Perched on a stool in the textile workers’ booth at the Bethlehem marketplace, Hannah drew more of the soft brown wool from her distaff and fed it to the twirling spindle that dangled beneath her fingers, drawing out the fine thread. A few feet off to her left, seated on a straw bale, her adolescent helper was carding a white fleece. The spindle touched the ground and Hannah drew it up, wound the new yarn around the base and set the spindle whirling again. Twist, spin, pull, wind, twist, spin, pull, wind. The motions were mesmerizing and so familiar she scarcely gave it any thought. Her eyes and thoughts were free to wander as she watched the crowds streaming past her stall. Most stopped just long enough to stroke the swatches of wool, flax and silk, but every now and again someone, usually a mother with young children, would stop and ask questions.
That was perhaps Hannah’s favorite part of the evening. She loved explaining how the wool grew on the sheep and how the sheep got a haircut every Spring; how the blue-flowered flax was gathered, soaked, dried, and hackled, beaten, to make a fibers that could be spun into a strong thread to weave into linen; how the little worms ate the mulberry leaves and spun themselves a cocoon which was then boiled, and how the women with tiny notches cut into their fingernails carefully unwound each cocoon to make silk. She also enjoyed seeing the children’s eyes widen as she told them that a skilled spinster would be able to spin enough yarn to be woven into cloth that would make just one suit of new clothing for each member of her family. “Just think,” she would say, “what would it be like if your Mama could give you only one new outfit for the entire year? And she had to make it all by herself. There would be no Walmart where you could go shopping.” Then she would tell the little girls that as soon as they celebrated their fourth birthday they would be given a spindle of their own so they could help their Mama make clothes for their father and brothers. Hannah would show them the small spindles she had made with dowels and wooden wheels. “Looks like a toy top, doesn’t it? (She was continually surprised at the number of children who had no idea what a top was!) For little boys, it is a toy, but for little girls, it is a tool. While the smaller children would be fascinated, the pre-teens usually just rolled their eyes as their parents reminded them how much they had to be thankful for. And while Hannah would loved to have engaged them in more conversation, there were always the Roman soldiers mounted on horseback to keep the crowd moving.
The scene shifted. Hannah was now walking through her favorite Christkindlmarkt. In her left hand, she had a brimming mug of glühwein and in her right, a tender, spicy pfeffernǖsse. She set both down on a nearby table to pull her shawl more tightly about her shoulders. Odd. She was wearing her costume from the Bethlehem Market while those around her sported dirndls and lederhosen, but no one seemed to notice or comment. She picked up her drink and cookie and set off down the narrow lane between the miniature chalets. Hannah oohed over the technique of the man at the scherenschnitte booth as he snipped intricate designs into the folded paper. She aahed over the woman deftly weaving long, narrow strips of paper into German stars, then dipping them into melted beeswax and sprinkling them with glitter. She chuckled at the warty green pickles in the glass ornament booth and enjoyed the tinkling chimes of the brass carousels with their angels gently spinning in the heat of the candles. A little further down the lane she caught the scent of fresh pine where Advent wreaths were being made and then the mouth-watering aromas of the bakery where Zimsterne, Vanillekipferl, Lebkuchen, Butterkekse, and more Pfeffernǖsse were on display. She took a warming sip of the glühwein and the colors of the Christkindlmarkt shimmered before her eyes.
Colder now, she again snugged her shawl about her shoulders. Still in her first century costume, Hannah struggled through the snowdrifts blocking the long drive up to the farmhouse that had been her childhood home. Golden light streamed from the windows and delicious smells wafted through the icy air. Reaching the back door at last (no one uses front doors in farmhouses), Hannah shook the snow from her frozen feet and shoulders. Warmth, light, sound, and scent embraced her, as did a half dozen young nieces and nephews. The children had just finished their light supper and pulled her along back outside as they piled into four cars and headed off to church. Redolent with pine and beeswax the country church was transformed into a place of wonder. The children were enchanting as they acted out once more the timeless tale of the Nativity – although Mary got a bit ruffled when one of the sheep stole Baby Jesus out of the manger – and their sweet voices singing the ancient carols recalled the voices of angels.
Then it was back home where the little ones tore into the brightly wrapped packages Hannah’s brother-in-law Max had set out beneath the tree while the rest of the family was at church. Max wasn’t one for church and sentimentality and such. When the children were finally in bed, Max remained at home as the rest of the adults piled back into the cars for the midnight carol service at church. Home once more, the schnapps was passed as they quietly enjoyed a small feast of Sommerwurst and Weisswurst and Butterkäse, Schmearkäse, Limburger, and Gruyere on crackers along with pickled herring, sweet gherkins, olives, and a wicker basket of dried fruits.
Then suddenly it was midday and Hannah stood in the farmhouse dining room in front of a table laden with roast goose (her sister Cecelia never did care for turkey), smoked ham, mashed potatoes, dressing, and a dozen different salads and side dishes. The aromas were intoxicating and Hannah could scarcely wait to fill her plate and savor the feast. The children, holding hands, formed a circle around the table, chattering excitedly. The adults, with Max and Cecelia at the head of the table, formed a ring around the children. Hannah’s brother Karl raised his hands for silence, then bowed his head as he began to say grace.
Karl was here? All the way from Seattle? And so was Hannah’s brother Mathias from Florida. And Cecelia? Hannah looked over Karl’s head. Behind him were gathered the translucent figures of their mother, father, and grandparents, and further back, the bearded figures of their fathers and the full skirted and aproned wraiths of their mothers. Again the colors, scents, and sounds began to swirl about Hannah and she sat up with a gasp. A dream. It was all, all of it, a dream. Hannah looked over at her bedside clock — 3:15 AM, on the morning of Christmas Eve. She gave a dry laugh that turned into a sob. It wasn’t 1990 anymore. No, it was 2020 – the year without an Easter, without a Thanksgiving, without a Christmas. Hannah debated going back to sleep. As much as she wanted to crawl back into her dream, she also dreaded it. Parched, she decided on a glass of water and then picked up a quilt and settled herself in her recliner. The amber streetlight on the corner glowed dimly through her lace curtains. The holiday light displays decorating several of the neighbors’ houses were dark. Though Hannah was determined to stay awake, it was not long before she was once more asleep.
The sound of a siren wakened Hannah. For a moment, she was unsure of where she was. Then she saw the wicker basket holding her spindles and her distaff wound with soft brown wool, the pot with the Norfolk Island pine and its string of miniature lights. Her living room. Morning. Christmas Eve. The awakening was bitter. She might as well be in Narnia when it was winter but never Christmas. Well. She could lie here in her recliner all day, or she could get up and at least accomplish something although she could not fathom what that might be. Classes would not begin again until the end of January, and her lesson plans were finely tuned by more than two decades of use. The carpet could do with vacuuming, although there was no one but herself to see it. And last night’s dishes were still in the sink, but ditto. The temptation was strong to do nothing, but she shook it off, rose, took a shower, and got dressed.
Morning coffee in hand, Hannah stood on the front stoop of her Cape Cod cottage, one of a dozen of nearly identical homes that lined the block. The air was brisk but there wasn’t much in the way of snow – just a few inches on the lawns. The street was deserted. On past Christmas Eves, the Schieffer’s driveway would be filled with cars, as would the Kasberger’s and the Leibl’s. Those were the only houses that still had couples, but their children and grandchildren always showed up for Christmas. The rest of the houses, like Hannah’s, were occupied by single people and most of those were rentals. No one with children wanted a home with just one bathroom anymore, or at least, that was what the mayor said. When her mug was empty, Hannah went back inside and surveyed her domain. She had not really decorated for Christmas. What was the point? Like everyone else on her street, she would be alone for the holiday. Sure, she had draped some miniature lights over the Norfolk Island Pine, and beneath it she had placed the olive wood Nativity Cecelia had purchased for her in Israel, and there was a wreath on the front door, but that was it.
Always winter and never Christmas. The phrase came back to Hannah. Just like in the story. But here there was no white witch. Instead, there was a virus. From March until this very day, like a line of dominoes, one thing after another had been cancelled. Hannah loved the Christmas season. It began in November with a drive to the Christkindlmarkt in Germantown. It wasn’t that she bought much at the market, but she loved the miniature chalets, seeing the artisans working at their traditional crafts, and the festive Christmas cookies, chocolates and other delicious treats. But not this year. The next part of her Christmas preparation was the Bethlehem Market Place. Several churches came together each year at the Fairgrounds to recreate a first century village. Roman soldiers on horseback collected “taxes” from the visitors who were then admitted to the “village” in the exhibition hall. Potters, carpenters, bakers, spice merchants, and textile workers like herself, demonstrated age old handicrafts as the crowds made their way along the sawdust street to the heart of the building where a live nativity depicted the true meaning of Christmas. Then there were the Christmas cookies to bake for her church’s Christmas program. Not this year. There would be no Christmas program, and only an online service for Christmas Day. And finally, there was the short trip into the countryside to the old farmstead Hannah’s great-grandparents had homesteaded in the 1850s. But that was gone, too. Cecelia had succumbed to COVID in April and Max had put the house on the market a month later, moving to Indiana to be near most of his grown children. Karl and his family were in Seattle, Mathias and his family in Florida – and no one was traveling this year. So Hannah was alone. Hannah had shipped off her boxes of hand crafted gifts to her brothers, brother-in-law, and their families the week before Thanksgiving amid dire warnings of postal slowdowns. She had also received packages from Karl and Matthias, so at least she had that.
The day dragged. Just after 3:00, Hannah drove to the supermarket to pick up her Christmas dinner meal. It had the basics and all she would have to do was reheat it tomorrow. Plus, she would have leftovers that would last almost until New Year’s. As the sun set, Hannah set off once again. When she was a very small child, her father would take her and her siblings out on Christmas Eve and they would drive to town to see the Christmas lights while her mother played Santa Claus at home. This at least she could do. Street after street seemed to outdo one another with strings of lights and inflatables and life-sized Nativities. Hannah had never seen her town this decorated. Perhaps it was just one way for people to push back against the darkness this year had brought. Back home, she opened her presents and smiled to see that Karl had sent her a sampler of cheeses, sausages, herring, dried fruit and chocolates. Well, that would certainly do for supper. She openly chuckled when she discovered Mathias had done the same. At least they remembered how much Hannah loved tradition.
With supper done and the few dishes washed and put away, Hannah picked up her old copy of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The phrase, “always winter and never Christmas” had haunted her all day, so the classic children’s tale seemed to call to her. Losing herself in the battles, betrayals, and final victory, the evening slipped by. When she closed the book, it was almost midnight. She stepped out onto her front stoop. This was the moment in all the sappy Christmas movies when the estranged families would come together and the snowflakes would softly drift to the ground. But this was no sappy Christmas movie; this was the year without a Christmas. No snowflakes either. The sky overhead was clear. The waxing moon and stars shone crisply bright. A wave of bitterness swept over Hannah as she gazed at the decorated houses across the street. The lights seemed so futile. One of the lights up the block moved. The glowing end of a cigarette. She knew the landlords of the rental houses didn’t allow smoking indoors. So there was one other soul alive in the world this night. Hannah sighed. She drew the fleece blanket closer around her and closed her eyes.
The images from her dream flickered past her mind’s eye. All the things that meant Christmas to her that would not be. And yet, as the silence and chill settled upon her, the bitterness drained away. Softly at first, and gradually growing louder, she began, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles schläft, einsam wacht…”
Startled, she heard a raspy baritone pick up, “Round yon virgin, mother and child, Holy Infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” Hannah looked to the house up the block. The cigarette had been snuffed and all she could see was the rough outline of a man. He began, “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Hannah joined in. And now, they were joined by a tremulous soprano, “O come, ye, O come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him born the King of angels…” Now, yet more voices, “O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
Up and down the street, people were standing on their front porches and stoops. Then Chuck Schieffer’s voice from the house on the corner rang out, “And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger’. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”
The soprano rang out with “Joy to the World,” and the neighbors chimed in. At the song’s conclusion, they wished each other a Merry Christmas and returned to the warmth of their homes. No, Hannah thought, this is not a year without a Christmas. There will never be a year without a Christmas.