A Christmas Story (inspired by real events, places and people)
The heavy wooden doors banged ominously behind her as Monika walked out onto the front steps of the school. Tilting her head skyward, she dug her hands deep into the pockets of her wool coat. What sort of adventure could she experience before the sun settled in for it’s slumber tonight? The sun hardly stayed out long enough to allow for much fun on these winter days.
“Monika, make sure you’re back at the orphanage before it gets dark! The days are getting shorter and you can’t waste so much time anymore”. Maria sounded more stern than she meant to be. She was aware her daughter had a habit of wandering about the little town, discovering new places, watching ducks on the sea or spying on weary travelers at the train station for hours on end. She knew her daughter well. They were cut from the same cloth.
She hoped her daughter would remember to stop by for a short visit at the hospital this afternoon. In anticipation, she’d requested to be brought down to the front room to wait. If Maria had her health, she would have liked the same kind adventures as her little Monika. And, if she were to be honest, Maria was a little bit jealous of her daughter, but she would never have admitted that to anyone. Instead, Maria lived vicariously through Monika’s stories. She always looked forward to afternoon visits when when her daughter would sit at her feet and chatter away. Those precious and fleeting moments were stored carefully in her heart.
“Listen to your Mutti! When the clock tower bongs five times that means it’s time to find your Supper and Bed.”
Since arriving here as refugees after the war two years ago, the two of them had lived in so many places that Maria never used the word “home” anymore. It made sense to simply say “Supper and Bed”. Empty army barracks, the theatre by the castle, in the woods by the sea, Haus Rose and the hotel on the hill, all had been places for mother and daughter to find their Supper and Bed. These days Maria had her Supper and Bed in the hospital by the lake while her daughter had Supper and Bed in the orphanage by the tracks. Alone now, mother and daughter blinked back tears most nights. For Maria, the heartache of separation eclipsed the physical pain from cancer which consumed her body a little bit more each day. Little Monika was filled with an innocent hope that one day she and her Mutti would be reunited. Mutti knew the truth of what was on the horizon. Her daughter needed to learn how to be on her own.
Monika had never been more displeased than with her current Supper and Bed. Supper at the orphanage was almost always thin soup. The women in the kitchen who peeled and cleaned the vegetables didn’t clean or peel very well at all. The result was a soup that had a heavy sludge at the bottom which reminded Monika of the sea shore at the edge of town. There was no escaping it, the sand was everywhere, even between the cobblestones. For avoiding sandy soup, front of the line was best, but Monika seemed to always be last in line, running into the dinner room late and in a flurry only to get scrapings at the bottom of the pot. She and sand were familiar and constant dinner companions.
Bed was even worse. Monika scratched her skin red and raw from the itchy blanket. Plus, she had to share it with another girl only 4 years old. Monika was nine and old enough to have her own bed now! She didn’t mind sharing a bed with Mutti though. Her mother’s arm wrapping over Monika’s small frame, their bodies kept each other warm on cold nights. Mutti would sing quiet melodies that reminded Monika of the home that they left behind in the Ukraine. She would hum softly until her daughter’s eyelids became weighed down by drowsiness and her head sank heavily into the pillow. Sharing a bed with Mutti was nice. Sharing a bed with with a 4 year old bed-wetter was, well, not nice.
In ten days it would be Christmas! Monika skipped down the school steps and along the cobblestones singing carols and dreaming of the fun that would happen over the next few days. This would be her second Christmas here in this town called Eutin.
As the holiday crept closer each day, the town seemed to get prettier. The windows of the big houses on Plöner Strasse had candles in them who’s warmth cleared round circles on the icy glass panes. Monika liked to peer through to see the families inside, laughing, reading and playing. There were christmas trees in corners and cookies on trays. Sometimes a cat was curled up by the fireplace. She wondered what it would be like to be in a place like that. Maybe one day when Mutti is better we will be a family in a house too, she thought. For now, Monika had to get used to the orphanage.
“You’d better learn the rules, Monika, just like I have to get used to the hospital. This is the way it is”.
Mutti’s words equally hurt and scared Monika. She knew her mother told the truth, but she still believed things would change, no matter what Mutti said. They had to. Monika was a prisoner in the orphanage and she knew Mutti felt the same about the hospital. Neither of them were accustomed to so many rules and regulations.
Strolling and singing, Monika continued down the street. It didn’t matter what her destination was, she always made it a point to detour by the castle to walk down Linden Allee with it’s enormous trees. Nearing the castle, she saw the flickering lights and remembered there too, lived hundreds of refugees. Monika wished she had ended up in the castle instead of the boring orphanage.
Heading back into town, she passed the big brick church in the square. The clock high on the tower kept time with the rhythm of her boots on the cobblestones.
Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! The clock’s bell rang out, it’s clanging reaching even the furthest corners of town.
“Guten Tag, Clock!” she said in reply. It was four o’clock. One hour till Supper and Bed.
Monika passed the fountain then stopped at the bakery window. Each day there was a fresh, new gingerbread house on display. Her tastebuds came alive and her stomach grumbled as she stopped to admire the most beautiful house she had ever seen. She blew a puff of hot air onto the glass and rubbed out a circle in the frost-covered window. Her nose and mittens pressed on the glass, Monika peered into the imaginary world just out of reach. It was a house just like the ones in town except made out of cookies! Almonds paved the pathway to the front door what was made of licorice. A curved candy-cane crowned the entrance. Miniature frosted windows with candles were on the sides and front of the house. A roof made out of chocolate looked just like the clay tiles she saw on the houses around town. Monika imagined what was on the inside of the house made of cookies. Perhaps a mother sewing by the window and a father reading with spectacles low on his nose. Maybe a child by the fireplace, quietly playing with her doll. Yes, that is how it would be inside the cozy cookie house!
On the front stoop of the gingerbread house, were more cookies shaped like people. A miniature choir. Mouths shaped like O’s, Monika imagined they were singing Christmas songs. She joined the imaginary choir in her head and sang along with them.
“Quack! Quack! Quack!” Overhead, a group of ducks honked loudly interrupting the song. Monika was jolted out of her dreamland of cookies and imaginary choirs and peeled her mittens from the glass. Pulling her collar tight around her neck to ward off the deep cold, she needed to keep moving if she was going have enough time to visit Mutti at the hospital before Supper and Bed.
She hated to rush through her favourite part of the town, the Market Square. A giant evergreen tree cut from the nearby forest had been placed right next to the fountain. On Sunday last, the men had attached candles onto the branches and lit them with long matchsticks. Monika recalled her delight when the townspeople and the refugees sang together in harmony, “O Tannenbaum”. It was nice to see everyone getting along for a change. It was generally best to stay out of each other’s way since the townspeople seemed to dislike the thousands of refugees who descended on their town after the war. Christmas made people different. It was a time of happiness, celebration and togetherness. At least that was what Monika believed in her heart.
On that night, as the choir of townspeople and refugees circled around the tree together, Monika raised her voice to to the sky, knowing how much her mother would have loved to be there with her and add her alto voice. This thought made Monika sing even louder in an effort to represent both of their voices. A few people turned their heads to see who the loud soprano was. Monika was satisfied that she had done her part. She was finished with being invisible and so she sent a silent prayer up into the clouds. “God, please give Mutti and me a pretty house with a tree in it, too”. She wondered if her prayer would be heard better here, in heavenly Eutin, since there weren’t any bombs, machine guns or screaming planes drowning out her small voice
Monika quickened her pace as she walked through the Market Square … she knew exactly what was coming up next.
The Alleyway. Located in a space between two stone buildings in the Market Square, the alleyway was a narrow tunnel with a long, curved ceiling of brick. No sunshine ever made it into the well-trodden pedestrian throughway. It’s only redeeming feature was that, at night, it offered meagre protection from the winter wind and falling snow.
In the Alleyway, there was a black and grey mangy dog with big teeth who had snarled and barked at her too many times to count. It even chased her down the street once, biting and nipping at her heels. Monika ran down the street, her mouth in the shape of a scream but with no sound. She was a very brave girl and few things scared her, but the thought of that dog quickened her heart to nearly exploding. She walked a brisk pace and a quiet step to avoid trouble.
There were people who appeared to be living there, in the alleyway. Of late they had started to make fires on the cobblestone to keep warm. As she passed, Monika looked in to see the women and men circled around the flames, palms outstretched. It was bitter cold in the late afternoon shadows and Monika felt a chill travel the length of her little body. She was almost past the Alleyway when she first noticed the little girl. The same size as Monika, she was wearing a ratty winter coat that looked just like her own! Made from pieces of an old wool army blanket, it was something that she and the girl had in common. What they didn’t have in common was Supper and Bed. The Alleyway would be the little girl’s bed tonight and she may not have any supper at all.
Monika rushed past the entrance to the Alleyway as snow began to fall. The mangy dog was nowhere to be seen. She really didn’t need another run-in with it. Not tonight. It was too pretty outside for being scared!
It was starting to get even colder now as the sun was sinking low in the sky, partially shrouded by big fluffy grey clouds. The cobblestones echoed Monika’s footsteps as she hurried down Peter Strasse. Turning sharply at the end of the street, she skidded to a halt nearly plowing into a small group of townspeople. Nobody saw or heard her through the cacophony of their laughing and singing. Monika noticed they were all holding cookies and had crumbs stuck to their lips! “Cookies! Where did they get those cookies?!?” she wondered to herself, quickly tucking into a doorway to spy.
She watched as the cheery group walked up to another one of the big houses on Albert Strasse. All the houses on this street towered above the sidewalk and made Monika feel miniature just like the gingerbread people in the bakery window. She had heard that the people who lived in these mansions used cream in their coffee and baked cookies and pastries in their kitchens!
One of the cookie-eaters rapped loudly on the large front door. Knock! Knock! Knock! It seemed as though a whole minute passed before a woman opened the door and exclaimed, “Oh! Look what we have here! Carolers!”
That was the cue! With faces smiling and cheeks rosy, the group burst into song, their voices ringing out into the cold, crisp air, making such a warm sound. From her sheltered hiding place, Monika sang along with them and smiled. She couldn’t help it. She even felt a little bit warmer, too.
Thinking that the carolers were done, Monika began to sneak away and continue on her route to the hospital where her mother was surely waiting for her. That’s when she saw something curious out of the corner of her eye. They had more cookies! She slipped silently back into the shadow of the doorway to spy once more.
Again, the quartet knocked on another door and sang another christmas song. Not moving a muscle, Monika stayed put to see what happened next. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. The people inside the house held out a tray full of cookies, offering them freely to the group of singers!
Was this really possible? Knock on a door. Sing a song. Get cookies.
It seemed to be too good to be true.
Monika was dazzled as though she just witnessed a magic trick. Her mind was bursting with ideas as she made her way down the lane, past the train station and along the hospital pathway where her mother was waiting for her in the front room.
“People sing and get cookies!” Monika burst out as she skipped up to the chair where her mother sat.
Kissing her forehead, she settled on a stool by Mutti’s feet and chattered on about the many adventures she had today. The gingerbread houses, the girl in the Alleyway with the same coat, the singers who got cookies. Monika didn’t mention the mean teacher who pulled her braids or the soup that she was dreading at the orphanage tonight. Not everything needed to be said. She didn’t want to worry Mutti.
Maria listened quietly to her daughter’s stories, but gave her a stern warning at the end. “You are not to beg for your food. It’s fine for the townspeople to knock on each other’s doors and sing, but that’s not for you to do. Remember who you are Monika.”
Monika nodded and said yes, she would obey, kissed Mutti goodbye and headed home. Feeling deflated, head down, she shuffled slowly along.
Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!
Five o’clock! She was late for supper! Again.
Past the train tracks and across Plöner strasse, Monika ran the whole way. Panting, she arrived at the iron gate to the orphanage. To her, those gates felt like the passage into a prison cell. She dragged her feet down the path and pushed against the icy cold handle of the doors and leaned her body against the doors to push them open. She was just in time to be last in line for the night’s soup. Monika silently hung her coat by the door, picked a bowl and held it near the stove. Into the pot went the ladle, scraping at the bottom. Out came the same thin grey broth, a few vegetables floating on the surface and that familiar sand. Monika sat quietly, pushing carrot pieces with her spoon. Her stomach grumbled loudly.
All she could think about were those cookies.
The next morning, Monika jumped out of bed even before the housemother banged on the door of the sleeping room. Last night, she had set aside the one item that she needed to accomplish her plan. On the floor under the bed, in her wooden box, was the red ribbon for her hair. The box was for special things only – her shell collection, an extra tiny pinecone, a piece of blue glass worn down on the edges, a giant railway nail, and her little bible. Her ribbon was rolled up next to the shells and was to be used only on special occasions. That was what Mutti had said when she gave it to her last christmas. Today was one of those days. A very special occasion, indeed. She tucked her red ribbon into the pocket of her dress.
The day dragged on endlessly as Monika stared out of the frosty school window. Today everything reminded her of cookies. She wondered what one might feel like in her hand. What would the taste be like when she bit into it? Crunchy or soft? Crumbly? Sweet? She hoped for all of these things. But she hadn’t eaten a cookie before! Maybe it would be sweet like the juice from the grass that grows by the train tracks. Would there be fruit or chocolate? Her mind was bursting with dreams of imaginary cookies. Whatever the feel, whatever the taste or whatever the ingredients she was certain the cookies would be like a taste of heaven. Monika watched every movement of the minute hand on the clock in the schoolroom. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Bong! Bong! Bong!
As soon as the teacher excused them, Monika sprung out of her chair, bounded down the steps of the school and rounded the corner. Stopping briefly, she feverishly tied the red ribbon into her hair. She needed to move fast today.
The first house she chose was made of white stone with two balconies on the front. Monika looked up at the imposing structure that seemed to reach up the clouds. Her plan included houses with at least one balcony. Two would be even better. She calculated, if your house had a balcony, you could afford to give away cookies!
She checked her red ribbon, rapped loudly on the wooden door and took a step back. Waiting was such agony! She reached up to knock a second time and nearly had her hand smashed when it swung wide open. A woman wearing a deep blue dress appeared in the entrance, looking over Monika’s head to the right and left.
“Are you all alone? Was ist los? What do you want?”
“I want to sing you a song!” exclaimed Monika.
Without waiting for a reply, little Monika opened her mouth and let her voice float out, singing “Kling, Glöckchen, Kling-a-ling-a-ling! Kling, Glöckchen, Kling!”
It was her favourite carol about bells at christmas time. Her song rang out just like a bell, bouncing between the tall stone facades of the nearby mansions. Her voice never faltered and she never stopped smiling. Her red cheeks and red ribbon shone brightly in the candle-lit glow emanating from the doorway. Monika glowed from within.
A small crowd gathered at the door from inside the house. Mother, Father, Grandmother and child. A perfect family. Thanking her repeatedly, they clapped for Monika as she completed her song. “Dankeschön, dankeschön, kleine Lied Mädchen!”
Her song complete, Monika became uneasy about how the transaction would actually take place. Not having done this before, she had imagined that the tray of cookies would just simply appear when she was done singing. Should she ask for them? She lingered, speechless, considering her next move. She felt her smile starting to fade as the family continued on with their expressions of thankfulness.
Just as Monika was beginning to feel the overwhelming urge to retreat to the safety of another darkened doorway, the mother gave a nod to the father. He reached over to the sideboard and turned back holding a silver tray. Monika’s eyes grew wide and practically popped open when she saw what was on it. Her hand impulsively reached toward the mountain of goodies as the mother asked politely “Would you like a cookie, Little Song Girl?”. Monika pulled back from the cookie tray and swiftly clasped her hands together. She had forgotten her manners. “Bitte, yes please” she said quietly.
“Take as many as you like” said the mother. Monika fought the urge to take them all and instead took just two. Saying “Dankeschön, thank you” she curtsied and skipped away.
Monika perched atop a rough stone ledge nearby. Her plan had worked! She studied her newly acquired cookies. They were were so delicate and pretty and painted like snowflakes. Something this exquisite certainly deserved to be savoured for more than a few minutes! With the exception of the precious red ribbon tied in her hair, Monika had never owned anything as beautiful as these two cookies. She’d been looking forward to these cookies all day, but she hadn’t imagined that they would be too pretty to eat. What should she do now?
Once again, the church clock reminded her that time was passing and darkness was on it’s way.
She decided it would be okay to eat just one cookie. She would put the other one in her special box under the bed.
Slowly, Monika brought a cookie up to her nose and smelled it. Spicy. Then she touched it to her lips. It tickled! She reached the tip of her tongue out to touch the edge. A sensation, a sweetness filled her mouth. A nibble. A chew. And another. Until all that remained of the cookie were the crumbs in her hand and on her lips. She didn’t let those go to waste!
Time stood still.
She secretly tucked the remaining cookie deep into the pocket of her coat.
Monika needed to keep moving if she was going to get the job done. A short while later, her voice was starting to feel hoarse and the pockets of her coat were bulging. She had been to 8 more houses! Her cheeks were sore and numb from smiling and her feet were starting to feel tingly.
Snow fell from the sky in large white flakes and stuck to her eyelashes as she made her way past the clock tower and into the market square. It was a magical fairy land. Monika wished she could stop at the edge of the square to take it all in. The tree by the fountain was majestic and there was a new gingerbread house in the bakery window. Rushing by, Monika had no time for window gazing tonight. She had to get back to the orphanage and hide her stash of cookies. Oh! The thought of them tucked away in her special box. She could eat them for supper tonight and breakfast tomorrow morning. Her heart fluttered with the thoughts of such indulgence. No more sandy soup! How she loved Christmas time and, most of all, how she loved cookies!
Monika crossed the street to pass by the Alleyway. Her pockets were heavy and bounced around as she quickened her pace. A small fire was ablaze on the cobblestones and she noticed the mangy dog was sitting beside the little girl who wore the army blanket coat. The girl’s hands were outstretched to the flames in hopes of thawing out icy fingertips. Accidentally, Monika’s eyes met the eyes of the girl. A surge of guilt rushed in, catching her by surprise. She started to run. She didn’t want to get caught with all those cookies. Holding her pockets down, she ran all the way to the end of the street and rounded the corner where she had seen the carolers the day before. Her heart felt like it was going to explode and her stomach felt sick. Why was she running?
Monika backed into a doorway and leaned against the frame to catch her breath. She hadn’t noticed the tears streaming out of her eyes. They began to fall out in big drops, making dark circles on the steps. She put her hands into her pockets and felt for the precious cookies. She had earned those cookies fair and square! She came up with the plan! She did the work! Minutes felt like hours as Monika crumpled herself further into the corner of the stairs. This isn’t how she thought it would feel to finally have cookies all her own.
Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!
Monika slowly lifted herself out of the corner, straightened her coat and wiped away the tears. Her eyelashes were starting to freeze. Taking in a long, deep breath, she exhaled a hot fog back into chilly air. She squared her shoulders and with resolve, turned to walk back toward the Alleyway.
At the entrance to the Alleyway, all eyes turned to watch her including mangy dog. Monika kept her attention fixed on the dog as she reached into her pocket, fished out a cookie and timidly held it out to the little girl. Their eyes met. The girl was silent as she reached for the cookie. Unsure at first, her face burst into a giant smile.
One by one, Monika walked up to each person in the Alleyway, (including the scary ones!) and shared her precious cookies with the strangers there. Even the mangy dog got one.
Her mission accomplished, Monika slipped out of the Alleyway and back onto the main street. Except for one precious snowflake cookie, her pockets were empty, but her heart was full. More full than it had ever been. She hummed softy to herself “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” as her feet kept time on the cobblestones. Her voice grew stronger and louder as she walked. Tonight, she imagined that it could reach right up to the stars.
There were three things that Monika knew for sure. One – she was happy. She had her mother and she had Supper and Bed. And even though she didn’t always remember to be, she really was thankful! Two – she was going to have sandy soup again tonight. The third and last thing Monika knew for sure was that Mutti would love the taste of that snowflake cookie!
Monika smiled as she imagined Mutti scolding her and then eating the snowflake cookie anyway. She looked up to the stars and moon and sang to them as though they weren’t so far away. Her voice carried through the street and drifted back down into the Alleyway where the little girl and her family nibbled on cookies around their fire. The mangy dog howled in reply, the snow fell from clouds up above, swirling in the glow of the street lamps and Monika skipped down the street.
This Christmas Story was inspired by a true story that my mother used to tell of when she used to “Sing for her Supper” as a little girl of 9 years old, in Eutin, Germany. The town and street names are real and the photos are from a trip that I took to the town exactly one year ago. Frohe Weihnachtszeit!