A memory of a long ago Christmas cheers me even today.
It was Christmas Eve 1944 and we lived in Poland as refugees. Two women in a neighbouring village had prepared a Christmas party and invited us. But the 5 km walk in the dark with four small children was dangerous. There could be partisan ready to attack, besides the front was dangerously close. Still, Mother, wanting to give us children joy, accepted.
We stepped out of our one room shack onto the crisp snow covering the farmyard. A moon crescent hung above a large house across the yard where the estate owners lived, kind people who treated us refugees well. It, too, was shrouded in darkness.
Mother lifted Katie and shuffled her to her back: she’d carry her piggyback. “Hang tight onto my coat collar,” she coaxed. Then, turning towards us girls, she said, “You take Fred’s hands.” My younger sister and I complied. We had often taken care of our little brother while mother had culled potatoes in the big barns or had done other chores for the landowners.
At the road, we stopped. Although I knew it well from my treks to school, I could barely make out the houses on either side of the street. No street lights were allowed now. Windows heavily draped permitted no light to seep out of the houses.
My mother hesitated for a brief moment. Then she said, “Come, we’ll take the shortcut across the fields.”
The snow crunched as four pairs of feet punched holes in the white expanse of open fields. Stars spangled the vault of sky above us. Finally we arrived at our friends’ house. The door opened and we stepped inside.
Candlelight flickered from a small Christmas tree and bounced out of happy children’s eyes. Red paper chains decked the tree; delicate paper cherubs smiled down upon us.
We squeezed in amongst women and children sitting on the floor.
Soon the room filled with singing: “Stille Nacht, heilige_Nacht”, “Welch ein Jubel, welche Freude,”, “O du froehliche, so du selige”… We sang with gusto and from memory, songs that lifted our hearts above the terrors of war and inspired new hope for the days ahead.
I can’t remember our long trek home that night, but I do remember the wonderful gifts I received from Weihnachtsmann. My right pocket bulged with the most beautiful ball I’d ever seen. A very colourful ball it was. Much later, I learned it had been made out of scrunched up rags wrapped in rainbow coloured yarn probably gleaned from unravelling old sweaters. The other pocket held three cookies!
Soon after that wonderful Christmas party, we were evacuated. Icy winds blew snow into our faces as we cowered on an uncovered hay wagon pulled by two scrawny horses. With the front so close behind, we travelled day and night. Once it was safe to stop, we slept in barns. We ate hunks of frozen bread and drank the occasional cup of milk supplied by a Red Cross jeep.
But the warm memory of that Christmas celebration shone like a small candle in the darkness. Even years later, when my own life’s circumstances seemed too bleak to celebrate Christmas, I remembered the truth of Christmas born in my heart that night: Jesus, the light of the world came to us at Christmastime and no amount of darkness can put out that light.