Aunt Johanna was the pretty one, the dainty and delicate one, the one with the nicest house, the smartest clothes and the best taste in Christmas decorations. She also cried a lot. “She’s built her house too close to water”, the others used to say. When I was little I didn’t understand what they meant by that, but I often saw her cry.
Aunt Johanna’s house was different from the other aunts’ houses. There wasn’t as much joy as at aunt Little Kate’s, who was my favourite, it was a lot less smelly than at aunt Maria’s, who lived with my other grandfather, the holy one, and a little less tidy than mum’s, but more grown-up, somehow. It was bigger too, that’s why we sometimes went there for Christmas. Mum and dad and I went there by train the day before and mum used to make fun, in a mean sort of way, of the way aunt Johanna fussed over her tree. Mum and aunt Johanna were sisters.
The most festive part of Christmas in Germany is Christmas Eve, the Silent Night, Holy Night of the carol. In those days everything stopped after three o’clock in the afternoon; no shops, no trains, no anything at all, except for essential services. And the sailors at sea, I remember them in particular, because people would ask for music to be played for them on the radio.
I was always very excited to go to aunt Johanna’s, it was so different from anywhere else I went. Cousin Dieter and I were the same age but his two sisters were big girls, older than me, much superior in looks and understanding. Dieter was superior too, he made fun of me, but because we were the same age I could punch him. Besides, I was cleverer than him. Aunt Johanna really didn’t like that.
Most of the afternoon we spent in the kitchen. We’d missed lunch, but aunt Johanna made us wait a long time before she offered us anything to eat. I remember being quite hungry sometimes; she gave us a cup of coffee and a biscuit to tide us over but there were no other concessions to our traveling day. The last time we went there for Christmas mum had brought sandwiches for us, which we ate in aunt Johanna’s kitchen. I remember being glad of them but there did seem to be an atmosphere while mum and dad and I were eating them.
Only at Christmas was dinner served in the dining room. The living room was next to the kitchen, it was shabby and warm and uncle Hans’ big desk was in an alcove. We couldn’t go in because he was still working and spent a lot of time in there, shouting on the telephone, which made aunt Johanna cry. “Does he have to work even today”, she sobbed.
We couldn’t go into the dining room because that was also the best parlour, a large room running along one side of the house, the room where the Christmas tree stood. The door was firmly shut. Only over aunt Johanna’s dead body would anyone go in there before she was ready to display her annual masterpiece, her Christmas tree.
Finally, uncle Hans relented and joined us. He brought out a bottle or two and dad and he smoked and drank, mum had a glass too, but aunt Johanna refused. She had been wronged, she wasn’t ready to forgive.
We children had been amusing ourselves, staying in the kitchen or using the scullery; everywhere else in the house it was cold; it was an old house, unheated for the main part. I already dreaded the thought of the freezing bedrooms.
Little by little the atmosphere thawed and at long last it was time to open the dining room doors and pay homage to ‘the tree’. Aunt Johanna had disappeared into the room about fifteen minutes earlier, alone, but now she threw open the modest doors with a flourish. “Do come and look at the tree”, she called. We obediently obliged, we were well trained. We stood awkwardly halfway inside the dark room, which was lit only by the wax candles on the tree.
It has to be said, her tree was magnificent, a magical vision in green and silver, reaching from floor to ceiling. Aunt Johanna only ever used silver ornaments. But what made her tree stand out from all others was the tinsel, thousand of strands of silver tinsel, the sort that is called 'lametta', each one hung on the tree separately, long and smooth and unimpeded. She must have spent hours getting it just right, adjusting and tweaking and smoothing each strand.
In the light of the white wax candles in their silver holders the whole tree came to shimmering, trembling, other-worldly life. “It’s not a very good one this year”, Aunt Johanna said proudly.
It took a long time before I could look away from the tree and notice that the long dining table was laid for the Christmas Eve meal. Aunt Johanna had done herself proud, she had brought out the family china and silver and the best glasses which were rarely used and never normally when there were children around.
I hardly dared touch anything. By now I wasn’t even very hungry anymore. Mum looked cross; by rights, at least half of the splendour displayed on the table should have been hers, she’d said it often enough to dad and me at home. I am not sure that she would ever have used any of it if it had been hers.
In spite of the setting the meal was a nervous one. Every so often Aunt Johanna rushed up to extinguish another candle burning too close to its holder. Gradually, the tree lost its lustre and Christmas Eve came to an end.