Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
Childhood memories refreshed each Christmas
Christmas is a special time for me.
In Germany three paid holidays are reserved for a true Christmas celebration. It is a time to reflect, a time to love and a time to share. No one is rushing to work except hospital workers, fire department and police workers who stand by for emergencies. It is a true celebration of all family members sharing the sacred, joyous time of Christ’s birth.
My mother was a master of suspense. In the morning of Christmas Eve we three girls were not permitted to enter the living room. We tried in vain to catch a glimpse through the door locks, but keys were cleverly inserted, destroying any hope of revealing the tiniest clue of the secret taking place inside.
About 5 pm, the harmonious church bells were ringing and off we went to our small neighborhood church. We walked a mile in deep snow and bitter cold. The tall street gas lanterns cast their pale blue light onto the snow, evoking thousands of brilliant crystals.
What a silent, peaceful night it was!
Inside the church two freshly cut 12-foot Christmas trees flanked the altar greeting us, decorated with ornaments and white wax candles. It felt so inviting, glorious and breathtaking! The candles on the huge trees were lit as soon as the minister appeared through the side door.
The Bethlehem scene in wooden, carved figures rendered the feeling that Christmas had finally arrived: there was little baby Jesus in a wooden crib sleeping so heavenly on fresh straw. There were His Mother and Father and the animals, all kept safe in a shed. And there were the Three Holy Kings and high above in the night sky there was the brightest star we had ever seen, the Star of Bethlehem.
The minister read the ancient story of the birth of Christ. And each time we heard the magic Christmas story it felt as though we heard it for the first time. Christmas songs followed about baby Jesus and the joy He brought to Earth for all mankind, ending with my favorite song ”Silent Night, Holy Night.”
Pretending to follow the Star of Bethlehem, we hurried home to seek the warmth of our huge black-tiled coal and wood stove, but moreover, to discover the secret of why we were kept out of the living room.
Our great-aunt who helped raise us knew precisely when we would return from church. After ringing the door bell impatiently and brushing the fresh snow from our hats, coats and shoes, we were finally admitted. We immediately stormed into the living room.
And there it was: a fresh Christmas tree decorated with real white wax candles burning gently! We were fascinated! Silver sparkles radiated from everywhere, caused by the warm candle light which gently swayed the silver tinsel, making the tree appear alive!
And it was!
It was a moment of awe and wonder. We just stood there overwhelmed, being engulfed by the simple sacredness of it all. Our shiny eyes reflected our surprise and anticipation; our hearts leaped with joy.
A special light dinner was served. While we ate the delicious food, we watched the brilliant tree and the warm candle lights. Simple gift-giving followed: pajamas, socks, cotton handkerchiefs, a white doll, a black doll, always a book. Homemade cookies and Weihnachsstollen with nuts and rum-soaked raisins were served with a warm drink.
It was a most memorable time to cherish.
Jan. 6, the Three Holy Kings’ Day, marked the time to burn out all candles used during the festive Christmas days, along with all Christmas tree candles left on the tree. The last flickering candle on the tree was carefully watched and anticipated. Moving a bit closer and breathing lightly, we awaited its final “puff” as the light extinguished. In that very moment we closed our eyes and made a silent wish for the New Year.
This silent wish was not to be told to anyone because the energies of this wish would dissipate and thus never become reality.
Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Silent Night, Holy Night.
This is how we’ve celebrated Christmas for more than half a century. The only thing that has changed is that we do not go to church anymore, but have welcomed and added more global religions to celebrate this special holy event with us on Christmas Eve. Respecting all and everyone is what true peace is all about! It’s in our heart, not out there somewhere.
Jutta Akulina Benner is a Eugene author and “native to beautiful Oregon for 28 years.”