Posted by: ktzefr | December 14, 2015

5 Christmas Stories from Around the World

IMG_5810Some of my favorite finds in used bookstores have been old anthologies.  I especially like personal essays — recollections of famous writers, stories from the past, humorous sketches, and serious articles on all kinds of topics.  It’s like being a fly on the wall of the world in 1955 or 1920 or in 1942 when this particular “find” was published.  The collection includes essays from more than 70 different writers, and all of the pieces were originally published in VOGUE.  I’ve chosen excerpts from five Christmas stories.*

 

“In the villages of Holland, there were few outward signs of the impending feast-day. Yet you felt Christmas in your bones. Although the landscape may be as bleak and funereal as a wood-cut…there is expectancy in the air.

Early on Christmas morning, long before dawn, the members of the choral society have climbed the steep spiral stairway in the Medieval clock tower. Suddenly from the tower’s gallery, which is still wrapped in the gloom of night, come the swelling tones of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” The town awakens. Thousands of candles appear before the darkened panes. It is as if a fire is raging. The flames in the windows leap from house to house, jump across squares and race upstairs.”

~ Pierre Van Paassen, “I Remember Christmas in Holland”

***

“The thick pine forest was like something out of a fairytale, and the snow-covered village street led directly to the towering mountains, which seemed unbelievably near. There was a smell of stables, cattle, baking ovens, and apple strudel to bring joy to a boy’s heart. At early nightfall, we children spread straw and oats in front of the house for Santa Claus’ reindeer to eat, but there was no sign of his sleigh. To pass the time we poured lead, which we were not supposed to do until New Year’s. We melted down our broken tin soldiers in a spoon and let the molten lead drip into a glass of water. The sizzling metal plopped into strange, lovely shapes, from which we tried to guess the future.”

~Leo Lania, “I Remember Christmas in Austria”

***

“I shall always remember midnight mass in a French Alpine village not far from the Swiss frontier. There by the moonlight, I could see the black silhouettes of fir trees pointed against the sharp whiteness. Deep in a crevice stood the church, surrounded by the minute chalets of the mountaineers.

As I left my inn, I saw on the nearby slopes dancing lights which slowly converged towards the church. They were the lanterns of the mountaineers going to midnight mass, and each of those stars was followed, not by the Magi Kings, but by troupes of delighted children. At the bottom of the ravine, the little illumined church shone like a lighthouse – a port where they could find at once repose, warmth, and, above all, love. The slopes were steep, and the children fell and laughed. But the difficulty only increased the value of the expedition. Never have I heard the Christmas hymns sung with more vigour than in the little church of Verrières, covered softly with snow.”

~ André Maurois, “I Remember Christmas in France”

***

“Short days of December; the spruces powdered with hoarfrost; the watch late in the evening by the open fireplace; a distant ringing of bells…the children could stay up with their elders by the Yule log that crackled in the great open fireplace with its gleaming iron fire-dogs. Here were told tales of the long ago. Here we crunched hot chestnuts, and we drank white wine…

From every village the people headed for the sanctuary; the father, shod with straw-lined sabots, walking ahead with a pitchfork, for it was rumoured that a wolf had been heard howling at the moon. Betrothed girls walked on the arms of their gallants, following the fiddler who scraped joyous airs on his violin.

At the top of the hill, a group looked into the distance; a song rose in the night. The families stopped and watched the glowworms hastening toward the church. The father said: “Those are the people from across the river. I recognize their Christmas carol.”

~ Robert Goffin, “Christmas in Belgium”

***

In the following excerpt (from “Rather Late for Christmas”) Mary Ellen Chase remembers her grandmother who had spent much of her life at sea and talked about holidays slipping by unnoticed because of more immediate concerns – a gale off Cape Horn or a typhoon off the Chinese coast or the bitter cold of a winter storm near the treacherous cliffs of Southern Ireland. The children were full of questions for the older woman once she returned to village life.

“Didn’t you give any presents at all, grandmother? Not to the sailors or even to grandfather?”

“The sailors,” said my grandmother, “had a tot of rum all around…”

“What is a tot of rum, grandmother?”

“A tot,” answered my grandmother with great dignity, “is an indeterminate quantity.”

“Did the sailors sing Christmas carols when they had had the tot?”

“They did not. They sang songs which no child should ever know.”

“Then did you and grandfather have no presents at all?”

“Whenever we got to port, we had our presents…. We had Christmas in January or even March. Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.”

Ms. Chase’s grandmother never gave gifts at Christmas, but she sewed gloves and scarves and tablecloths and gave these gifts to family and friends all year long. She never went to anyone’s house without a gift and never let anyone leave her own home empty handed. Except at Christmas.

Sometime in January, however, after all of the excitement of the holidays had passed, and preferably on a dreary, dark afternoon, she would deliver presents – jewelry, umbrellas, books, candies, gloves (all of her own un-wanted gifts!).  The author recalls one such day in late January when the children met their grandmother on their way home from school and noticed her apron stuffed with presents.

“You’re rather late for Christmas, grandmother,” we ventured together.

“So, my dears, were the Three Wise Men!” she said.

***

Remember what Christmas (or other special holidays) looked and felt and smelled like in your childhood world?  Don’t forget to share those memories with others during the holidays. 

***

*from Vogue’s First Reader, Conde Nast Publications, 1942  (available at Amazon from a penny to $5)

 

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