Come Christmas, Vienna turns into a madhouse. Christmas markets pop up on every square, lights are hung in all the major streets, people meet for mulled wine and punch and tourists, tourists, tourists.
But in my heart of hearts I don’t mind it. In my heart of hearts I love Christmas songs, Christmas movies, Christmas spirit, Christmas fun. Or I used not to mind it. I used to love Christmas and now that it will never be as it used to be, I am still looking for its new form that I can love unabashedly again.
You see, even though we were a completely atheist household, we celebrated Christmas with all that we had. And the person who loved celebrating the most and laid all the foundations for our rituals was my father, who died almost five years ago.
My mother was never as caught up in our Christmas rituals – not by her choice, I’m sure, but since we children never had a say in it, that is how it was. My parents divorced when I was five, but continued to live next to each other. Christmas was one of the few times they were actually in the same room together. My brother was sent to live in Switzerland when I was 15 and he 13. Christmas was one of the few times when we would see each other and it still continues that way.
I grow incredibly sad thinking of our Christmases. But they were so beautiful. So I want to share them.
We always waited until December 24th to get a huge tree. My father, my brother and me went to get it. When we were older and my father was weaker, my brother and I went alone. Once the tree was home, it would rest. Either in the hallway or later on the balcony.
Then there would be a break. We all did what we wanted until it was time. Time to screw the candles – white, red, purple or luxurious beeswax – into the ingenious candleholders that had a little weight at the bottom to hold them upright. When they were in their holders, we lit them once for a very short time so they would light more easily.
Then we brought in the tree and put it in its holder. At some point my father designed a Christmas tree holder that would hold our huge trees better and had a larger vase for the water.
And then we’d go to fetch the Christmas tree balls. Some were very old. Some were brand new. My father bought a few new ones every season and at some point I started doing this as well – picking either very beautiful or very original ones.
We weren’t very conservative about the things we put in the tree. And if my father got knickknacks at Christmas, they’d go in the tree. There were little white porcelain horses on strings, cut glass crystals, a kumquat, a miniature of a Greek church, oh all kinds of things. Wooden apples. Pythagorean bodies that he had made himself out of wire when he was younger.
Of the old and mysterious things, there was a cage with a bird and a.cage without a bird. A clear Christmas tree ball full of water. Lametta with lead in it that was over a hundred years old. Glass mushrooms that weren’t hung on the tree but clipped on the branches.
Christmas tree balls in a multitude of colors. And birds. A stork you had to wire to the tree. A swan. A swallow made of glass. Birds in all colors with fluffy tailfeathers. I think my father liked the birds the most. When I went to the Christmas markets I’d be on the lookout. I’d bring home the prettiest birds to please my father.
When we were younger, my father would decorate the tree with our help. Later my brother and I would decorate and my father would come in late and complain that there weren’t enough decorations on the tree. At some point I managed to find some lovely very small decorations and these became a way to load the tree with even more sparkle.
My mother was responsible for the sweets and when we were younger, there would be all kinds of sweets on the tree and we’d walk by and snack on them. Later we put them on plates and left the tree alone.
Once the tree was decorated, my brother and I would go to our rooms. My mother would be warned that we’d start soon. Everybody got their presents together and waited. My father would light the candles with a lighter he had fashioned himself, a thin hollow metal tube and a candle tied to it that would also serve as a candle extinguisher.
The he would ring a bell. That bell rested in the little closet with many drawers and sometimes when my brother and I would go through the drawers looking for strings or domino pieces or shoe brushes, we’d come across the bell and we’d think of Christmas and look forward to it.
Entering the huge room where the lighted tree stood was always an experience. All other lights were turned off, only the candles burned, it was a quiet moment full of awe.
Then we’d sit down and exchange presents and have a bit of a snack. My mother usually prepared some delicious finger food and later on, sparkling wine as well.
We mostly knew what we were getting for Christmas or even had gotten our presents before. There was never any Santa or Christkind, we knew we could ask our parents and our grandmother and we would get our wishes. For a grand wish, money could or would be pooled, but mostly our wishes weren’t very extravagant. Lego. Playmobil. Books, lots of books. CDs.
When we were younger we didn’t ask our parents what they wanted. When we got older, sometimes we did. Now I ask my mother and when she wants a surprise, I surprise her.
For about two years or so, in our early 20s, my brother and I would sing carols. Twice in English, once in French. We never had time to practice a lot together, so some came out badly, but we can still do a decent rendition of “Let It Snow”.
After the presents were exchanged, the wine glasses emptied and the finger food gone, we’d sometimes wait for the candles to burn down and sometimes we wouldn’t. Then we split up. My father and my brother would go to celebrate with my father’s friend and office partner and his partner and I would tag along sometimes.
At other times, I’d go to my mother’s and celebrate with her, her partner and our neighbors. Sometimes, when my father had a partner, we’d stay at home and celebrate there. Sometimes we’d have guests. When we were young, my grandmother would come to visit, later my favorite aunt came and added to the fun. And the last two Christmases we all celebrated together, because my father
I only spent three Christmases away from home when my father was alive. I don’t regret being absent, but I’m glad I decided to spend Christmas at home after the third time.
On the morning of December 25th, my brother and I would wake up and go to eat sweets and play with our presents. I remember one Christmas one of my aunts gave us white flannel nightgowns and we played with the nightgowns still on. Very kitschy.
From then on, the candles on the tree would be lit up again in the evenings when we had guests and it was still magical.
My first cat once tipped over the tree and so was never allowed near it anymore, but my second cat wouldn’t do anything to the tree (well … maybe a little playing) and preferred to hang out under it, which gave me my favorite Christmas picture ever.
Well … now all of that is gone. We have never celebrated like this again. I’m still waiting to find a new way to celebrate. In the meantime Christmas is something of a chore, something wrapped in sadness, something I’d like to spend far away from my family, pretending it doesn’t exist, to protect my Christmas until it can exist again. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after that. I keep hoping.
This year, however, I got a magical present, although the reason for the present is passive-agressive family stuff. But I will be at my father’s grave on the 24th. This Christmas I’ll finally see him again. Maybe that’s why I feel a little happier than last Christmas.