The following little story, written in the style of a child, is a recollection of a typical Christmas during my childhood. The year is 1946, just after the Second World War, during which Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. The country was financially in complete ruins after 5 years of brutal tyranny by the German army, but freedom once again reined in the land. There was hope for the future and re-building of the country had begun. During the war, many things simply could not be bought and at the age of seven, when the war ended, I had never tasted oranges, bananas or any kind of tropical fruit, nor real chocolate, chewing gum, corn flakes and a host of other things that we today take for granted.
We had family in USA and after 1945, we regularly received parcels with various goodies in them, things such as spices and items that were not yet available in Denmark. The following is a recollection of a parcel, a Christmas gift, that my aunt, Marenze (1895-1996) had sent to me.
Marentze’s Christmas Present
Snow was everywhere, great, big, huge, enormous piles of it, for it was the worst, most snowy December that anyone could remember. Being only eight years old, I had not experienced many hard winters. We were standing on the platform at the railroad station, waiting for the train, which would take us over to Grandma and Grandpa’s place in Fåborg. This was always my most favourite place to go for Christmas, or any other time of the year, for that matter. I loved my Grandparents more than anything else on earth.
The train is coming! shouted my sister Mona, who was holding my father’s hand. The sound of the huffing and puffing steam locomotive came closer. People began lifting small children up into their arms and suitcases were shuffled around, ready to bring aboard the train. The locomotive past us, spewing great, black clouds of smelly smoke out of its stack and angry, hissing sounds came from somewhere around the wheels, followed by jets of steam. It stopped, and people began leaving the train. We waited politely until it appeared that no more were getting off and then boarded.
Dad opened the door to a compartment in the passenger car and only two persons were sitting in there. “Are these seats taken”? he asked, pointing to the empty seats. It seemed a foolish, pointless question to ask, for it was clear that they were not, but it was custom to ask. “No they are not, come in and sit” replied the man sitting next to the door. Dad put the suitcases up on the rack above the seat and told my sister and me to go and sit by the window. An old woman sitting next to the man by the door began talking to my mother. “What a terrible winter we have”! “I can’t remember the likes of this since I was a little girl” she said. Isn’t it though? replied mother, “here in town the snow is piled two metres high along the side of the streets, and the city has no more money left to haul it away” The small talk continued, but I wasn’t listening.
I heard he train doors being slammed shut and the conductor blew his whistle. We were on our way and my excitement increased. I wondered if I would get the pair of ice skates I had put on my Christmas wish list, but dared not to get my hopes up too high. Dad lighted his pipe and began reading a newspaper. The old lady next to the door , dressed in a long black coat with a fox fur collar and on her head she wore a nice hat with little white things on one side of it. She looked a bit like Grandmother, I thought. It gave me a warm feeling inside.
Our first and only stop, before we reached the town of Odense, was a small place just ten km from Fredericia. No one got off and only a handful of passengers boarded the train. The locomotive hooted and soon we were racing across the landscape, which looked like a giant white blanket, dotted with small clumps of trees, farm houses and small villages. We reached the town of Odense, where we had to change trains. There were many people on the station platform and many more in the station house. Kids and adults were running around, loaded down with suitcases, bags and parcels. Dad grabbed me by the hand and we walked over to the other train, followed by mom and Mona. This train was much smaller than the one we just left. There were no compartments in the passenger cars, just rows of wooden seats, not near as comfortable. It would take us to the town of Ringe, only a short distance from Odense, but we stopped at every small town on the way.
“Dad, aren’t we soon there”?I asked. Dad looked at me and smiled. “Oh, we’ll get there right soon and then we have to change to another train that will take us to Fåborg” he replied. I knew that, for it was not the first time I travelled by train to my Grandparent’s place, but it always seemed to take so long to get there. Mom opened a bag and offered us some sandwiches, which she had brought from home. I looked at them, but didn’t see any I liked. “No thank you, Mom, I’m not hungry” I said. “Well, you have to eat something, otherwise you will be too hungry before we get to Grandma’s place”. Reluctantly I took the sandwich mom offered me and ate it. “Did you bring any cake”? I asked. Mom looked at me and laughed aloud. “Didn’t you say you weren’t hungry and now you want cake? “But Mom, cake doesn’t fill me much and it is good for me”. My sister looked at me with the kind of stern eyes she always had when I said something she didn’t like. Just because she was three years older than I was, she thought she was a “Grown-up” but I just looked back at her with a “Mind your own business” look. Mom gave me a small piece of cake and I settled down and looked out the window at the white landscape. The “clack-clack” sound the wheels made on the rails normally would make me sleepy, but today I was far too excited to think of sleep.
We reached Ringe, boarded another train looking pretty much like the one we had just left, and half an hour later we reached the railroad station in Fåborg. Grandfather was waiting for us on the platform and as soon as the train stopped and the doors were opened, I run over to him and jumped into his arms. “Merry Christmas, Grandpa, I’m so happy to be here” I shouted and gave him a big hug. Grandpa hugged my sister and mom and dad and bid them welcome. We took our suitcases and walked the short distance up to Grandpa and Grandma’s apartment. There was lots of snow here too and I hoped some of my friends had stayed home for Christmas so we could have some good snowball fights. We climbed the three short flights of stairs up to the apartment and Grandma, having seen us coming through the window, stood in the doorway, smiling all over at the sight of us. She greeted us with hugs and kisses and bid us welcome. Inside, there was a heavenly smell of all kinds of good food and I knew that Grandmother would have baked a lot of my favourite cakes and cookies.
Dad and Grandpa seated themselves in the couch and opened a couple of beers, the rest of us headed for the kitchen. Mom and Mona began helping with some of the things Grandma was doing and I sat on the little yellow-painted kitchen bench by the wall. “Grandma, can I have a cookie, please”? I asked. She turned around and smiled at me. Her long white apron was as clean as if she had just put it on. “Well” she said, “you can have one, but no more, for otherwise you will not be hungry for supper and we are having roast Goose”. Mom turned around and looked at me. “Kenny, why don’t you go in and sit with Grandpa and your dad”? she said. “Can’t you see we are all busy here”?
Knowing when to give up, I went in and sat next to Grandpa. He asked me if I wanted a soft drink and I never said no to that. A couple of minutes later, Grandma came in with a small plate full of cookies and put them down in front of me. “Don’t eat too many now” she said “or you won’t be hungry and we are having your favourite desert after the Goose. “Thanks” Grandma, I promise I won’t eat them all” I replied, but knew all too well that I would anyway and so did Grandma, for she smiled at me with a little wink in her eye.
After a while, Dad and Grandpa went down the back stairs to the basement and picked up the Christmas tree, which had been stored there for a few days. Mona and I were invited to help decorate the tree and had lots of fun doing this. There were many small coloured paper baskets to hang on the branches and later Grandma filled them with candy and cookies. We hung the special candle holders on the tree. They were made in such a way that they would keep the wax candles vertical.
Late in the afternoon, we went to church. Mom stayed behind to look after whatever was cooking in the kitchen. The service lasted a long while and afterwards, it was time to say hello to family and friends, who also had gone to the church. This took some time, for Grandfather knew a lot of people and had to wish them all a Merry Christmas. By the time we got home, dinner was ready. We helped Grandma set the table with all her best china and silver ware and a large decoration, made of small Holly branches with a candle in the middle, was put on the table as a centre piece. The goose and all the rest of the food was brought in and we were bid to the table. Grandfather made a speech, welcoming everyone and lifted his glass in a toast to King and Country. He had served in the Royal Danish Guards and always said something good about the king. Dinner seemed to take forever, but the dessert was something worth waiting for. When it was over, everyone helped clearing the table and wash the dishes. Then there was more waiting, for everyone except me and my sister wanted to have coffee and liqueur first, to let the big dinner settle for a while.
Finally, the big moment arrived. The Christmas tree was moved into the middle of the living room and all the presents put underneath it. I kept looking for a box I thought might be just big enough to hold a pair of ice skates and indeed, there was at least two that looked promising. Then the candles were lighted and we all joined hands forming a circle around the Christmas tree and while walking around it, we sang a verse or two from a few Christmas carols and some from “Holy Night”. When enough singing were done, everyone returned to their seats in the corner of the living room, where all the comfortable chairs were put. Grandma served coffee again and Grandpa and dad took some small drinks of Aquavit. I was hopping with excitement and suspense, but finally Grandfather asked my sister and me to distribute the Christmas presents. This was no haphazard affair, oh no; it had to be done in such a way that everyone in turn would get a present, so that no one was sitting empty-handed. Then we could give the rest out at will.
I opened the biggest of my presents first and was not disappointed. It was the pair of ice skates I had wished for. The next one I opened was from aunt Marentze in America. This was something new, for I had never before received anything from her, although I knew that Mom and Dad had. I opened it with great excitement and what appeared before my eyes was so unbelievable that I couldn’t say a word for a while. In a box lay two six guns, chromed with white handles and two beautiful holsters on a belt. I had never seen anything so wonderful in my whole life and shouted to my father “Dad, Dad, are they real guns”? “No”, replied Dad, “but bring them over here and I will show you how they work”. He showed me the rolls of caps that came with the guns, inserted one in the magazine of one of the guns and fired it. It gave off a loud ‘crack’ and a bit of smoke came from it. I was so beside myself with excitement that I nearly forgot to open the rest of my presents. I fired both the guns several times until Mother told me to stop. “You are making too much noise and filling the room with smoke” she said. “You have to wait until tomorrow when you can go outside and play”.
I opened the rest of my presents. There were shirts, socks, a wind-up toy car from Grandmother and a pocketknife, my very first, from Grandfather and several other toys from my Aunts and Uncles.
The next day I got up early and sat playing with my toys until everyone else got up and we had breakfast. I asked if I could go out and play and Mom said “OK”, dressing me warmly. I knew all the other kids would be on the street to show off their Christmas presents, for this was always so. When I walked up the street, I had my two guns strapped around my waist and it did not take long before they were noticed. Every one of my friends wanted to hold them and try shooting with them. They were envious, for nothing like it could be bought in this country. Some of them asked if my aunt in America was a millionaire, when I told them who had given me the guns. I said I didn’t know, but thought she must be. How else could she afford to buy such wonderful things?
Soon, Christmas was over and we had to return to Fredericia, but the following summer, I spent my vacation at Grandma and Grandpa’s place, as I did most years. It became a summer of wild games with my friends. We played mostly cowboys and Indians, using home-made feather headdresses and cowboy hats, made from discarded women or men’s hats. Marentze’s gift had made me very popular and I was always invited to play, no doubt because we always “disarmed” our enemies, when we caught them. This way, someone else would be able to carry the magic guns so it was not just me that Marentze had made happy, but everyone I played with.
Recollections from a Christmas in my childhood, written December 5, 1996.