Posted by: Nazausgraben | December 31, 2020

CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE MORNING

Christmas Day, and here in Pinswang we were blessed with the best of gifts…snow! There had been a light dusting of the white during November and all here in the Tirol very much hoped that this would portend a snowy winter.

Our American-style Thanksgiving dinner with the children and grandchildren came and went and the passing of the first weeks of December looked and felt more like Fall; old worn brownish farmer’s fields, the remnants of fallen leaves, now faded and forlorn, gray skies but temperatures well above freezing. Having been for so long under restricted conditions to the global pandemic, most had the feeling that a massive blanket had descended upon Austria; cancelling all of the annual Christmas markets, concerts, social activities and, in general, covering whatever joys that there might otherwise be at this beautiful time of the rolling year.

Everyone did what they could to bolster waning spirits. Here in Pinswang, there was a marvelous idea to create an ‘Adventweg’; that is, a path throughout the village which, when taken, would reveal (I believe it was) 27 ‘stations’ whereby individuals or families would create scenes depicting some aspect of the beautiful Christmas season. These would then be situated at various spots on trails throughout both upper and lower Pinswang as well as the forest connecting the two.

Along the Adventweg, one might encounter a live Christmas tree, beautifully decorated and sporting laminated photos of the Kindergarten class. Abit further on would find a hand-crafted wooden scene, complete with carved houses, our village church and across the top, a Christmas greeting engraved into the wood. At another station one could see a tin foil Christmas star with its long golden shooting tail, all nailed onto a tree. There were beautifully designed flat wooden Christmas trees upon which words of faith and hope were painted. At one house, the entire front yard fence was adorned with an Advent calendar; at each day there was an ornament, some type of item of interest, a stuffed Weihnachtsmann (Santa) and, on the last day of Advent, a small, beautifully crafted Nativity scene.

Throughout the period of Advent, families wandered the Adventweg, enjoying the stations and, in some cases, the chocolates and other sweets made available on certain days. At those stations where the sweets were depleted, Christmas cookies were usually to be found. Many families were seen to walk the trail as the sun waned its last each day, revealing the many strings of batteried flickering lights illuminating many of the displays.

Finally, Christmas Eve arrived; the quiet waiting of Advent was over. Most here celebrated at home with their immediate families. Outside the temperature plummeted and it was bitter cold by the time we returned home after Midnight Mass.

Christmas day in the morning. It had snowed overnight, not just a light sprinkling of sugar dust, but really snowed..…high boot, long thick coated, mufflered and wooly capped deep heavy snow that covers everything from mountain peak down to every crack in the brick driveway. It was only six of the clock and already smoke billowed aloft from every house. Lights blazed from windows as Pinswang came alive to greet this most wonderful day. Everyone here so needed this invaluable gift of snow; coming on Christmas Day, there was no doubt that many a prayer had indeed been answered.

It was off St. Ulrichs where I played the organ at Christmas Day Mass. The still beauty of Advent music now turned to the vibrant repertoire of Christmas and I rejoiced in being able to play so many of the beloved Christmas songs from both the Austrian and English traditions.

After Mass, I stopped to enjoy our church’s Nativity scene (Krippe) which was built by one of Pinswang’s great Masters of the art. On a table before the Krippe was a lighted candle of Bethlehem, the ‘Bethlehem kerze’ or so-called ‘Friedenslicht ‘(Light of Peace).  It was in the late 1980s that the Austrian national broadcaster, the ORF (Österreichischer Rundfunk) began what has become most cherished tradition. Each year the ORF broadcasts an aid campaign, designed to raise money for worthy causes.

Each year shortly before Christmas Eve, a candle is lit in the grotto chapel in Bethlehem where Jesus was born and is flown to Austria in a fire-proof container. Upon its arrival, the flame from Bethlehem is then used to the light candles of those who will take them to all parts of Austria. The Bethlehem flame is then used to light even more candles which are brought to a host of locations not only in Austria, but throughout the world, at which those wishing to do so can light their own candles from the flame from Bethlehem. Here in Pinswang, the flame from Bethlehem is brought to each home by members of our local Fire Dept. and can also be obtained in our village church.

One can then purchase a candle for a few Euros and light it from the flame of the Friedenslicht. The candle is of the type that one would normally find adorning gravesites; that is, the wax is in a hard lightly colored wide plastic tube that is protected atop by a metal cover. Air can feed the flame within via decorated openings around the beveled edge of the metal cover. One then takes this covered candle home as a symbol of peace on Earth which one would devoutly wish, not only at Christmas but the year ‘round. This light is also so special as it represents the light of Christ that comes to us each Christmas Eve, a symbol made even more poignant when one sees worshippers departing into the icy dark new morning outside the church after Midnight Mass. The flickering candles can be seen for some time as those holding them walk home, disappearing into the pitch of night.

So it was that I lit a candle, fastened the metal top securely and began my own Christmas Day walk back to our home. Once again it was bitterly cold, but the sun shone about and the snow glistened, creating a veritable universe of stars carpeting the large undulating farmer’s fields.

Now, the problem is that as one walks the Roman Road from the Ulrichskirche to our home, one must do so through the never-ending winds that blow over the wide mountain-side forest-bounded trail known as the ‘Kratzer’. It varies with the times of the day, month and year, weather conditions and the general state of meteorological affairs, but there is almost ALWAYS a blow of some sort wind-tunneling its way from across the border in Bavaria and into our Tirolean valley. This ‘Kratzerwind’ can turn a warm still Summer day into a blowing Sahara storm. It pummels our home with gale force winds especially during the late Summer storm season and blows Fall leaves into a swirl fore our entranceway. But it is especially during Winter that the Kratzerwind really makes itself known; blowing madly day and night, billowing heavy wet snow into massive dunes that block our doorways, making extricating ourselves from our house something of a challenge.

Naught but a mild zephyr when I departed for the church that morning, the Kratzerwind was blowing mightily by the time I departed for home that Christmas Day. As I turned the curve approaching the Earschbach pond not far from our place, I noticed that the lit Friedenslicht flame was wobbling wildly and almost disappearing; it was on the verge of being extinguished by the Kratzerwind.

Now, this posed a rather interesting problem. What does one do when the flame of Bethlehem is blown out prior to bringing it to safe harbor in an enclosed exterior lantern or within our home’s entrance hall? At first glance, one could merely retrace one’s steps back to the church and re-light the candle. Yet, there would still be that nasty gale on the return trip. An alternative would be to head home and simply re-light the candle there, but this would no longer be the Friedenslicht…just a lit candle. I took the easy way out, and did the best I could to shield the flame from the squally onslaught.

Such a strategy was not optimal, however. One hand was occupied with carrying a case filled with music and the other clutched the plastic tube within which the wind blasted flame was wildly flailing and wagging about like a miscreant fly trying desperately not to be sucked into a weaponized vacuum cleaner. It was impossible to half-cover the metal lid openings to prevent the wind to enter. I thus had to hold the candle close, insinuating my body between the wind and the flame, the latter of which was now precariously close to flickering out. What a sight it must have been to see me twisting and turning as I walked home, trying to keep up with the ever-changing gusts now pummeling my back. Had my hat flown off during that transit home, I would have had to make a spot decision to save it from a watery grave in the Earschbach or let the flame be blown to oblivion.

Happily, my destination came into sight and as I reached the gate, I quickly placed the still burning Friedenslicht into the safe glass windowed confines of the Christmas lantern. There it burned, steadily, for the night and following day. The light of Bethlehem eventually burned out, but its meaning and the warm illumination that it brought on that day and all that have followed, stays with us.

Posted by: Nazausgraben | December 23, 2020

CHRISTMAS EVE

It was a lifetime ago that I recall seeing something on television…a so-called ‘public service announcement’ that I have in all the decades since have never forgotten. It left an indelible and moving impression, attesting to the success of its means of delivering a message so simple, so obvious, so important. The mists of memory may have, during the very many years gone by since I saw this broadcast, somewhat dimmed and I may have filled some gaps in my mind’s eye and ear with perception not associated with what I had actually seen. I have long sought this public service announcement via various archival video sources, but despite my best efforts, sadly to no avail. It is with this in mind that I herein will attempt to replay, in words and (admittedly) with some creative embellishment, this Christmas message that has stayed with me now for so very long.

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There was a rather majestic throne; a massive wooden faux Biedermeier chair sporting bulbous hand-carved arms and legs, upholstered with a deep red also faux satin with golden tasseled borders pillowed seat and back. This elegant piece from someone’s grandmother’s attic was surrounded by what must have been a ton of Styrofoam and cotton wad snow, billowing from a hard wooden floor and anything but froze. Two lines massive candy canes seemed to emanate from the back of the throne, forming a large half-circle bounding the snowy area forming a majestic amphitheater or piazza of sorts. One could be forgiven for thinking that the person who designed this area was inspired by the grand arching arms encompassing St. Peter’s Square in Rome. One certainly had that feeling when entering this cordoned-off section of the store’s toy section. Scattered about and half submerged in the snow were large boxes of all sizes and shapes, perfectly packaged and ribboned to look like Christmas presents. And there, sitting on Grandma’s old chair amidst this remarkable scene was Charlie.

Charlie Bell, 70 but in visage and gait going on 85, a face lined and wearied from a lifetime of hard luck and unfulfilled dreams but punctuated by fleeting moments of great joy, a face now partially covered by a finely manicured false white moustache and beard. His hair thinned with time was now bedecked with a flowing white wig that covered his head and ears. It, in turn, sported an elegant red pointed cap. Where it sat on Charlie’s head, the cap had a wide band of white fur. Most of the cap not in contact with Charlie’s head was weighted down by a large thick white pommel that caused the peak of the cap to bend bent over and collapse to the side to the level of Charlie’s right shoulder.

The rest of Charlie was covered in a rather magnificent red suit, with white trim, big black buttons and, at his corpulent waist, a thick black belt. It all was very convincing indeed, and one would never have known that the thick protruding belly which was even more pronounced when sitting did not belong to Charlie; rather the overly stuffed pillows gartered in place belied Charlie’s seemingly aged and somewhat fragile frame. Where exercised muscles had once proclaimed an attractive dash, there was now but a remnant of a modestly fed form. The red trousers ending in tall black plastic boots hid the thin legs that took Charlie back and forth to this Toy department each icy city December day from 1-6pm.

At his hiring interview back in November, the Human Resources Manager had asked Charlie why he wanted to be the store Santa. His smile was strong as he answered that he loved children and, as his own children were now grown, having successful careers and living with their own families in other states, it was especially at Christmas that Charlie wanted to bring some joy to the little ones who might come to the store seeking Santa with their lists of Christmas wishes. No, although he had no previous experience doing this, all of his friends kept telling him that he would be the perfect Santa ; that the kind, jolly, gregarious and sensitive demeanor which so defined Charlie’s character would proves to be perfect qualities especially now at this most joyous time of the year.

So it was on this Christmas Eve that Charlie made the long walk between his small one-room efficiency on West 86th Street to this turn of the century, Christmas light bedecked concrete shopping paradise. This was the final time he would do so, and as he quickly glanced at the nearby clock on the wall, he saw that there was but a few minutes left. In many ways he regretted this as he really did enjoy being in the company of the 100s of children he had met during these past 24 days. They had come in all ages, sizes and shapes. As they sat in a miniature version of the throne right next to Santa, they had whispered their names and wishes into the jolly man’s waiting ear.

Most were standard fare, books, toys, pets…all of which would bring great delight under the Christmas tree, only to be all-too-quickly forgotten, broken, discarded. Then there were those few whose requests Santa could not possibly grant…..to bring back a Father who had not been seen in months…to help a friend who was very very ill…these were heart wrenching requests to which in reply Santa could only provide a soothing word or two hoping to provide a modicum of consolation, if for only a moment. Later, at night in bed, Charlie would think of these little ones having such pain, and Charlie would awaken the next morning, eyes red and cheeks still stained with his tears.

Now, the store clock struck 6 just as Frieda, a sweet tiny blonde who asked Santa a new violin to replace the one that had been stolen, turned to wave goodbye as she departed with her smiling parents. There were no more children in the cordoned line that lead to Santa’s throne; instead, here came Mr. Kaiser, the gentleman who had hired Charlie those many days before. Charlie slowly stood up from the throne in which he had been sitting for the past 5 hours. He did so slowly as his old back ached terribly.

Mr. Kaiser extended his right arm and, shaking Charlie’s now gloveless wrinkled hand, thanked him profusely for being such a wonderful Santa. Charlie was very tired now, but managed to smile as Mr. Kaiser wished him a very Merry Christmas.

Charlie removed his Santa hair, Santa beard, Santa suit and boots and left the shop, once again an anonymous figure making his way back to his room. He walked more slowly than ever, not just from fatigue, but because he now regretted the lies he had told that nice Mr. Kaiser back in November. Charlie had no family, no children or grandchildren…he had never had a family of his own. Nor were there any longer friends who had praised his character; those few whom he regarded as true friends had either moved away or had died long ago.   None of this had ever seemed to bother Charlie until now, but watching Frieda and all those countless other children arrive and depart with friends and families suddenly seemed now on this dark, cold and snowy midtown Christmas Eve to weigh heavily on Charlie’s shoulders.

Charlie kept walking, slowly, the glorious sights, sounds and smells of Christmas, the carolers on the corner, the brilliant lights decorating window after window up to the heights of the tallest buildings, roasted chestnut smells wafting into the crisp night air, people…lots of happy scarf bundled, heavy coat and cap wearing people laden with gifts making their ways to the bright warmth of their homes, their families, their friends…all of this seemed to Charlie so remote, so distant. He hardly dared look up into the passing faces as he made his way to the stairs leading to his building’s front door.

Although Charlie’s room was on the fourth floor, he took the stairs, his pace even slower than before. Finally, there was the door to his room. He entered, hung up his coat and hat, turned on the radio and prepared a cup of tea.  Then he sat in his very old, worn chair, so unlike the throne he had occupied the past month, but it was Charlie’s chair…the one near a window overlooking the street below. He raised its creaky wooden frame open, allowing the icy night breezes to enter and cool the dark stuffy room.

There was the ever expected, ever-present low motor rumble of horn beeping traffic delayed cars, taxis and busses slowly rolling by, those within eager to be with anticipating families and friends and the Christmas feasts with raised glasses, toasting to the health and welfare to all in the coming year and above all the laughter and good cheer to be in such marvelous company, all to come on this most holy night of nights.

The snow began to fall again and Charlie could see the endless cascade of thick falling flakes silhouetted against the street lamps. But now there was something else.  Music and laughter entered with the cold winter air, with faint thickly shawled, long coated hat or capped gift bag-toting passersby calls of ‘Merry Christmas…Merry Christmas….Merry Christmas’.  All of this joyous passing wonderment wafting aloft from four floors below.

Charlie sat alone in his small unadorned half-dark room, sipping his tea, drinking in the sounds of so many happy others on their ways to the warmth of family, home. ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ quietly played from the small white plastic radio on his kitchenette shelf.

Suddenly, and quite without warning or will, a terribly sad heavy empty loneliness descended on Charlie.  He had fought it for so long, but now its sweet sorrowful melancholy encompassed him. It was a horrid feeling and although it was still early, Charlie decided to go to bed.

It was then that there was a light, almost hesitant knock on the door to his room. A pause, and then it came again, this faint knock. Charlie slowly rose from his chair and, opening the door, saw that in the hallway outside stood 7-year old Martin Haller. He and his parents lived in an apartment on the floor above Charlie.

“Well, hello there, Martin. What brings you here so late”?

“Mr. Bell, Mom and Dad want to know if you would like to come up and celebrate Christmas with us”.

Charlie could not speak…did not move. In his stunned silence he could only make a slight quivering closed mouth half smile. Fighting back tears, he patted Martin’s head softly. Turning off the light and closing the door to his room, he silently took Martin’s small hand in his and together they walked up the stairs to the next floor.

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I saw this broadcast as a boy; now, as I write this, I am of an age akin to that of Charlie.  Unlike Charlie, however, I have been blessed with a loving family and dear friends with whom I can rejoice in life, not only at Christmas, but throughout the swiftly fleeting year. Yet there are so many, particularly the elderly, who, indeed like Charlie, are alone, truly alone, in such circumstances of great need. It is therefore especially at this time of the year, then, that we should remember the destructive poverty of loneliness from which so many are suffering. It is these to whom we should turn; to devote even a modicum of our time and selves and in doing so, to bring some solace, some joy.

May you and yours have a most blessed Christmas season.

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