This is a draft of the story that I'll be telling at our annual Christmas show. The show is called "The Other Sounds of Christmas", and it features songs, music, dance and other traditional fare that isn't usually heard over the loudspeakers at Wal-Mart or seen on TV. We have a collection of friends from the folk community perform in benefit of the Food Bank. I usually start things off with a story
Here's the story... have a Merry Christmas.
At a Passover Seder, it usually falls to the youngest child at the table to ask four questions about what is happening and why things are being done the way they are. The explanation then forms part of the ritual, so the Seder is one tradition that has its explanation bundled up neatly within it.
I’ve often thought that something similar should be done for the traditions of Christmas, some of which seem to be universal, others particular to cultures or regions, and some belonging to families. Some are ancient, some are relatively new, and some traditions that we think we know the roots or meaning of have added layers of meaning as they are passed from generation to generation within a family. Sometimes it’s unclear why particular traditions or songs, or foods have importance, as they become part of the family’s DNA.
Questions for Christmas: “Why is this song so important? What’s so special about this night? Sometimes the answers are evasive, but sometimes they are there if you seek them…
Johanna has a prodigious memory. Her family marvels at her ability to recall facts, figures, names and events, but it’s her capacity to recall feelings and emotions that anchors these memories. It’s no surprise then that one of her first memories is of a Christmas Eve.
She was 2 and a half, and was allowed to sit up with the adults and have Christmas Eve supper with them. Her younger sisters, twins, were in bed and this was a magical moment for her, to be treated so special on this most special of nights. And despite the fact that she was so young, she remembers…
She remembers that she wore a red gingham blouse sewn by her mother. She remembers the meal, ham instead of the traditional German Christmas Eve fare of fish. She remembers that her Papa wasn’t there and that she missed him. She remembers that all of the women there spoke about the men in their lives. She remembers the light from the moon as it came in the open windows and the scent of the tropical breeze. There were candles on the tree, only this tree was a Eucalyptus. She remembers the music and the carols. They sang Stille Nacht, and she remembers that some people cried as they sang.
What Johanna did not know and could not yet understand was that she, her mother and sisters and all the other people sharing that Christmas Eve together were captives. This Christmas was being celebrated high in the mountains of Sumatra in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, and the women gathered together had been arrested by the police and detained there because they were German and Holland had just been overrun.
Years later in sharing her memories with her mother, Johanna was told that “Of course we cried, there was music, and candles on the tree, and we were together, and despite everything it was Christmas after all.” But what would a 2 year old understand of all of this? Only that her Papa wasn’t there.
On the other side of the island that night Johanna’s Papa was one of several dozen men being herded from one temporary jail to another, awaiting their transport to prison camps in India. This night they were reluctantly welcomed into a convent by Dutch missionary nuns frightened at the prospect of enemy men being kept under their roof. The enemy were business people, teachers, entrepreneurs, merchants, most of whom had left Germany to escape the insanity. They were consigned to a storage room, empty except for their bedrolls, but it was Christmas Eve, and someone found a bucket and a candle stub and around this makeshift tree the men gathered.
Tentatively at first, and then with full heart and voice they sang all the carols they could remember. The sisters heard them, and came into the room timidly with plates of cookies. Then Papa started to sing Stille Nacht. The music is the same, even if the languages differ, and German and Dutch together sang in harmony. There was music, it was Christmas, Christmas after all and Christmas despite everything. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Papa spent the war in India, Johanna her mother and sisters spent it in Japan and were not reunited as a family until 1946. Despite the war and despite poverty, Christmas was always a magical time for Johanna, but some of her childhood’s fondest memories were of the Christmases spent with her Papa once they were reunited.. Christmas Eve the girls were asked to perform a play, other times they were asked to play their instruments, violin, cellos, and recorders. Papa would take great joy in this, and after he’d read the gospel story from St. Luke the family would sing carols, but always they’d return to Stille Nacht.
Christmas carols were for Christmas, there were no “Rudolphs” or “Chestnuts” in Germany in those days.
They spent only 5 short years together as a family. In 1953 they joined Papa in Canada, but the promise of this land is one that he was not able to share with them. On Christmas Eve, with the family gathered at his bedside, he died at home of cancer. One of the girls sang Stille Nacht for him. Schlaf in Himmlischer Ruh… Sleep in Heavenly Peace. Johanna thought that she would never be able to celebrate Christmas again, that there would never be any joy in this day for her. But Christmas is Christmas, despite everything, and Christmas sometimes comes unbidden.
She found consolation in the kindness of strangers, in the kitchen filled with boxes of food that people donated, and in the memory of her Papa’s love of Christmas. With the passage of time she did find joy again, and perhaps not so strangely she felt Papa’s presence at Christmas.
She fell in love with a Canadian boy who mangled German, and thought that “O Tannenbaum” was “O Cannonball”, but he knew Johanna’s favourite carol. Whether you call it “Stille Nacht” or “Sainte Nuit”, the music for that song is the same and they sang it together, and still do. They were engaged on a Christmas Eve. On another Christmas she discovered that she was pregnant… and as the family grew the years brought changes, good times and bad, but some things remained for her as solid bedrock, a foundation. Christmas and its traditions, music, family and this one song. It was “Stille Nacht”, only now they sang “Silent Night”.
Questions for Christmas: “Mom, why don’t you let us sing Silent Night before Christmas? Why do you make sure we sing it on Christmas Eve? Mom, why are you crying?”
“Because Steven, there’s music, and there’s family, and it’s Christmas after all…”
Purveyor of Awesome since 1958.