Our first married Christmas was in Worms, Germany, where my husband was stationed during his stint in the U.S. Army.
We were living in a two-room apartment in the home of a large German family who spoke no English. We had arrived eight months earlier and settled fairly well into life in a foreign country, far from our families.
On Christmas Eve, our landlords, Johann and Maria Eger, asked us to join them for a little celebration and we gratefully accepted. We exchanged gifts: my husband was given a bottle of wine and I was presented a pair of warm slippers. We had chosen to give them those items they loved but could not easily afford: coffee, cigarettes, peanut butter and canned pineapple.
After the exclamations of gratitude it was time to light the rather sparsely decorated tree. And light it they did! With real candles!! I had been brought up to have a huge respect for the rule that fire and fir trees do not mix. Then I realized there were sparklers tied to the tree and they lit those, too. While I waited for the entire house to burst into flames, we all sang four sedate verses of “Stille Nacht” and I prayed we would escape the coming inferno.
Of course, everything was fine and we lived to tell our grandchildren the tale.
In the town was a historically renowned, very old cathedral, the Dom. Probably its most famous role in its nearly 900 years had been hosting the trial of Martin Luther in1521.
It was a dark, always cold, massive stone building located on a slight rise in the center of town and it could be seen for miles. It had amazingly escaped damage during World War II when all around it had been leveled by allied bombers. When we were there a good deal of the rubble remained even though it had been 14 years since the end of the war.
I thought it would be a great opportunity to attend Christmas Eve services in this historic edifice. And on a glittering cold, star-lit night, off we went in to town. When we arrived at the church, it was in darkness, although the parking lot appeared to be quite full. We pulled one of the gigantic doors open just a crack and peered in. The church was full of people but there were no lights on at all, nor was there a sound We groped our way to what few seats were available and sat in the gloomy, absolute stillness.
At the stroke of midnight, a voice, that of a young boy, could be heard singing the Gospel. As he sang, lights began to flicker on all over the sanctuary. And as he reached the words, “He is born,” 20 Christmas trees, drenched in tiny white lights, sparkled to life up on the altar. We then realized that at the front of the church was a full symphony orchestra and at the back, a choir of hundreds.
It was a production worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. It was splendid magnificence and to this day, I have never witnessed anything like it.
The next year I convinced several friends to join us for the Midnight Mass at the Dom. When we arrived, the place was again pitch dark, and our friends said maybe I was mistaken and that it was in another church.
“No, wait,” I said, “This is so cool. Wait until you look inside.” But the doors were all locked and there was no one inside. We ended up going to the Army chapel, where no one sang and attendance was sparse.
It was later that I found out that the wondrous sight we had seen the year before was only done every other year. We would have to wait.