In the ever-anxious wind-up to the dreaded December exams, one of my few comforts was marking off the days on the Christmas calendar my father had discovered when he was rummaging in a bin at Zellers. One of the first of these to appear in Canada, it must have been made soon after the war—I remember it came to our house about 1950. The only information I have about it is a tiny stamp inside at the bottom “Germany, US Zone”, which may mean that the exquisite village scene was set in Bavaria.
Counting off the school days on the Christmas calendar, fantasizing about the blessed little town, made an adventure of the wished-for passage of time. In the lead-up to the Christmas holiday, each day, after I dragged my way homeward on the long walk through snowy streets I consoled myself by studying the village.
What I was looking at appeared to be a wintry German walled cathedral town, set against a midnight blue sky in which stars sang around the centrepiece, the cathedral. The sky was graced with the silhouettes of bare branched trees, and one tree, springing up in front of the crenellated wall, was alive with roosting birds. A light snow mounded on top of the wall, and appeared under the feet of a green clad boy rolling snowballs. An upreaching child was placing the finishing touches on the carrot nose of a snowman wielding a bat who was guarding the massive wooden gates.
Outside the protective wall of what appeared to be a cathedral town, this wintry scene was filled with people who were busy about their Christmas Eve pursuits. Mostly these were children, lovingly portrayed–a tiny red coated moppet stretching up before the toy stall outside the wall, a shorts-clad boy gnawing a sausage outside the stand of a frankfurter seller, with an envious little black dog who jumped up at him, while another boy tried on a pair of new blue shoes at a stand selling boots and gloves and shawls. This stall also displayed a pair of fur-trimmed, very fancy red slippers, placed prominently in the front row to tempt some Christmas shopper. A housewife was buying a spikey little spruce from the bundled-up Christmas tree seller, huddled by a potbellied stove.This magical scene was lit with Chinese paper lanterns. There was a yellow, scarlet-trimmed gipsy caravan of a trolley bus, a cuckoo clock sold by someone in a green Tyrolese costume, a gingerbread seller in a tiny Hansel and Gretel cottage, as well as a Christmas decorations stand full of angels and candles and stars decorated with green and yellow pennants and old-fashioned light bulbs. Here a jolly-looking boy was playing an accordion.
On the first day of Christmas I began the game of locating and opening all the windows which were cleverly laid out to make one dart about. On the fifth day I got to open the imposing arched wooden gates to enter the enclosed world surrounding the great cathedral and its candle-lit Christmas tree. Within the walls the townspeople were just as busy, but some of them were better dressed than those outside the wall.
Couples entered the arches of a hall where musicians were performing beneath a grand, candlelit, red-swathed wreath. In an upstairs room, a Lucia, crowned with candles, served tea, an astronomer pointed his telescope to the stars and children cavorted with a red- hooded St. Nicholas. In a half-timbered house with a projecting, onion-turreted room, I peeped in on a mother and daughter were making pastry, while in another upstairs window, I discovered three boys were practising on brass instruments. Beneath them, through a timbered arch, a stagecoach swung. A postman delivered a letter, while a little brother hauled his even tinier sister on a wooden sledge which was freighted with an immense package. Best of all, I liked the pink-shuttered baroque fountain, where, even on what was clearly a cold night, water was spilling from pipes into the basin.
To me this calendar was an entrance into an enchanted world. I was looking in on a town of children’s dream. How could such a small space, and a simple oval shape convey such life, so many stories? For within the constructs of this magical town I was constantly making up stories. For me there always was a never-ending flow of these stories, begun on my wintry trudge home and continued as I examined the calendar: “It was a dark and windy night, when only a few stars shone. It was the night before Christmas, and Matthew was hungry again. Too poor for a winter coat, an orphan, with no one to care for him, the fragrance of the hot roasting wieners overcame him. Waiting until old Saul turned his back, quick as a flash, he snatched a whole huge, scalding sausage for himself. But then, just as he was about to sink his teeth into it, the dog came again, the little black one, leaping up and barking…” OR“Pauline had always wanted to be Lucia, but with so many sisters, it had seemed as if it would never be her turn. You’re too… you’re not… You’ll have to wait just like all the rest…” OR “Why was she trudging so downcast, the woman, weighed on one side by an empty market basket, but on the other by what looked like a suitcase. Her back was turned to all the finery, the carved stone madona and baby supported on the cathedral wall, the Christmas tree alight with candles, the exuberant boys rolling snowballs. She was leaving it all, head bent, shoulders bent, beneath her shawl; she was turning away from the concert hall, the bright lights of the cathedral. She was heading to the city gates, leaving. And on such a cold night.”
Each night, on the adventure of the ascending days, the open windows increased and the scene looked more beautiful. Until, more quickly than I could have believed, safely escaped from school’s ordeal, I was opening the great doors of Number 24 , the cathedral, to look in on a joyful crowd clutching candles and worshipping before a massive organ.
Someday I’ll find it, the enchanted walled town brought to life in the Christmas calendar which was given to me so long ago. I always believed that someday, while travelling in Europe, I would come upon the enchanted snow-clad village itself. But so far I have not been able to trace it. Surprisingly, though, this year, while helping his class work on the advent calendars he had them making, Morgan, our teacher son, was amazed to discover online a perfect replica of the Christmas town which had also been a part of his childhood. And he promptly ordered copies for himself and for Barry and me.
May the stories of your Christmas be joyous ones.