The war had been over for some time, but Saarbrucken was still devastated by the terrible bombing raids of the last years of the war and so most of the families had been taken away to areas where it wasn’t so dangerous.
My parents and I were very lucky not to have to go abroad but could stay with my mother’s family, who lived in a small village in northern Saarland. People huddled together – that certainly wasn’t always pleasant for the adults.
For me it was wonderful – after all, I had my mum, grandparents, two aunts, four cousins , and one cousin not just in one place, but altogether in two houses next to each other. The three fathers were initially prisoners of war, but returned home in the course of 1946, with the exception of one who is still missing today.
With the help of the women (his 3 daughters, one of whom was my mother) and my grandmother, my grandfather ran a small farm with two cows, two pigs, a goat, and some chickens and cultivated a few fields. So we always had enough to eat! In addition, grandpa worked in forest management, so there was always enough wood for heating and – moreover – enough wood to exchange it for any missing items or services. To lubricate, as it was called.
For example, one could get the miller to grind a sack or two of grain or persuade the butcher to come into the house and slaughter a Wutz “black” and the like.
It must have been in the very cold winter of 1946/47; outside it was freezing stone and leg. If possible, every child had to bring a piece of wood or a few coals to school in the morning so that the classroom could be heated better.
At noon after homework, I clucked with my cousin Herbert, who was in second grade with me. We pressed our noses flat against grandma’s kitchen window and breathed peepholes into the icicle patterns. If the weather allowed, we had to play outside. We had snowball fights with other kids, got worse on ice rinks, or even got to ride with friends who still had sleds. When the weather was very bad, they were allowed to play in Herbert’s mum’s house in an unoccupied room known as the lumber room and where all sorts of old furniture and tools lay around. There was also our rocking horse, which had neither a tail nor ears and we, therefore, called it “our poor horse”. In our imagination, however, we rode with him in a “pig’s gallop” across meadows and fields.
Our little cousin usually joined us. Her older brother didn’t have it that way with us, he preferred to play “Holy Mass” with his friend. As a child, he was already very pious and firmly convinced that when he grew up he would become a pastor. The other two boys (Herbert’s brothers) felt too grown up for us at 12 and 13 years old and used the leftovers of a Märklin construction set to screw together imaginary structures that we were not allowed to touch under any circumstances!
St. Nicholas Eve was long overdue as far as we were concerned and we couldn’t believe it could be so long before the day the Christ Child came. Again and again, we tormented the adults with the question. How much longer?
Soon, was the answer, can’t you wait?
And again and again, we heard them say: “This year the Christ child is poor – not even a bit of white flour, hardly a bit of sugar.. he probably won’t bring any presents either.” Each time we lost our courage. But my cousin and I comforted each other and told ourselves how good we were, and good children get something from the Christ Child! That’s what St. Nicholas had promised, who himself only threw a few nuts into the room and handed out rods.
Some afternoons our mothers were gathered in Grandma’s kitchen and we children were not allowed to come in from playing until we were called. A sweet, promising scent then floated in the kitchen, and we asked ourselves: maybe the Christ Child had baked after all?
Finally, Christmas Eve came. That might have been a long day! The hands of the church clock would not and did not want to advance, and we did not know what to do with ourselves. The adults couldn’t use us either; they were busy with all sorts of mysterious things and whispered a lot to each other. Grandpa and my uncle “Baddies” were still pottering around in the feed kitchen – we weren’t allowed to go there. Grandma, Mama, and the aunts kept disappearing into the living room. We weren’t allowed to go there either.
My dad, whose specialty was telling animal fables, tried to pass the time with stories, but neither rabbit nor fox nor bear nor wolf could captivate us that day.
When it finally got dark, everyone had finished with their hustle and bustle and the whole family gathered in grandma’s kitchen: the adults talked and talked and we children were almost dying of impatience. Suddenly my dad said: “I want to see if the Christ Child isn’t coming soon” and left the kitchen in the direction of the living room. When he finally came back, he said it would probably soon be time.
Listen! Didn’t that ring a bell? We hardly knew whether we should dare to go into the living room, but then we were encouraged. Grandpa opened the door and we peeked past him and all we could say was: Aaaah…. and oooh!
The window was still open a crack and Dad took that as confirmation that the Christ Child had just flown away again. And what had it left us?
A decorated Christmas tree shone more beautifully in the candlelight than I had ever seen. We children didn’t notice that it was only the stubs of candles from previous years.
And even more miracles: for each of us children, a Christ Child plate with a shiny red apple, nuts, and the loveliest biscuits imaginable. And besides… there were also packages and other things under the Christmas tree. You couldn’t believe the magnificence.
My grandfather started singing “Silent Night”… and everyone sang along! In the second verse, the adult voices got a bit shaky, grandpa had to take off his glasses… and grandma sat quietly in her chair. She was definitely thinking about her missing son again and she also sighed: “Where Peter might be, whether he’s warm? My aunt put her arm around grandma to comfort her.
Then the candles had to be blown out again and finally, and finally, the gifts that the Christ Child had brought were distributed. Herbert and his two brothers unpacked knitted bobble hats and mittens, which they all put on immediately and were allowed to try out briefly at the open window. I was given a small table and a chair and I remembered that the carpenter had been to Grandpa’s recently and then left with a package under his arm.
My cousin Theo – the one with the pious friend – recognized his old sled – which had actually been useless – under the Christmas tree. He was amazed: the sled had new runners! Who knows what grandpa used to convince the village blacksmith that a sled without proper runners is useless!?
My little cousin Helga found the well-known doll that she had been missing for some time. She got a nice new dress. “That’s a shirt dress” exclaimed my cousin. She was a very witty woman and recognized straight away that the doll’s dress was made from the back of Grandpa’s old shirt.
We were all over the moon with joy.
The adults didn’t get any presents. They were content and happy because we children were happy and Grandpa said we still had to sing a song and he agreed: Oh you happy…