A German Christmas Eve
It was intensely cold; Father Rhine was frozen over, so he may speak for it; and for days we had lived to the merry jangle and clang of innumerable sleigh bells, in a white and frost-bound world. As I passed through the streets, crowded with stolidly admiring peasants from the villages round, I caught the dear remembered 'Gruss Gott!' and 'All' Heil!' of the countryside, which town life quickly stamps out along with many other gentle observances.
"Gelobt sei Jesu Christ!" cried little Sister Hilarius, coming on me suddenly at a corner, her round face aglow with the sharp air, her arms filled with queer-shaped bundles. She begs for her sick poor as she goes along--meat here, some bread there, a bottle of good red wine: I fancy few refuse her. She nursed me once, the good little sister, with unceasing care and devotion, and all the dignity of a scant five feet. "Ach, Du lieber Gott, such gifts!" she added, with a radiant smile, and vanished up a dirty stairway.
In the Quergasse a jay fell dead at my feet--one of the many birds which perished thus--he had flown townwards too late. Up at the Jagdschloss the wild creatures, crying a common truce of hunger, trooped each day to the clearing by the Jager's cottage for the food spread for them. The great tusked boar of the Taunus with his brother of Westphalia, the timid roe deer with her scarcely braver mate, foxes, hares, rabbits, feathered game, and tiny songbirds of the woods, gathered fearlessly together and fed at the hand of their common enemy--a millennial banquet truly.
The market-place was crowded, and there were Christmas trees everywhere, crying aloud in bushy nakedness for their rightful fruit. The old peasant women, rolled in shawls, with large handkerchiefs tied over their caps, warmed their numb and withered hands over little braziers while they guarded the gaily decked treasure-laden booths, from whose pent-roofs Father Winter had hung a fringe of glittering icicles.
Many of the stalls were entirely given over to Christmas-tree splendours. Long trails of gold and silver Engelshaar, piles of candles--red, yellow, blue, green, violet, and white--a rainbow of the Christian virtues and the Church's Year; boxes of frost and snow, festoons of coloured beads, fishes with gleaming scales, glass-winged birds, Santa Klaus in frost-bedecked mantle and scarlet cap, angels with trumpets set to their waxen lips; and everywhere and above all the image of the Holy Child. Sometimes it was the tiny waxen Bambino, in its pathetic helplessness; sometimes the Babe Miraculous, standing with outstretched arms awaiting the world's embrace--Mary's Son, held up in loving hands to bless; or the Heavenly Child-King with crown and lily sceptre, borne high by Joseph, that gentle, faithful servitor. It was the festival of Bethlehem, feast of never-ending keeping, which has its crowning splendour on Christmas Day.
A Sister passed with a fat, rosy little girl in either hand; they were chattering merrily of the gift they were to buy for the dear Christkind, the gift which Sister said He would send some ragged child to receive for Him. They came back to the poor booth close to where I was standing. It was piled with warm garments; and after much consultation a little white vest was chosen--the elder child rejected pink, she knew the Christkind would like white best- -then they trotted off down a narrow turning to the church, and I followed.
The Creche stood without the chancel, between the High Altar and that of Our Lady of Sorrows. It was very simple. A blue paper background spangled with stars; a roughly thatched roof supported on four rude posts; at the back, ox and ass lying among the straw with which the ground was strewn. The figures were life-size, of carved and painted wood: Joseph, tall and dignified, stood as guardian, leaning on his staff; Mary knelt with hands slightly uplifted in loving adoration; and the Babe lay in front on a truss of straw disposed as a halo. It was the World's Child, and the position emphasised it. Two or three hard-featured peasants knelt telling their beads; and a group of children with round, blue eyes and stiff, flaxen pigtails, had gathered in front, and were pointing and softly whispering. My little friends trotted up, crossed themselves; it was evidently the little one's first visit.
"Guck! guck mal an," she cried, clapping her fat gloved hands, "sieh mal an das Wickelkind!"
"Dass ist unser Jesu," said the elder, and the little one echoed "Unser Jesu, unser Jesu!"
Then the vest was brought out and shown--why not, it was the Christchild's own?--and the pair trotted away again followed by the bright, patient Sister. Presently everyone clattered out, and I was left alone at the crib of Bethlehem, the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven.
It was my family, my only family; but like the ever-widening circle on the surface of a lake into which a stone has been flung, here, from this great centre, spread the wonderful ever-widening relationship--the real brotherhood of the world. It is at the Crib that everything has its beginning, not at the Cross; and it is only as little children that we can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I went out again into the streets it was nearly dark. Anxious mothers hurried past on late, mysterious errands; papas who were not wanted until the last moment chatted gaily to each other at street corners, and exchanged recollections; maidservants hastened from shop to shop with large baskets already heavily laden; and the children were everywhere, important with secrets, comfortably secure in the knowledge of a tree behind the parlour doors, and a kindly, generous Saint who knew all their wants, and needed no rod THIS year.
One little lad, with a pinched white face, and with only an empty certainty to look forward to, was singing shrilly in the sharp, still air, "Zu Bethlehem geboren, ist uns ein Kindelein," as he gazed wistfully at a shop window piled high with crisp gingerbread, marzipan, chocolate under every guise, and tempting cakes. A great rough peasant coming out, saw him, turned back, and a moment later thrust a gingerbread Santa Klaus, with currant eyes and sugar trimming to his coat and cap, into the half-fearful little hands. "Hab' ebenso ein Kerlchen zu Haus'," he said to me apologetically as he passed.
I waited to see Santa Klaus disappear; but no, the child looked at the cake, sighed deeply with the cruel effort of resistance, and refrained. It was all his Christmas and he would keep it. He gazed and gazed, then a smile rippled across the wan little face and he broke out in another carol, "Es kam ein Engel hell und klar vom Himmel zu der Hirten Schaar," and hugging his Santa Klaus carefully, wandered away down the now brilliant streets: he did not know he was hungry any more; the angel had come with good tidings.
As I passed along the streets I could see through the uncurtained windows that in some houses Christmas had begun already for the little ones. Then the bells rang out deep-mouthed, carrying the call of the eager Church to her children, far up the valley and across the frozen river. And they answered; the great church was packed from end to end, and from my place by the door I saw that two tiny Christmas trees bright with coloured candles burnt either side of the Holy Child.
A blue-black sky ablaze with stars for His glory, a fresh white robe for stained and tired earth; so we went to Bethlehem in the rare stillness of the early morning. The Church, having no stars, had lighted candles; and we poor sinful men having no white robes of our own had craved them of the Great King at her hands.
And so in the stillness, with tapers within and stars alight without, with a white-clad earth, and souls forgiven, the Christ Child came to those who looked for His appearing.