I was 12 years old when, very early on the morning of Christmas Eve, my father shook me by the shoulder. I was to wake up and pay attention — he had something to say to me. My eyes opened at once but attention — that was another story! After I had got dressed, with a little bit of help from my mother, I sat down to eat my breakfast — I was slowly shaking off my sleepiness. Then my father said:
“Now, listen to what I’m going to tell you. Take an empty sack because you’ll be bringing things home. Take my stick as well because there is a lot of snow about. And you’d better take a lantern because the trackway is bad and the footbridges are covered with ice. You’re going to have to go all the way down to the village of Langewang. When you get there, go to Mr. Spritzegger, the timber merchant — I think you know him. He owes me a lot of money — two Florins and thirty six Kreutzers — for that larch tree. I want you to ask him for it. Knock on the door nice and polite and remember to take off your hat when you go in. Then, when you’ve got the money, go to Mr. Doppelreiter’s grocery shop and buy two bags of flour, two pounds of dripping and some salt and bring it all back here.”
At this point my mother, now fully dressed, came along. All around me my small brothers and sisters were sleeping peacefully in their little beds against the wall. My mother now spoke, saying:
“With nothing more than flour, dripping and salt I’m not going to be able to make the Christmas dinner, So, as well as that I also want yeast, grapes, sugar, saffron and fresh spices. Oh, and I’m going to need a lot of rolls as well.”
My father spoke to me quietly, saying:
“Well, buy it all then and if you haven’t enough money, ask Mr. Doppelreiter if he will let you have it on credit until Easter. Then, when I am paid for the charcoal, I will settle up with him in full. You may as well eat one of the rolls on your way back because it will be evening by the time you get home again. Now, you’d better get going. It will be five o’clock before long and you’ll want to go to the eight o’clock Mass in Langewang.”
Then my father tied the sack around me. In my right hand I held his stick and in the left I had the lantern with a fresh candle. And that’s how I set off, as I had often done before on winter mornings.
The rarely‑used track was uneven and covered in deep snow. It wasn’t daytime yet and so it was hard to make use of the footprints left by people who had already passed that way, especially when they had legs much longer than mine. I had barely covered three hundred steps when I fell in the snow. The lantern slithered away and went out.
Slowly I picked myself up and then I began to notice the wonders of the night. It was horrible and dark at first but then, gradually, the snow began to look white and the trees turned black and the stars sparkled and glittered in the sky above me.
You can also fall in the snow without a lantern so I hid it for the time being under a bush and went on my way. It was a lot easier without any light at all.
I walked down into a valley. The stream was covered with smooth ice on which the stars of the sky seemed to be skating along. Further on I had to climb up a mountain and when I got to the pass I came to a by‑road which descended through wood after wood to another valley. This valley lay hidden in a sea of mist into which I went down softly. Here the damp air began to smell — it was the smell of coal — and it brought sounds from far away to my ears. These were the noises from the ironworks and the odd train as it crossed clattering bridges.
After I had walked a long way up this valley I came to a main road and the sounds of sleigh bells. The mist turned grey and began to thin out so that for a short distance in each direction I could see the sleighs and their passengers as they hurried homewards for the festival.
After I had walked for another hour along this valley a dark shape loomed up on my left, then another on my right, then more on the left, then a whole row on the right — I had reached the village of Langewang.
Everyone who had time was heading for the church because Christmas Eve is a time of anticipation and is full of a sense of God. Before the Mass began, the Schoolmaster, thin and stooped, walked through the church and looked at the congregation as if searching for someone. Then he came over to me and gently asked if I would like to pump the organ bellows for him as the organ boy was sick. Full of pride and of joy at being thought worthy to serve Our Lord I followed him up to the organ loft. There I was to work the bellows during Mass. And so I stood and pulled each of the two long leather straps out of the organ partition in turn and then allowed each one to slide slowly in again with a creaking sound. The Schoolmaster played and his daughter sang:
Send down the dew, o ye heavens,
On the One who is Just,
Ye clouds, let ye rain on Him too!
Thus, in the timorous nights,
Did the Earth cry once, a whitened grave,
And in lands hated by God
Did Satan rule, and Death, and Sin,
And to the Kingdom of Heaven above
Firmly closed was the gateway in.
I remember too, that after Mass that morning I went and knelt down before a holy picture and prayed for good fortune and for a blessing on the tasks I still had to do. The holy picture showed the fourteen ’Emergency Saints’ — one of them was sure to be of help in collecting debts. To my eyes, however, it seemed that each of the saints was trying to hide behind the others!
Despite that, I was feeling quite cheerful as I emerged into the foggy day where everyone was bustling about getting ready for Christmas and I went straight to the timber merchant’s house.
Just as I got there, and as I was approaching the front door, the timber merchant, Mr. Spritzegger (as far as I could make it out later) tried to sneak out the back door. He would have made it too if, suddenly, something had not said to me: “Peter, don’t go up to the front door like a lord, but be humble and go around to the back door, as a woodcutter’s son should.” And so it was that we nearly collided at the back door.
“Hello, sonny,” he said, in a smooth voice, “you want to get warm, don’t you?” He pointed to the house. “There, go on inside and warm yourself. It’s cold today.”
“I’m not cold,” I replied, “but my father sends you his good wishes and would like to have the money.”
“Ah, the money? How come?” he asked. “But of course, you are the woodcutter’s son. You must have got up early today to have come so far by this time. May I now return your father’s greetings and wish him a Happy Christmas. I will come up to your house before long and then we’ll all be square!”
His words almost left me speechless. But they also put our Christmas dinner in danger, so, “Please, Mr. Spritzegger, with all my heart, I beg of you, give me the money. I have to get flour and dripping and salt. I cannot go home with an empty sack.”
He stared at me. “You really know your job, don’t you.” he growled. Then, grudgingly, he pulled out his big red briefcase and shuffled through the papers — they were probably not banknotes, really — and then he took out a Florin and said, “Here you are, take this for now. Your father will get the rest in fourteen days. I have no more here.”
He pushed the Florin into my hand and cleared off, leaving me standing there.
Not for long, however. I went straight away to the grocer’s shop. There, quietly and unassumingly, as if nothing was the matter, I ordered two bags of flour, two pounds of dripping, salt, yeast, sugar, grapes, saffron, and those fresh spices. Mr. Doppelreiter served me himself and put everything neatly into packets and bags. Then he tied everything together with string and finally arranged that it would all go into my sack in such a way that I could carry it on my shoulder, one half load in front and the other half load behind.
When all that had been completed I asked, just as quietly and just as knowingly as before, how much it all came to.
“Three Florins and fifteen Kreutzers!“ came the answer in chalk and voice.
“Yes, that’s it exactly”, I agreed, “here’s a Florin for now. My father, the woodcutter, will pay you the rest at Easter.”
The grocer looked at me with a dejected air and, in a completely altered tone of voice, asked, “At Easter? Which year?”
“Oh, next Easter, when the charcoal accounts are settled.”
Then Mrs. Doppelreiter, who had been serving other customers, joined in and said, “Now, just you leave that boy alone. The woodcutter has often bought here on credit before and has always settled the account properly later. So let him be.”
“All right, I’ll let him be — I won’t take the things back off him again”, answered her husband. Now that was a really nice grocer!
Then, all of a sudden, I remembered the rolls my mother wanted.
“Could I also have five rolls?” I asked.
“You get rolls at the baker.” said Mr. Doppelreiter.
I knew that already, of course, but I had never heard of anyone buying a few rolls on credit. So it was to Mrs. Doppelreiter, whom I now looked upon as my patron, that I then confessed my total inability to pay for anything. So she gave me the money to buy the rolls. Then, noticing that my eyes, the almost unblinking lashes damp with frost, were glued to the dried plums she was just putting into an old lady’s basket, she gave me a whole handful of those delicious delicacies saying, “They are just for you, to munch on your way home!”
Soon after that I was tramping down the wide village street with my heavy load of purchases. In the houses all around me things were being killed, being baked, being roasted, being put away. But I had no feelings of envy towards those people. Indeed, I actually felt sorry for them that they weren’t me, setting off for home with so great a load of blessings. Tomorrow was going to be a real Christmas Day, now that my mother was going to get all the things she needed.
And a pig had just been killed at home too.
So we would have meat stew, bread dumplings, tripe, sausages, kidney mince, meat dumplings with radish!
Then there would be doughnuts, sweet pasta dessert, and sweet fritters cooked with grapes and saffron.
The well‑to‑do people of Langewang have such fare every day of the year and it means little to them. But we have them but once a year and we come to the table with unspoiled appetites. Now there’s something!
Then, as I continued on my heavily‑laden trek, I began to think less about eating and more about the lovely Christ Child and His holy festival. That evening when I got home I would read the story from the Bible aloud and my mother and Miesel, the maid, would sing Christmas carols. Then, at about ten o’clock, we would set out for Saint Catherine’s and there in the church we would have the solemn Christmas Mass. There would be bells and music and countless lights. By a side altar there would be a Crib with the ox and the ass and the shepherds. On a hill would be Bethlehem and above it the angels would be singing, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”. Then, on the way home, I would not get lost again, not like the time when the Mooswaberl family had to take me home!
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Just as I began to climb the mountain with my load towards my father’s house, it began to grow dark and snow began to fall. But I had got home at last.
“Have you got everything?” asked my mother from the stove as I came in.
“You are very good. And you must be hungry.”
I did not argue with either comment.
Then, without delay, my mother pulled off my boots, now frozen solid, because I wanted them freshly greased for the walk to Mass that night. Then I sat down to eat in the warm room.
But, you see, my memories end with that meal. When I became aware of things again I had had a good sleep in my own warm bed and in through my little window the sun was shining on Christmas Day!
By the Austrian writer, Peter Rosseger (1843 – 1918).
Translation ©: Wales Famine Forum
First published in The Green Dragon No. 5, Winter, 1997.
My Greetings, O Heavenly Child!
A meditation at Christmas by Peter Rosegger.
Links to German