German-Russian Christmas of 1880
by [the late] Erwin Schneider
Volk auf dem Weg, Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland,
Stuttgart, Germany, December, 2001, pages 21 - 22
Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Steppental lay under a mid-December cover of snow. Gardens, woods, meadows, farmyards and shrubbery -- all were covered in white. The farmers had laid in a rich harvest, although their everyday concerns remained a part of their lives. Yet, compared with the hard days of the harvest, this was almost like "den Maeuslein gepfiffen," as we used to say [an untranslatable saying meaning something like leaving some of the cares to the mice ...].
The men were keeping everything in their farmyards and barns in good order, looked after the horses and cows, and made sure that feed and heating materials were in ample supply. The farmers' wives, for their part, had lots of work to get done in their homes. Rooms were whitewashed, cleaned and polished. Curtains, tablecloths and bedding were changed.
The kitchen played an especially important role before Christmas. There the women would be mixing dough, baking, frying and cooking. Many a basket and many a bowl would be filled with baked goods.
While the women were preparing mountains of gifts for the holidays, the men were getting the trees, which would later be placed in the center of the "great room." Christmas trees were adorned with shining figures, toys and multi-colored flowers. On the branches there were placed small candles, which would be lit on Christmas and on New Year's and until then they exuded a mysterious glow. Evergreens had to be obtained from far away, because that sort of tree did not grow in the Central Volga area where the farmers lived.
The candles were lit with festive ceremony on Christmas night. But before that, other things, such as candies, apples, and other sweets had also been hung on the tree. As a rule the younger children would help parents and older siblings in trimming the tree. This was one way to nurture love for the feast, to maintain and transmit traditions to a new generation.
* * *
Anne Marie Schmidt was talking in great earnest, saying to her husband: "It's getting close to Christmas and our shelves are still empty. I have been able to scratch together only two bowls of flour, the stores are filled with wheat, yet we have no flour! What am I supposed to bake peppermint kuchen, gingerbread, hoernchen [croissants], or sweet milk rolls? Our grandchildren are coming to see us on Christmas morning. What am I supposed to offer them? We have barely four days left for baking ..."
"Anne Marie, there is only one solution: we'll have to go to the mill today and grind some wheat into flour. Well, that's a nicer job for me than hauling building lumber ..." Adam smiled. Then he put on his sheepskin coat, put on his sheepskin hat that tilted a bit toward one ear, and went outside.
In the barn he found his sons Wilhelm and Christian and said: "Boys, fill 20 sacks with wheat grain. We must hurry and go to the mill. Your mother has no flour for baking."
Adam went into the yard and moved a shafted sled in front of the storage area. His two sons filled the sacks, he himself poured two bucketfuls of oats into another sack and placed it onto the sled. Then he hitched two horses up to the sled and drove the heavy load toward the mill. How many of these loads had he taken to the mill and had brought home during his marriage with Anne Marie! As head of the family, he felt it his responsibility to take care of his family. His wife and children were not going to live in poverty. That was certainly the rule for Adam, and he made sure he set a good example in following it.
He said to Christian: "Go and put on your felt boots. You're going with me. William will stay here."
Christian plopped himself down onto the wheat sacks in the sled and urged the horses out through the gate. On the street he asked his sister: "Date, should I go to the windmill or the watermill on the millpond?"
"To the watermill. Mama needs really good flour for Christmas. The watermill grinds more slowly and steadily, so the flour is better. The windmill grinds in spurts, all depending on how the wind blows."
At the watermill, Adam needed first to chat with the miller in private: "Mornin', Hankarl."
"Mornin', Adam. About time you showed your face here again!"
"Hankarl, you must know why I came today."
"Yes, yes, Adam. Right over here I have ten sacks filled with flour. You won't find any better today."
"I thank you for that. I have brought twenty sacks of what. I'll take your ten sacks, but I'll grind an additional ten sacks of my what. The rest I'll leave with you, and you can do with it what you want."
"Understood, Adam. But do give your horses some fodder. And now we must wait a bit till Gottfried Stoessel is finished grinding his grain."
* * *
Three days later the women in Adams home were kneading dough for various baked goods. On a large tablecloth on the sofa there were many, longish and also broader-shaped, colorful figures fashioned out of dough. Also there were all sorts of candies that Adam had ordered from Schiller, the merchant. On a table in the smaller room there was streusselkuchen, in the pantry there were boiled meats and cold brawn, which the Steppentaler people called "Gallert." Hanging from hooks were cooked and smoked sausages. Lastly, in the cellar, canned watermelon, apple, and sauerkraut were waiting to be served.
The Schmidts and other prosperous farmers lacked nothing. The had prepared very well for Christmas and the welcoming of the new year. The grandchildren could now come and would be richly showered with gifts. And for adult guests there was champagne, red wine, and no one would say no to a bit of brandy.
* * *
On Christmas Eve Adam, Anne Marie, Christian and little Elvira dressed in festive clothing and walked to services at the beautifully decorated church. From its walls candles in chandeliers were glowing for the village residents, the ceiling had been brightened up, and the pulpit area that had been made into an altar looked especially festive.
The church filled very quickly, to the very last seat. When Joergpeter Sperl arrived with Amalie and his large family, Christian and little Elvira rose to give up their seats for their Sperl grandparents and stood next to the decorated Christmas tree, and its candles glowed throughout the building. And still people kept streaming into the church building that had been filled much earlier.
Then the time had come. The bells in the bell tower stopped ringing, the schoolmaster entered the altar area and began his Christmas homily. The people inside became as quiet as a mouse.
The preacher recounted the Biblical story of the birth of Christ in the stable in Bethlehem, at times reading a few passages from the New Testament. The children's choir sang such songs as "Ihr Kinderlein kommet' ["O come, little children"], "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" ["Silent night, holy night"], "Kling Gloeckchen" ["Ring, little bell"] or "Oh, wie wohl ist mir am Abend, wenn zur Ruh' die Glocken laeuten" ["How wonderful it is in the evening when the bells ring in the end of the day"].
On the following morning, Christmas celebrations took place in the individual homes. During the first day of Christmas the children wandered from neighbor to neighbor to gather up gifts.
[NOTE:] Excerpted from the unpublished manuscript "Die wolgadeutschen Bauern" ["The Volga-German Farmers"] by Erwin Schneider (1923 - 1997), from which eight pages were printed in the Heimatbuch 1997/98.
Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.