chocolates wrapped in crinkly colored foil. You couldn’t eat those anymore: Father Christmas had been keeping them since the time of the war and each year there were fewer.