The narrator, no longer a Christian, has been challenged by a native atheist: 'Christmas isn't Christmas for you'. He explores the meaning of that statement by relating his childhood memories of a Roman Catholic Christmas in the post-war Germany of 1945 to 1948. These merge with Lutheran Christmas memories, largely resting on Lutheran chorales and church music. He describes the lasting subliminal effects and benefits of these early memories and argues that they were beneficial, even though he no longer takes the Christian doctrines literally. Notwithstanding the scepticism of his later years, the early teaching, firmly asserting the truth of the Christian stories, was beneficial and desirable. There is an important subliminal message which can only be learnt if it is learnt in early childhood and on the basis of stories and practices which are, at least then, taken as absolute truth. It is not enough to give a child information about religion: only one religion should be taught, and it should be practised rather than talked about. As an adult, the narrator has Christmas experiences in many countries, none of which have the evocative power of those of his childhood.
The naïve Christmas of childhood is balanced by the philosophical Christmas in the rarefied atmosphere of a desolate Swiss mountain village, in which the adult narrator finds himself on Christmas Day. He hears a rather unorthodox sermon from a priest who has been posted there, out of harm's way, because of his progressive (or heretical) beliefs. The atheist narrator and the old priest warm to each other, both lonely in their own way. They discover that they share many of their views on God, on religions. The narrator knows many of the foreign places the priest has visited, and they find that they have been influenced by the same books and theologians. They agree that the old religious traditions must be kept alive, that lifestyle is more important than truth in practising and evaluating a religion, and that atheists and believers do not "come from different planets". Even from a religious point of view both are of equal value and both must exist.
"We, the atheists," says the narrator, "need the believers and the priests to keep the churches warm, the organs sounding and God alive. They need us to stop them from becoming too confident and overbearing. It is a symbiotic relationship. I thank God every day that not everybody is as smart as me. Otherwise who would pray for me, just in case? A God who is not worshipped dies, as happened to the gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome, who were once as real as God Father Son And Holy Ghost. A God-forsaken church building, however artistic, without prayers becomes a sight, and a pretty sad one too."
Part 1: At home
"I know," my tender friend had written apologetically on her Christmas card, not knowing whether or not to send it, "that Christmas isn't Christmas for you," thinking that I had converted to Islam or Buddhism, an abomination in the eyes of a blue-blooded atheist.
I started wondering whether Christmas was Christmas for me, whatever that might mean. Could Christmas be anything but Christmas for anybody, Christian or not? So what was Christmas for me, so many decades after I left my native Germany? I started musing, and that's how this story came about.
I sent her an interim reply: "I like to follow the customs of the community in which I live. While I am in Europe, therefore, Christmas is Christmas for me, even though I do not believe in Father Christmas and hate 'Jingle Bells' and Christmas musac in department stores. During 'the festive season', I have to take refuge in the churches to escape from Father Christmas. They are islands of sanity in a world gone mad with jingle bells and silent nights. I like to go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, no matter what exactly I may or may not believe and no matter what exactly is meant by 'believing'. But if I lived in India, I would not miss Christmas. I would happily let the 25th of December pass without any acknowledgement but would join in the celebrations for Ram Naumi (God Rama's birthday) or Janmashtami.(God Krishna's birthday). And if I lived in a Buddhist or a Muslim country I would likewise ignore Christmas but join in their festivals, and benefit from their lessons, as far as I am allowed to. To that extent Christmas is indeed not Christmas for me. But if you really want to understand my attitude, I have to tell you about my childhood and about a curious encounter I had as an adult."
Two months later I sent her my story, which contains more truth than fiction.
The romance of Christmas starts with the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks before Christmas Day. I try to describe it mainly as I may have experienced it as a 13-year-old (1948), even though in my memory I am merging my experiences of many preceding and following years. There was no essential difference in what I considered, and do consider, important for my experience.
We were four children, my sister Hildegard, one year older than me, then I, then my sister Ina, five years younger than me, and Britta, eight years my junior. My mother and maternal grandmother were always part of the Advent scene, but I do not remember my father as an essential participant in the Advent singing. He might have been absent because of his war service (before 1945) or later because he had a job in a different town.
If I had chosen the Christmas when I was ten, 1945 A.D., the picture would have been different: there was a severe shortage of food, sawdust was baked into bread because there was not enough flour, money was worthless, the shops were empty of goods, one could not even buy books or electric torches or knives or toys, to say nothing of bicycles and other things we consider normal today, and I cannot imagine, how there could have been many or any presents in those years.
Since food was rationed, each of us received his supply of, say, butter or margarine (say an ounce) and of sausage (salami-type) and other scarce things at the beginning of the week, each of us had his own labelled containers for keeping these, and it was up to us, according to temperament, how we managed to make them last (if we wished to) to the end of the week. For sausage, there was a famous approach called 'Schiebewurst' (sliding sausage). To understand its significance, one has to consider the alternatives, all of which were practised in our family:
I do not remember any specific Christmas, especially no Christmas during the 'hunger years', and I remember all Christmases as the same, all equally pleasant for me. So let me be 13 or 14, after the currency reform of 1948, when goods had suddenly reappeared in the shops.
The illuminations in the street, if there were any at the time, Father Christmases, recorded Christmas carols and goods on offer in department stores (in those years when there ***was*** something to be bought), were irrelevant and indeed considered a secular irritant by us, and I still share that feeling.
For Christmas is for me and was for us an exclusively religious festival that provided enough joy of its own, especially when its customs were strictly and intelligently observed.
For the experience to be real and effective, the Christmas story and its interpretation has to be taken seriously by the family, at least for a time, and only then can, for some people with the right disposition, a certain amount of scepticism set in. If they have enough understanding, they can 'go through the motions' of a literal believer and attach private, more liberal, interpretations ('mental reservations') to the customs which can bind a family and a community together and which continue to give real joy to all, irrespective of the exact nature of their beliefs. The symbols are the same for all.
The year of the church is an annual drama. It ends with Eternity Sunday (Ewigkeitssonntag), the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent, when the gospel of the destruction and the horrors at the end of time is read (Matthew 24:15-35), doomsday, das Ende der Welt, the sign that the second coming of Christ is nigh: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."
During the weeks and months that follow, the birth of Jesus, his appearance to the world at large, his life as a youth, his first miracles, his preaching, his passion, execution and resurrection, his ascension to heaven, his sending of the holy spirit at Pentecost, his work on earth through the holy spirit will be mapped, presented, retold, in historical sequence, until Eternity Sunday arrives again, foretelling his second coming. Thus, the year of the church begins on the first Sunday of Advent.
Each new event, even though well-known in advance, is taken note of and rejoiced or wept over, as if it were announced for the first time in the newspapers. That is the important thing about our celebration of Advent. We looked forward to Christmas, but Christmas had not yet arrived. We took our hymns seriously and did not sing that 'Christ was born in Bethlehem' when evidently he was still in his mother's womb. We had of course celebrated the feast of the Annunciation (conception of Jesus by the Virgin Mary) on 25 March, exactly nine months before Christmas Day. So this was Advent, a distinct period and a distinct joy, intelligently celebrated in an intelligent family.
Of course we went to church every Sunday, as we did during the rest of the year. I was a loner and would always have preferred to go on my own and derived my own pleasure from this. During Advent, on weekdays I believe, special services (masses) were held, the Rorate-masses, because they contained the chant of 'Tauet, Himmel, den Gerechten':
Thus went the prayer asking for Jesus to be sent to save the world.
Advent was a time of waiting and preparation. A quiet time, and not yet time for rejoicing. I loved the Advent chorales, knew all their tunes and many of their texts by heart and played them in four-part harmonies on the piano at home. Later in life I added the more ancient Lutheran Advent chorales (e.g. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; Wie soll ich dich empfangen), to the Catholic ones (e.g.'O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf' by the liberal 16th century Jesuit Friedrich von Spee, rational defender of women during the witch hunts), in my repertoire, and I still love and know them both, which is to say that I can respond to them emotionally. They spell Advent tide to me.
I would, like our sensible parents, have rejected singing and listening to ***Christmas*** carols during that time, carols talking about Christ having been born, for Christ had *** not *** yet been born: we were still waiting for his arrival and birth, and the joy of waiting, of anticipation, would have been spoilt if we had mixed it all up into some vague, non-specific 'seasonal' emotion or merriment. We had emotion heightened by reason and precision.
Advent is marked by the Adventskranz, a reef made of spruce, spiked with four candles. Large reefs are hung horizontally in churches, smaller reefs sit on tables or sideboards in homes. During the first week of Advent one candle will be lit, during the second two, until during the fourth week, with all candles burning, we know that there will soon be a whole Christmas tree radiating candle-light.
Many evenings and perhaps all, the family would sit around the Advent reef for fifteen minutes or half an hour to sing Advent carols, the room lit only by its candles, and I would certainly have been eagerly asking for it. Sometimes I or my sisters would play along on our recorders, and I knew how to improvise a second part so we would have at least two-part singing on these occasions.
I think that during the better years biscuits with special Christmas spices (coriander seed, cinnamon and cloves) were released on some of these occasions, but very sparingly, for it was still Advent, the subdued time of anxious waiting and hoping, and handing out sweets too generously would have destroyed the long-awaited pleasure of having them on Christmas Eve, and not an hour before then, together with the tree, the presents, and the Christmas carols (***Hodie*** Christus natus est: Christ is born ***today***), which were meticulously avoided before then.
One of the "good rooms" in the house was designated the 'Christmas room'. Its door was locked about five days before Christmas, a sheet was hung to cover its frosted glass, and the children were not allowed to enter. Sometimes lights were on inside, sometimes our parents silently entered and left, mysterious preparations were going on which we did not question. We knew that the Christ child, the Christkind (not Father Christmas, the pathetic bumbling clown in his ridiculous garb, who had no religious tradition and sanction) was bringing the Christmas presents. The child was God's present to the world and he gave us additional presents to make sure even simple-minded children enjoyed his arrival, whose significance they could not yet understand.
Even when we knew that it was not really the Christ child who brought the presents and when we had presents of our own for other members of the family and gave them to our parents to place them in the Christmas room or give them to the Christ child to pass on, the fiction that presents come from the Christ child was upheld.
Such suspension of disbelief is a good thing, it gives real joy and allows the old customs to be maintained and passed on. Once the tradition has been interrupted by one generation, it is difficult to re-connect. Suspension of disbelief is as important to religion, especially for intelligent people, as it is when we go to a film, read a novel or listen to a fairytale. We do not want our pleasure spoilt by saying or hearing incessantly: 'It is not true, it is only fiction.' It is even important in love and in love-making, when sometimes it is good not to look too closely, to have the lights low, and not to put the beloved under the microscope -- at least not under the electron microscope.
In other words:
So the 24th of December, Christmas Eve, arrives, the day when the light of Christ came into a dark world:
"Das Volk, das im Finstern wandelt, sieht ein großes Licht, The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). He "was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." (John 1:9)
The Christmas celebration starts after nightfall, at 6 or 7 p.m.: then the light of the Christmas tree will be more powerful. But first we have to say goodbye to Advent -- one last round of Advent carol singing.
At half past five we sit around the Adventskranz on the kitchen table. All four candles have been lit. We sing three or four Advent, not Christmas, carols. Somehow Father has left the room, nobody has noticed, or if he has, he says nothing in order not to spoil the effect for which we all wish, for Father's task is to act as a locum for the Christ child, light the many thin candles on the Christmas tree and the five big candles in front of the crib (or 'creche', as the Americans, or 'presepio', as the Portuguese say) and the four candles on the candelabra attached to the piano.
When everything is ready, he will, in the hall, hit the gong we had in one house or ring the big Alpine cowbell we had in the other. Mother, who is sitting with us by the Advent reef, will say: "I think, I've heard the Christ child," and we all have heard him/her too, everything is ready, and we all would like to storm into the Christmas room, but we also know that we must first sing the last of the Advent carols, always the same at this point of the proceedings, and all its stanzas too, we have our hymn books on the table.
The seed of this carol is Psalm 24:7: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in," enriched by references to the prophet Isaiah and the attributes that are given to Jesus.
I must not conceal the fact that my dictation program transforms 'ein Helfer wert' into 'ideal for Fiat' (Sanftmütigkeit ist sein Gefährt!), 'Jesus' into 'cheeses' (un-pastorised, of course) (sic!) and 'prophet' into 'profit' (prophet forecast). That is the modern age knocking at the door and clamouring 'Macht hoch die Tür", et nubes pluent injustum. (pluent: sic!) It reinforces my desire to write all this down before it is forgotten and becomes entirely incomprehensible to future generations.
Father has meanwhile discreetly rejoined us. We get up and leave the Advent room. We are in the dark hall which separates the Advent room from the Christmas room. The sheet that has covered the door of the Christmas room for the last week has been removed. A flood of warm candlelight comes through the frosted glass of the door, and we smell the scent of burning wax.
But it is still too soon to enter that longed for room. All the scenes of the drama have to be played out. We are like the shepherds guarding their flocks at night. How can we know what is to be seen and where to go? The angel of the Lord has to tell us.
In our family, 'lametta' (aluminium tinsel) was 'verpönt', was considered to be in bad taste, too modern, artificial or smacking of industry. The tree was mainly decorated with edibles, apples (usually coxes), Christmas biscuits (spekulatius), coloured fondant sugar rings, and a few glass globes, in dark red, blue and green, and on the highest tip of the tree stood the star of Bethlehem, made of straw.
A Christmas photograph showing my mother and her sister (Tante Hilde, Aunt Hildegard) when they were about five (circa 1915) underneath the Christmas tree of my grandparents, shows that tree completely covered in tinsel. What I call "our family tradition" was therefore not as old as it appeared to us children but merely reflected the ideals of my parents, perhaps especially of our father. In his youth he would have been strongly influenced by the Jugendbewegung [Young Awakening] (ca. 1895-1930), a rebellion against lifestyle and tastes of the bourgeoisie (in England it would be called 'Victorian values'). These youngsters and their leaders praised youth versus age and decay, the simple life, strove back to nature (against industry), revived the old folk songs, loved hiking and camping, undertook all-night hikes ending on a mountain to admire the rising of the sun, they slept in barns, tried to be tough and healthy, .... Tame and pure by our standards, these youngsters were considered as quite disgraceful by many of their elders. This movement was later absorbed by the Nazis, but its, denazified and unpolitical, ideals, customs and music, re-emerged after the war (1945) and were important until modern pop culture (hippies, Elvis, the Beatles, drugs, liberal sex etc) came along and could compete with it.
I think when we were very young, one of us would have memorised the gospel, but there would also be the missal handy for prompting if necessary. Strangely enough, the older one gets and the easier it gets, the less trouble one takes (e.g. with memorising a short text).
When we were very young, 'Ihr Kinderlein, kommet' (Come, children, to the manger) also had to be sung. The text is by the once popular 18th century Bavarian priest and children's writer Christoph von Schmid, whose pious sentimentality was ridiculed by Gottfried Keller in 'Die drei gerechten Kammacher'. Christoph von Schmid could perhaps not have foreseen that even his simple verses could be misinterpreted by children, for there was a time when we sung, in all earnestness,
In the Cologne Christmas carol 'Menschen, die ihr wart verloren', we managed to turn 'Laßt uns vor ihm niederfallen' (Let's bend our knees before him) into 'Laßt uns vor ihm niederknallen' (Let's bang down before him).
We have heard the official news and can be sure that Christmas has really started. But the Christmas presents are not yet to be touched or, strictly speaking, even to be looked at, even though, during all these proceedings, our eyes of course wonder curiously all over the room where for each member of the family there will be a little pile of presents, on a chair, a table, sideboard, on the floor. The presents were never wrapped.
We have only sung one Christmas carol so far, there must be a few more.
"What shall we sing?"
"In dulci jubilo," someone suggests.
We know that one by heart, and I sit already on the piano stool to accompany the chant: '... unsers Herzens Wonne, leit in praesepio, und leuchtet als die Sonne, matris in gremio' (our heart's joy lies in the manger and shines like the sun on his mother's lap).
When we were very young, three of us, Hildegard, Ina and myself must have put on a very short nativity play, or perhaps it was only a tableau vivant. I have seen some photographs of these performances, me or Hildegard with cardboard wings to represent the angel, or me as St Joseph with a painted mustache, Hildegard as the Virgin Mary, and Ina less than a year old lying in a laundry basket to present baby Jesus.
As we grew older, recitations of poems, psalms, stories, Christmas poems ('Die Nacht vor dem heiligen Abend', and the like), lesser-known Christmas carols, became part of the proceedings at this stage. We have memorised and rehearsed them throughout Advent.
The recitations were presents of us children to our parents and especially to our maternal grandmother, Paula Faßbender (known as 'Mütterchen' or briefly 'Mütter'). She, who knew dozens of long classical German ballads (Schiller, Goethe, Mörike, ...) by heart, and who, after having tucked us in, sent us to sleep at night not by telling bedside stories but by reciting our favourite ballads or singing one of the Lutheran evening chorales (Breit aus die Flügel beide, o Jesu, meine Freude, und nimm dein Küchlein ein: spread out both your wings, o Jesu, my joy, and let your chicks shelter under them) she loved so much from her Lutheran childhood before she converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of thirty.
Mütterchen appreciated it as a personal gift if we had memorised some text or other in her honour. It was our effort in memorising the poem, rather than the recitation itself, that made the present valuable for her, and she knew, of course, that ***we*** would benefit, as we did, later in life from having learnt so many beautiful texts by heart. The benefit arises decades later when it is far too late to make up for whatever one has failed to do during one's childhood.
This was the kind of Christmas present which money could not buy and for which money was not needed. As children we had no money.
We did not feel that we had to give Christmas presents to our elders, but we may have made some presents of our own for our parents, for example, plywood figures cut with the fretsaw, knitted garments, painted some watercolour pictures or done some calligraphic work.
Part of the recitations was a musical performance, usually a Baroque trio sonata or other pieces by composers like Corelli, Vivaldi, Händel, Telemann (1681-1767, not only a prolific composer and in his time more popular than his contemporary, Bach, 1685-1750, but also the first virtual husband [Tele-Mann]), Johann Rosenmüller (c.1619-1684), and other pre-Bach composers, played by Hildegard and Ina on the violins and me on the piano, all rehearsed and practised throughout Advent.
Then at last the great release: having done our duty to God and man, we are allowed to see our pile of presents. Ina says they were always modest, by modern standards or those of richer families, or families with fewer children, for we were poor (a budding lawyer is worth nothing in times of a barter economy, a farmer or a doctor is), but we were always happy with what we received and did not feel that we had had a scarce Christmas.
I must insert here the Christmas letter my father wrote to me in 1943 when I was eight and he was a soldier at the Russian front, because it refers to the scarcity of Christmas presents which, in a way, persisted after the end of the war.
Re-reading Father's letter today, I wonder whether, when talking about the Russian danger, he was aware of cause and effect (who had invaded whose territory first, what were German soldiers doing in Russian Christmas tree plantations?), but I presume that, whatever his state of awareness, in those years, only 18 months before what was for many people and in historical, moral and human terms Germany's liberation (Befreiung) (by the Allies), but in Nazi perception and in military terms the "collapse" (Zusammenbruch), it would not have been wise for him to write anything else. He had to explain his absence at Christmas to his young son in simple terms. There was censorship of mail, and "defeatism" was a crime that has been punished with death as the war came to a close. Writing anything else would, at that time, have served no useful purpose.
Ina tells me of floppy dolls which Mother made for the girls out of old "silk" stockings, embroidered with coloured wool for eyes and mouth. Even Father once made dolls out of pieces of wood. These were the luxuries.
Necessities, like clothes and shoes, were also concentrated on Christmas and given as Christmas presents, to make the Christmas pile richer and higher. Dresses were repeatedly recycled. Mother would take one child's dress carefully apart, piece by piece, turn it around to the side which was not yet threadbare, and make other dresses, perhaps for the younger children, out of the material. She was a qualified lawyer but, having become a mother, never practised her profession.
This shows what we could expect to find as presents when singing and recitations were over. Each of us would inspect his own pile first, enjoy what was there, sometimes a surprise, sometimes a wish fulfilled, (how in heaven did the Christ child know our wishes! Was he a mind-reader? Or even omniscient?). Then we would settle down, each in his corner, start reading our books and eat our sweets. Sometimes the radio was on, which on Christmas Eve was always saturated with Christmas carols, nicely orchestrated and sung by excellent choirs, and by baroque music. Once, I remember, the music was repeatedly interrupted by sad news from the Korean War. When I was tired of reading, I might go to the piano to play Christmas carols and sometimes the others would sing along.
At about 11 p.m., having had our fill of Christmas romance, we would leave, muffled up in warm clothes to attend the Christmette, midnight mass, a wonderful occasion because lots of carols would be sung, there was the festive organ, a choir, sometimes even an orchestra, the church bells would be ringing for a long time, unusually late, in the silence of this dark hour, and the church would be packed. To get a seat, we had to arrive at least an hour before the start of the mass, which I happily did, having, even then, enough things to ponder ... I don't know whether the others were equally patient.
I cannot say much about Christmas Day. It was pleasant but not really important. We would sleep longer. It was a spacious day on which everybody could do what he liked, but there were no special ceremonies. We could read and enjoy our presents, go for walks in the snow, talk, sing, make music. There was no obligation to go to church again, since the midnight mass of Christmas Eve counted for Christmas Day (25 December). However, I would often go again, on my own bat, for each mass is different.
At the time, there were three masses prescribed for Christmas Day, each with its own gospel and prayers. The first was the Missa in nocte, the mass at night-time, which provided the skeleton for 'midnight mass' (carol mass), and its gospel (Luke 2:1-14) told the story of Mary and Joseph having to travel to Bethlehem to be registered for the census, the birth of the baby in the stable and of the angels appearing to the shepherds, ending with the Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all men, blessed by his kindness.
The second mass was the Missa in aurora, the mass to be said at dawn, whose gospel (Luke 2:15-20) tells of the shepherds visiting the child in the stable.
The third mass was the Missa in die, the mass to be said in full daylight, whose gospel (John 1:1-14) (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, ... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, ... full of grace and truth) tells of the 'spiritual' significance of Christ.
This custom has now sadly been replaced by something shorter, simpler and more popular. But going to church several times a day was not necessarily boring then, no less boring than going to the cinema several times or watching, for the n-th time, several well-known television films (The African Queen, The Guns of Navarrone, Casablanca, and the like) in succession, part of the more modern ritual of Christmas nostalgia.
A special attraction of Christmas Day would have been the music. In many churches in the Roman Catholic Rhineland and in Bavaria, high mass (Hochamt, solemn sung mass) will be celebrated with great pomp and incorporate not only Gregorian chant and à capella masses by Palestrina (c.1525-1594), Tomas Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), Josquin des Prez (1445-1521), Orlando di Lasso (1530-1594), ..., but also performances of large orchestral masses by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner, Bach, in which a large orchestra was employed, with kettle drums and trumpets, and professional soloists.
While a spoken Gloria might take just over 45 seconds without becoming undignified, the simplest Gregorian sung Gloria just over 90 seconds, the Gloria of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis 17, that of the ***Petite*** Messe Solennelle by Rossini 30 and that of Bach's b-minor mass 40 minutes, during all of which time the priests have to sit patiently on their red velvet-lined stools by the side of the altar to let the musicians finish their version. Such a mass, including a rather cursory sermon (as is the Catholic tradition) might take as long as two hours or more. That was a great attraction provided free of charge by God at the expense of the church.
New Year, in our house, was never a big affair, since it has no religious significance. On this day the Church celebrates the circumcision and naming ceremony for little Jesus, but this is considered a minor matter, and, after all, we have attended church so enthusiastically during the preceding days and weeks, that we do perhaps deserve a break.
The year of the church begins on the first Sunday of Advent, and that's when we should pray for the year passed and the year coming. The secular New Year is a merely administrative matter, required by the State, and since the separation of church and state, the Catholic church no longer dominates the state. What the state does is therefore neither relevant nor is there any of the romance and emotion attached to it which only religion with its deep, ancient and irrational roots can supply. Religion does this in the story I tell, and it can easily continue to do so, even for so-called unbelievers. But they have to find ways of understanding not only religious traditions but also the nature of their own disbelief or scepticism. More clarity on both issues can enable them to drink from the religious sources with as much right and pleasure as any believer. That's what I learnt much later in life.
The Lutherans have for historical reasons, since the time of the Reformation, subjected themselves to the (German) state or states in their need to get support in the fight against Rome. They take state occasions much more seriously and superimpose religious significance onto them. For them New Year is important and special services are held on New Year's Eve praying for God's blessing during the coming year and thanking him for the past. (In more recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has followed suite, and it now provides New Year services of its own.)
In later years, I absorbed the Lutheran cultural, poetic, musical and religious tradition so profoundly that I am now able to respond to it as, or even more, instinctively as to my earlier childhood memories. This tradition is, of course, at least as typically German, if not specifically more so, than the German version of Roman Catholicism, and no description of what Christmas means in Germany as a whole can be complete without it.
But this memoir has my childhood family celebrations at its core, whereas my Lutheran memories, impressions and loves stem from families other than my own, but even more so from the churches, from singing in Lutheran church choirs, from choir get-togethers during holiday periods, usually in the company of very skilled musical youngsters, close friends, associated with first loves, good instrumentalists and singers, some of them professionals, fond especially of the baroque and pre-baroque music and of what was then called 'modern music'.
'Modern' Lutheran church music has remained virtually unchanged over 70 years. It was the musical language of young composers (some neo-baroque) who were, between 1912 and 1930 and beyond, reacting against the 'romantic music' of the preceding century. Most prominent among them, and much sung by us, were Ernst Pepping (1901-1981), Hans Friedrich Micheelsen (1902-1973), Hugo Distler (1908-1942; he committed suicide), Kurt Hessenberg (1908-1994), Albert Thate (1903-1982, composer of the canon 'Herr, bleibe bei uns', which has become accepted as a folksong: 'nobody' knows that the composer is Albert Thate).
Unlike today, at that time we, like our musical teachers, despised the rich harmonies (chromaticism, crescendi and decrescendi reeking of 'sentimentality') of 'romantic' music, of Mendelssohn, Bruckner, and Brahms. The old men of that time, our musical leaders, who have survived are outraged and disgusted when they witness us singing now also romantic motets with gusto. Our tastes have become more catholic and tolerant.
No reader who has not been soaked in that tradition could respond to my reeling off lists of composers, like Isaac (c.1450-1517), Eccard (1553-1611), Sweelinck (1562-1621), Schütz (1585-1672), Scheidt (1587-1654), Buxtehude (1637-1707), etc etc etc, well-known to us singers but unknown by name to everybody else, to pieces like Eccard's 'Übers Gebirg Maria geht / zu ihrer Bas' Elisabeth' (Mary wanders over the mountains to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who calls her Mother of the Lord...), or Bach's 'Uns ist ein Kindlein heut geborn' or Sweelinck's 'Hodie, hodie, Christus natus est, noël, noël', or Bach's 'Virga Jesse floruit', etc etc etc., and the whole Christmas section of the Lutheran hymn book. I remember also taking part in performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, his Christmas Magnificat in E-flat major and Christmas cantatas by Schütz and by Buxtehude.
All these experiences also have left their traces. They are 'indescribable', because they are not attached to the visible, 'spectacular', childhood drama and ritual, and reside only in their music and in their texts, such as they are. Today for me they are even stronger and more alive than my Roman Catholic memories, which form the bulk of this story. This goes to show that profound impressions can, exceptionally, still be acquired after the age of ten (or whatever), if there is enough desire and dedication.
I return to our Catholic family at the time when I was not much older than ten. In the evenings of the Christmas period, our family would assemble again round the Christmas tree and the crib, less solemnly of course than on Christmas Eve, to sing carols, or just to sit and read or talk. On these occasions only the thick candles of the crib and a few of the candles on the tree would be lit.
Gradually the sweets on our dishes would be finished. Begging Mother for a few more might or might not be successful. The apples adorning the Christmas tree were usually safest. They shrivelled as days went by and became increasingly less tempting -- almost human. But mysteriously the sweets and biscuits hanging from the tree would become fewer, even though there were no storms to shake them to the ground, and the 'invisible' rear of the tree was disproportionately affected by the gradual thinning out. Did our parents not notice, or were they too wise or compassionate to say?
There are many romantic stories, legends and poems which go with German Christmas, but there is a Russian one which was a treasure specific to our family, and I am not aware of anyone else knowing it. This was Nikolai Lesskow's (Ljeskov's) novella 'Das Tier' (The Beast), a favourite of our Father's (who had all nine volumes of Lesskow's collected works in German in his library) and of all the family.
I am not sure if 'The Beast' was ever read aloud to us. I think with its 7,000 words it was too long for that. But I must have read it frequently during the Christmas period for it to have left its indelible impression. Lesskow is now so little known, and the story was so important for us that I must give here at least a synopsis.
Five-year-old Nikolai Lesskow spends Christmas without his parents on the large estate of his uncle, who is renowned for his cruelty, the harsh punishments he inflicts on his serfs and the fact that he has never ever forgiven any transgressions.
It is the custom that captured bear pups are raised on the estate, looked after by 25-year-old Ferapont, who has a close relationship with them. At any one time one of the bear pups, selected because he seems easiest to teach and is the best behaved, is allowed to live outside the cage and move freely in the farmyard and the park, his special task being to stand guard at the entrance of the farm. He keeps this privilege as long as his animal nature does not appear, i.e. as long as he does not harm any of the animals or humans who live on the estate. As soon as he commits a transgression, he is irreprievably condemned to death, through an elaborately designed hunt procedure from which he cannot possibly escape.
The condemned bear will be kept in a den until the day of execution, which is to provide entertainment for the estate owner ('Uncle') and his guests. On this day, a strong beam will be lowered at an angle into the den, and the bear will immediately come out of his prison. He will then be set upon by young bloodhounds, trained to cling to the bear like leeches and not to let go as long as they are alive. If the bear manages to escape the bloodhounds in training, two hunters with experienced hounds will attack him. If he manages to survive these as well and is about to get away into the forest, a marksman is waiting for him. No bear has ever managed to overcome all these dangers, and should it ever happen, the persons responsible will meet with a terrible punishment.
The bear currently enjoying these privileges is Sganarell, and surprisingly he has already lived in this freedom for five years without committing a transgression. He has become a huge animal, very strong, beautiful, intelligent and dexterous. He can walk on his hindlegs, put on a paper hat, and parade like a soldier. A very close friendship has developed between him and Ferapont.
Just before the arrival of the boy, Sganarell had committed several misdemeanours, torn off the wing of a goose, put his paw on the back of a foal and broken his spine, and rolled a blind beggar and his guide in the snow, badly bruising their limbs in the process. Now he is in the den waiting for his execution, which will be the entertainment Uncle plans to offer his guests on Christmas Day (6 January: Epiphany, in the Russian Orthodox church). Uncle hears that Ferapont, who suffers for his imprisoned friend Sganarell and dreads his impending cruel fate, has said to his sister: 'Thank God, it is not me who has to shoot him if he escapes. I'd rather suffer the cruellest punishment than carry out such an order.' Uncle hears about this remark and immediately orders that Ferapont, his serf, be positioned in a hideout opposite that where the marksman of last resort waits and that he be ordered to shoot Sganarell before the marksman backs him up, if necessary.
At 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, all the spectators are lined up in their sledges in sight of the den, the bloodhounds, hunters and the marksmen are ready. Elaborate preparations have been made. The beam is lowered into the den, but the bear refuses to come out. Snowballs are thrown into the den, he is poked with lances, burning straw is thrown into the den, blank shots are fired into it: the bear roars loudly, in anger, fear and pain, he has been singed but has flattened himself on the ground, pressed against the wall away from the fire and refuses to budge. They fetch Ferapont. He must lead his friend to the execution. He tightly ties a strong rope to the top end of the beam and climbs into the den. The bear can be seen to embrace Ferapont and to lick his face. After a while, Ferapont re-emerges in tight embrace with the bear, Sganarell's paw resting on Ferapont's shoulder. Ferapont is driven back to his hideout, the bear left outside the den. One end of the rope with whose aid Ferapont climbed into the den has accidentally formed a loop round Sganarell's paw. As Sganarell tries desperately to pull his paw out of the loop which becomes ever tighter, the beam at the other end of the rope jumps out of the den and circles like a centrifuge round Sganarell, threatening to kill and destroy anything that enters its orbit. The bear keeps up the centrifugal motion. Two bloodhounds have already attacked Sganarell, and he has killed them with his paws. The beam shatters a whole pack of hounds at a blow. Turning slowly around himself, Sganarell walks on his hind legs, towards the forest where Ferapont and the marksman are hidden, all the time circling the beam around him, and nobody can attack him. All spectators are in grave danger: if the rope should break or Sganarell should let go of it and send the beam in their direction, anyone in its path would be killed. The spectators and the huntsmen with their dogs race away in panic. Sganarell is now between the two snow walls behind which Ferapont and the marksman are waiting, the rope breaks, the beam flies off, demolishes the marksman's snow wall and the wooden support for his heavy rifle before it comes to rest in the snow far behind the marksman. Sganarell tumbles backwards, makes several somersaults, and lands behind the other snow wall, where Ferapont is hiding. He licks Ferapont's face and embraces him. Ferapont is expected to kill his friend with his hunting knife but fails to do so, a grave offence. The marksman shoots without support for his rifle, only grazes the bear but hits Ferapont in his arm, Ferapont faints, Sganarell escapes into the forest, it is too dark to pursue him.
The guests and the children in the dining hall are waiting for the entry of Uncle and are discussing the terrible fate that will inevitably meet Ferapont for having failed to kill the bear, and hope against hope that Uncle will spare him, something which he has never done before. At this moment Uncle enters, there is embarrassed silence in the hall, which surely will make the distrustful man even angrier and even more cruel. To break the silence, the old village priest Alexej asks the children, who surround him, if they understand the deeper meaning of the Christmas hymn "Christ is born". Neither the children, nor the adults for that matter, really understand. The priest explains the deeper meaning of the words 'praise him' and 'lift up your hearts' and as he does so *** his *** own heart is lifted by the spirit, and everybody understands that while appearing to talk to all, it is really *** one *** heart he is trying to reach, and all pray silently that he may succeed. It was not only in ancient times that the wise men brought their gifts to the child in the manger but even today even the poorest man can bring a gift which is greater than those of the wise men, namely his own heart purified by the teaching that we should love, and forgive, and do good to all, friends as well as enemies.
Uncle is moved by these words, he drops his stick, which is the symbol of the cruelty with which his suffering and embittered heart defends itself against 'the world', which he can see only as his enemy. Now a message of love has reached his ear, he has seen a selfless person, Ferapont, showing love towards the beast, he sees that love is possible and that he too can expect love from others and that it is therefore not dangerous to love them, that he no longer needs to protect himself. He forgives Ferapont and sets him free, offers him money so that he can go away whenever he wishes. Ferapont accepts his freedom, but refuses to leave his master. He wants to continue to serve him as a free man with even more dedication than before as a serf. They become close friends, and the uncle nicknames him 'The Tamer of the Beast'.
The Uncle is not a converted sinner who has learned that it is his duty to do good rather than evil, but his heart has been melted, he has seen that the world is not essentially hostile and that he therefore need not defend himself through cruelty, but that he can afford to follow his natural, i.e. loving, inclinations.
This is not a case of conversion (sinner to saint) but a case of liberation (cure) from suffering (which induces fear and anger). Once suffering has come to an end, the works of love, deeply buried permanent instincts, flow on their own accord. Like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Tony Blair, George Bush, Ian Paisley and the Pope (aka The Anti-Christ), i.e. like all of us, Uncle was not "evil" (there is no such thing): he has been 'good' all along but he has not been able, has not dared, to show it.
It is not a conversion, but a resolution of his grudging and embittered soul.
In the church calendar, the Christmas period ends 40 days after the birth of Jesus, on the second day of February, with the feast of the "Purification of the Virgin Mary" (Mariä Lichtmess, the Churching of Mary). That is the day when the Christmas tree and the crib are removed from the churches, and Mary returns to her normal rights and duties as a housewife.
But the domestic Christmas period ends earlier, on Twelfth Night, i.e. on the sixth of January, the feast of Epiphany, or of the three kings, or of the three wise men, the magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, when Jesus 'came out', manifested himself as a future king and ruler, to the world at large (his first state visit, or rather, official audience, so to speak) and was recognised by the three kings who pledged their loyalty and brought him presents on behalf of the world.
He argued that the really important festival of the season was Epiphany (as it still is in the Eastern Orthodox Church), that Christ's manifestation to the world is more important than his physical birth (which more sentimental minds prefer to worship).
Therefore he preferred the festival of Reyes (Kings) as the Spaniards call Epiphany. This is when Spanish children get their presents. It makes more theological sense, Father argued, since it commemorates the presents brought by the Magi, which were 'real' presents, whereas Christ can only in a very extended sense be called the 'present' that God gives to mankind, however often the formula may be repeated in German Christmas poetry.
As far as presents were concerned, we stuck with established popular German custom (24 December), but official Epiphany was also greatly honoured.
This compromise showed that Father was not a fanatic and did not want to isolate us, in spite of his superior historical knowledge, from the society in which we lived. His was realpolitik. In this respect he was different from the typical sectarian, for example the Jehovah's Witnesses, who also know that Christmas is not a very ancient festival but who crossly refuse to acknowledge it in any way and make a virtue of not celebrating it, as if it were idolatry. I appreciate the common sense and tolerance which I learnt through such examples. Tolerance does not require ignorance or indifference.
Epiphany was the last day of our celebrations. A full set of fresh candles was put on the Christmas tree, and the sweets that had strangely disappeared from it, were, I think, tacitly replaced.
All candles would be lit, and yet again the tree would appear in its *** full *** glory. Carols would be sung including at least one suitable one of this day: "Es führt drei König Gottes Hand" (God's hand was leading three kings through a star in the orient to the Christ Child near Jerusalem). There was a pair of scissors, and after each carol one child or each child was allowed to cut a thread and take one sweet or one apple off the tree. That was called "den Baum plündern", plundering (ransacking) the tree. When the tree was empty, we would wait for the candles to burn down, and then for the very last candle to die away.