It’s just after four o’clock and already dark outside. Helga and I are tapping our feet at the threshold, freeing boots and pant bottoms from snow before opening our entrance door. I inhale deeply. She looks at me, nodding, and we giggle in anticipation. A wonderful whiff of baked apples, cinnamon and caramel sugar greets us. We are frozen through and through. Our stiff fingers refuse to bend at will and it takes some time to peel off the wet, snow-laden winter clothes.
We had been sledding on the pasture’s hill close to our house. Every day, as soon as school is out, we barely take time to eat lunch. Homework is put off for later. Pulling sleds, village children of all ages meet at the hill, where screams of joy fill the air as soon as the first ones dash downhill. Two, three plunges and we are covered with snow from top to bottom. Often losing a mitten, a cap, or a shawl racing down, they are swiftly fetched by another racer and thrown back at its owner.
“Watch it, watch it,” screams one again who has lost control of her sled.
We jump aside, laughing at her attempt to reach the bottom in one piece, but sled and kid separate, each tumbling downhill on their own. Getting up, brushing off clothes, fetching the upside-down sled, and up it goes again. So much fun, despite our boots scraping up snow. It’s melting on our woolen socks and freezing our feet. We never mind. It seems we never feel cold when playing outside. And if we do, stomping feet and breathing into our snow-heavy mittens helps to hold out until it gets too dark to sled.
Entering our living room, Helga and I are drawn to the warmth of our enormous, wood-fired iron stove. Within a minute, our hands and feet begin to prickle, even hurting to the point that tears shoot into our eyes and keep the noses running.
“See, I told you not to stay out that long,” Mami keeps scolding us, every day.
Yet, Opa has the perfect solution to bring icy feet back to life. He prepares to wrap them with thick folds of newspaper that he first warms on the stove’s iron top, standing by to watch that they get hot without catching fire. I love how his slim, strong hands rub dry our naked feet before folding the warm papers around them. Slowly, they turn from blue to pink, we can wiggle the toes again and put on fresh, dry socks. He stuffs a blanket around us before serving mom’s baked apples.
She puts a plate with cinnamon cookies on the table. The room looks festive and gemütlich. Placed on a hand-stitched tablecloth with Christmas motives, our Advent wreath on its wooden stand, topped by a gold star and adorned with gold-threaded red bows, is the table’s center piece. Mami strikes a match, lights all four Advent candles and turns off the ceiling light. Candle glow is reflecting in everyone’s eyes. Smiling at each other, we anticipate what is forbidden to do for us kids. My mother carefully holds a couple of fir tree needles into a candle flame. The scent fills the room with the distinctive fragrance of Christmas. Divine! We all inhale. And then savor our delicious treats with a cup of hot lemon tea.
Our flutes and the music sheets are waiting, some gold foil too. As our hands have regained their warmth, we are ready to sing and play the Christmas carols we learned at school. Part of homework, Mami teaches new ones. Patiently showing us how to place the fingers over the flute’s holes, she ignores the shrieking false tones of our first attempts.
Tired of music, we turn to crafting Christmas decorations, folding, cutting, and pulling the foil, still humming. As the Advent season moves forward, each living-room window displays a growing array of gold, silver, and multicolored stars.
On most days, some neighborhood kids join in the fun. Today, only Helga is with us. Dinner time arrives fast and she has to get back into her somewhat wet boots and coat to walk home. She never wants to leave. It’s cozy in our living room.
“A last song, pleeease,” Helga begs.
“And a last cookie?” my mother adds, laughing at the attempt to stretch time.
“Kid, you will not be able to eat dinner.”
But mom knows her parents don’t mind. They are the shop keepers in our village, very busy, and quite happy their daughter spends her afternoons with us. We know each other since birth and want to believe we are not only friends but sisters.
Finally, Mami throws us out by allowing that we both get dressed. I love to walk through the dark village, to look at the stars above and the neighbor’s decorated windows. Helga is always afraid of the dark. Holding hands, we run, jump, kick the snow, and giggle. Letting me go, she bends to form a big snow ball, but I was quicker and throw one at her. We throw, slide, and tumble through the snow.
Reaching her house, we do our daily routine. Turning around, she now walks me home again, before we make another turn to finally part sort of mid-way, much closer to her home than mine. Laughing to have carved out some more minutes together, Helga runs towards her entrance door, while I slow down.
Strolling home, I savor the silence of a crisp starry night with only the snow making crunching sounds under my feet. What could be better? Christmas is coming.