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Christmas Eve in Frigid Siberia

By Natalja Markus

Heliger Abend im kalten Sibirien

Von Natalja Markus

Volk auf dem Weg, Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland, Stuttgart,
Germany, December, 2007, pages 20-21

This translation from the original German-language text to American English
is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Natalja Markus (nee Bauer), the author of our Christmas story, was born in 1950 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. In 1968 she resettled in Kazakhstan. Studied at the Pedagogical Institute at Zelinograd. For 25 years taught Russian language and literature. In Germany since 1998, she is very active as a volunteer working within the the Ev.-Lutheran church community of Altenburg on behalf of late-arriving Aussiedler

Our small village was situated on the shore of the mighty Yenissey [River] in Western Siberia. Our log homes were old and dark, and they stood far apart from one another. Besides us there lived here a few other German families, all under military command oversight. For our family of eight souls our little home was rather crowded and sad. Still, I love to remember this place of my far-away home.

It is 1955, a cold day that Christmas Eve. I am sitting on my Grossmama's [grandmother's] lap in front of the freshly whitewashed oven/stove and I gently stroke her silver hair with my small hand. Mother fetches another armful of birch wood, puts a few pieces into the fire, and the wood starts to crackle happily. She beams at me warmly and lovingly, kisses me on the cheek and leaves the room. Mother always has a lot to do because she has to take care of her brood of children by herself, without a father.

Soon the other siblings are back from school, and everything livens up in the house. Mother begins to bake with the eldest daughter, Tamara. Emma and Anna hang fresh, white curtains on the windows, clean the living area and the small room. Brother Wladimir and I scour the pots and flatware. Everything must shine today.

Elder brother Viktor is dragging a sack inside. His secretive-looking face appears fresh and reddened from the frost. He places the bag in the small room and locks the door. We are burning with curiosity. What could be inside? But we little ones are strictly forbidden from looking inside the little room. Perhaps Pelzenickel and the Christchild, about whom we've been told so much,
are hiding in there?

During the early afternoon, as the winter son's rays fall onto the small frozen window panes, I see my mother coming up from the shore carrying firewood on her shoulders and also lugging two large wooden buckets full of laundry that she has rinsed in an ice hole of the cold river, and she hangs the laundry on the line outside. Her felt boots are covered with a thick layer of snow. Mother looks around, and with a satisfied glance she comes inside. This way the other village residents can see that for the Germans this is just another workday, not a holiday. Mother puts me on her lap and sticks her red, stiffly frozen fingers in my blond, curly hair. I am happy that I can give a little warmth back to my dear mother.

Impatiently we wait for evening to come. Once it gets dark, we were told, Pelzenickel and the Christchild will arrive.

Once grandmother is sure that no strangers might come by any longer, she lights the kerosene lamp. Then a cover that has been embroidered so beautifully by Tamara is placed on the table. Grandmother then puts on it a bowl filled with - for us - precious baked Christmas goodies - cookies, riwwelkuchen and pretzels. Everything has been baked with whole wheat flour and topped with powdered sugar.

Finally there is a knock on the door. Viktor opens it. As if in a fairy tale, they enter in a cloud of frosty air. The Christchild is dressed in snow white, and Pelzenickel is clad in an inside-outside sheep's hide and a shapka (a Russian word for a hat made from an animal pelt). He rattles frightfully with his chains and makes threatening motions with his large birch switch. Immediately I disappear, along with Waldimir, to hide under Oma's [Grandma's] bed, our secure place. The older siblings now must give answers to the two as to whether they've been good, have said their prayers. When Anna fails to remember her prayer, she immediately gets a few hits on her bottom with the switch. The tough, but just Pelzenickel soon notices that two children are missing,
and he hauls us out of our hiding place. Full of dread, instead of praying, I start with a verse from a Russian folk song about the birch tree. Anna and Emma had brought this song home from school. The stern Pelzenickel forgives my misdeed, but still demands that I recite my child's prayer. With trembling voice, I begin:

Dear Savior, make me pious, so that I may get to heaven.

Wladimir continues:

Young and small though I may be, I can still become perfect, And my Savior stands by my side When I do something good.

The Christchild praises us, and now we can breathe more easily. Looking at Pelzenickel is no longer so frightful. Besides, his eyes remind us of the kind eyes of our Uncle Jakob, who plays the violin so beautifully. Also, the Christchild's voice sounds like that of our dear Aunt Katja. At last, the Christchild opens the door to the small room. Oh, my heart is filled with bliss. A wonderful glow and aroma emanate from the little room. There is a genuine Christmas tree decorated with burning wax candles and fir cones! It stands there, simple and forlorn, in that small, modest room without windows. Next to it there is a creche with straw, just like in our stable where our calf eats.
Grandmother bids us to be very quiet - the little Baby Jesus is sleeping in that creche.

But that's not all. The Christchild lifts the white cloth spread under the Christmas tree like a blanket of snow, then distributes to us Christmas presents that have been lying under it. Anna and Emma receive a box of coloring pencils. Wladimir is happy to get a small ball fashioned from the hair combed from our cow.

And I, well, I get a genuine, home-made doll. It is wearing a blue dress and tiny, knitted woolen socks. I press it against my chest. My doll, my very first doll! It appears soft and even warm to me.

After the gift giving Pelzenickel lays down his switch, takes the violin from the wall, and immediately the room is filled with the beautiful melody of "Oh, du froehliche!' [Oh, you happy ... Christmas time - Tr.] No sooner have all joined in this song, there is a sudden, loud noise of breaking window glass. A hay fork lands noisily on the table, and icy cold air fills the room. The voices of the singers become silent, a dead stillness fills the room. Only the barking of dogs is heard from outside. We little ones start to cry and quickly slip under the bed again.

Grandmother is the first to regain her senses. She sweeps the shards of glass with a broom, then she covers the large black hole in the window with a colorful pillow case. After a brief pause she kneels and prays. She thanks God that nobody is hurt. After things have generally calmed down, Mother pulls us out of our hiding place, consoles us and takes us toward the warm oven. I embrace my mother, press close to my little brother, and then we listen as Mother, with a soft voice, begins to sing "Silent night, holy night."

The cold moon appears high in the clear sky. All the stars are awake and peering through our windows. The pillow case in the window suddenly reminds me of the fat belly of the Bad Wolf who ate Little Red Riding Hood and Grandmother.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Water color by Ardian Dika

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