You Don’t Say: She Loved Christmas

My mother and I arrived on these shores not quite two months shy of my fourth birthday, and from the start she determined to help me assimilate to my new home as quickly as possible. To that end, she decided we would speak no German, and she parked me in front of the television to watch all the children’s shows of the day: Howdy Doody, The Mickey Mouse Club, Captain Kangaroo and endless cartoons.

Her plan worked, and I was able to learn rudimentary English very quickly.

Despite this prohibition on speaking German, the one thing Mom was never able to give up was her love of the Christmas holiday traditions she had grown up with. She loved Christmas. Like a lover, every year she drew it close, caressed it and held it tightly with an unrequited longing. Perhaps she sought to recreate the Christmases of her early childhood before the world went crazy and her innocence was lost to the horrors of war and separation from family.

She was only 12 when she and her younger brothers, along with their mother, were forced to flee Poland by train ahead of the Russian army as it pushed through that country on its way to Berlin. Along the way they became separated, and my mother had to make her way back into Germany with her brothers. They were taken to Bayreuth, where they endured an Allied bombing raid and were trapped in a cellar for several days.

Eventually they made their way to the small town of Herzogenaurach, where their grandparents and other family members lived. They were reunited with their mother a short time later, but their father, my grandfather, was ultimately captured by the Allies and held until after the war ended.

Quite an adventure for such a young girl; one which she only spoke of in the most general terms, highlighting the palatable portions and leaving out the more frightening aspects of what she and her brothers had experienced.

Only recently, while watching a documentary on the effect of the war on the children who lived through it, did I become aware the “train” was actually cattle cars and there was considerable danger involved – from the Poles, the Allies and other refugees as well. According to the film, most of these surviving youngsters developed PTSD and any number of accompanying psychological and behavioral issues.

This explains so much regarding my mother’s emotional unavailability; she was very often down, unhappy and depressed, but like so many others damaged by war and violence, she did the best she could.

In the years following the war, she sought normalcy. She finished school and attended university for a time, ultimately finding work as a translator for the U.S. Army. I was born when she was just 20 years old, but from the beginning she made sure my Christmases were like those she remembered from her own early years; the same traditions she would carry with us when we immigrated to the United States.

My own earliest memories of Christmas involve the terror of being snatched up by the Krampus one year — probably one of my uncles — who threatened to take me down into the coal cellar. I’m sure there was a beautiful tree with real candles burning, gifts and of course baked goods. But that is simply supposition; to this day all I truly remember is that darn Krampus!

Once married and making a home with my father, she began giving her annual seasonal seminar: German Christmas Traditions 101. With “Kling Glockchen Kling” playing on the stereo, she would produce yeasty loaves of Christmas Stollen and a cornucopia of cookies. Hearty winter soups and Braten, replete with red cabbage and potato dumplings graced our table.

Always good with her large, strong hands, she made amazing ornaments of crochet and of straw that were hung on the tree and given as gifts. In the spirit of the season she always shared what she had.

Weinachten was an elixir for her!

Making Christmas special for us brought about a transformation in Mom that was magical. But for her it was not so much about the Yuletide trimmings, gifts under the tree or even the birth of a child. It was simply about us, her family, being together and happy.

I believe this was her therapy. This was how she healed, even if just for a few days, the deep wounds suffered as a child. For those few days, in her mind she returned to those happier times before WWII shattered all of Europe and her young life.

Van Elburg has been a resident of Williamsburg, James City County for more than 30 years. He is semi-retired from a multi-faceted business career and currently teaches classes on blues music for the Christoper Wren Association. He is a musician, writer and on-air personality and programming director for the mobile radio station, TheBluesAlley.com.

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