December was always a quiet, hushed month, holy in a strange way. Of course, all the rituals were my mother's attempts to create the impossible. I see her opening the door to the sitting room, in her black dress with the small fur collar. We loved touching that collar so much. She looks so tired but this is her time, the way she wanted it.
December starts with the Advent wreath, sitting on the coffee table with its fat red ribbon and the four red candles. Every day, when it gets dark, we are allowed to light the correct number of candles, we each get to choose a treat from the bowl of mandarine oranges, nuts, coconut macaroons, spekulatius and springerle and sit quietly while she reads a chapter from Mary's Little Donkey. Sometimes, she will play the mouth organ for us but only if it does not make her cry. We may sing a little bit, more like a humming, not disturbing the cosy quiet almost dark room. Just before the candles are blown out and the lights come on, she burns a small piece from the pine wreath and now the room smells of christmas.
In the mornings, there is the advent calendar with its carefully designed rota as to who is allowed to open the little door and gets to eat the chocolate. We find this very difficult but she is adamant, no discussions.
On the 6th,
Nikolaus our next door neighbour in a red dressing gown and fake beard comes to check us out for the Christkind. My brother starts crying and hides under the table. I forget the poem I was to recite and try to impress him with an improvised song. My sister is very embarrassed and kicks me from behind. In the end, he opens his big gold book my father's old Latin dictionary and reads out the verdict - we have been both good and bad - and hands out small presents. My father disappears with him through the back door.
On christmas eve, the sitting room door is locked and the blinds are down. My mother is strangely absent, while my father tries his hand at breakfast. We are sent upstairs to tidy up. Eventually, my mother appears, nervously serving a slap-dash lunch and again, we are sent upstairs, this time to change into the clothes that have by now been carefully laid out on our beds.
By the time it gets dark we walk to the church. My sister is a shepherd in the play. My mother has made her a long poncho out of a blanket and I helped wrap gold foil around
her shepherd's staff my grandfather's walking stick. There is a murmur of laughter when my sister steps out, with the false beard and her thick blond braids which she forgot to stuff under the poncho.
On the way home in the dark my father plays funny tricks and when we reach our street we are allowed to race and see who is faster than him.
And then we sit in the hall, faces still cold, waiting. There! A bell, a tiny tinkling behind the closed sitting room door. The door opens and my mother smiles at us. We tiptoe into the room.
We have never seen a more magnificent tree, all the way to the ceiling, with twelve beeswax candles lit in their silver holders, tinsel, baubles, chocolates and golden walnuts. There are sparklers hanging in the branches, hissing and sending tiny stars across the room. The radio is on, church bells from around the world.
At this moment, we are very good children holding hands, we are a happy family.
I can see my parents standing at the back of the room, watching us three in our matching outfits. Two young people who had barely left the memories of war behind them. Was this what they wanted? A dream come true?