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
* * *
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
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
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
Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of