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Christmas Time in Eigenfeld

Weihnachtszeit in Eigenfeld

Goslin, Marta. "Christmas Time in Eigenfeld." Volk auf dem Weg, January 2004, 30.

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Even during Advent it hardly got light outside. The sky was gray, completely overcast. To avoid the penetrating, icy wind, animals and plants had already retreated, sleeping somewhere, secretively. Snow storms were arriving and sweeping over the steppe. When people dared to go out, they were wrapped in so many clothes that they looked like snowmen. Freezing breath settled around the nose and the mouth. In the kind of weather you wouldn't make your dog go out in, Ivan had to harness the horses in order to drive Papa to his religious classes and us kids to school. [Papa appears to be a minister. Tr.]

Chrysanthemums were blooming in the hothouse. I begged to be allowed to take a few blossoms for Miss Mary. Those sensitive hothouse flowers reminded me of the song "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming." Beaming while standing amidst snow and ice, I handed those miracle blooms to Miss Mary, but her thoughts must have been who knows where; she merely twirled the blooms carelessly in her fingers. I felt hurt by that.

At home, Mama and my siblings also seemed lost in thought while moving about. They probably had Christmas notions on their minds. It was the custom that every person was to be given one thoughtfully selected gift.

Silently I slid into Papa's study. He was always sitting in there and working, looking pale and tired. It took some courage to disturb him, but he appeared very pleased with my brief visit, sat me down on his knee, dug around in his desk drawer and came up with several illustrated biblical passages for me. Blissfully, I ran off and shelled a small plate full of sunflowers for him. I knew that he liked them.

Just before Christmas the weather suddenly changed. Instead of snow showers, there was blue sky over the steppe that was shining with glowing crystals and a blindingly white snow-cover. But it got even colder. Wondrous ice flowers had formed on window panes, competing with the freshly cut flowers Mama had placed on a layer of cotton balls on the sill of the double window. And, oh, what wonderfully delicious smells there were in the house, since for days now cookies had been baking. We had been allowed to help with that work.

Mama traveled to Melitopol for do her shopping for Christmas. From an Armenian merchant she bought things that would certainly delight Papa and us: black pressed caviar, a wooden box with chalva, dried fish, black olives in oil, wonderful sweets with names such as "lady fingers" or "crab tails," as well as nuts, almonds, oranges, figs, and dates.

By Christmas, small gifts for a few poor families had been packed, ready to be distributed. Thamar and I were responsible for taking them to the poor part of the city, Perkut. We loved doing it. There were very few families who were really poor, but all of the children were happy. We gladly played with them and got presents from them. Those cookies, apples, and whatever else we found in a small basket tasted really good.

Papa had once again been successful in locating a short-needled fur tree, not an easy feat in those days prior to the First World War. It was possible to find spruce trees in South Ukraine, but no fir trees. But for Mama a Christmas without a real fir tree was no Christmas at all. So Papa would write to places everywhere before he was able to get them.

Mama was hurrying in and out. For a while we were not allowed yet to enter the room with the tree, but we diligently practiced the Christmas poems we were to recite, for no one wished to get stuck. In the evening we all went to church together. Lyusa, with a lamp, went ahead -- of course, it had become dark very early. No one spoke on the walk to church. Everything was very solemn. Mama, sitting at the organ, had practiced an especially beautiful prelude that was to accompany Papa to the altar. And then came the chorale, joined in by the entire community.

After our return home, the tension was at a boiling point. Finally, we heard the small bell calling for us to come. Both doors to the large room swung open, and the tree was aglitter with bright lights. Our parents were awaiting us children, and also all those people who were close to us: Lyusa, Rosa, Roslaie, Ivan. Papa made a solemn speech, we recited our poems, and all sang together, accompanied by Mama on the piano. And then came the presents for everybody -- useful, beautiful, and sweet ones. There was always a book, and Mama also got her "Bazaar," a favorite women's periodical. But one day Papa suddenly canceled the subscription to "Bazaar," saying that the novels in it might not make an appropriate impression for Mama, and from then on I received the "Young Friend" periodical. All were happy and enjoyed the Christmas goose, the Crimean wine, and all the visiting during the days following.

Our Russian neighbors did not celebrate Christmas in the major manner we did, and their children did not have a longer Christmas vacation, either. They were concentrating more on enjoying New Year's, which they greeted loudly and vehemently with the words, "Na zdorovye!" To a healthy new Year!

My favorite feast was that of the Three Kings, when the Russians staged their own great celebration. During that day, students from an Orthodox seminar would parade around, singing and holding a huge star they had made of silk paper. Mama, too, was inspired by these boys and quickly filled their linen bags to the top. The colorful star was a reminder of Easter. How quickly the year passes!

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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