It’s the morning of Christmas Eve. My brother and I go downstairs especially early and stand outside the sitting-room door. The sign reads, ‘No Entry, by Order of the Angel’. It doesn’t occur to us to peep inside. We know we must do as we are told or the Angel won’t come when it gets dark – and then we can’t have Christmas. My sister toddles over – just two – she is old enough to pick up on our bursting excitement.
“It’s the Angel”, I say. “We can’t go in there until tonight. It’ll be dark and there’ll be the Christmas tree with candles and presents underneath.”
Having a mother with Austrian-German ancestry meant that our Christmases were a strange mixture of different traditions. Explaining the Angel at school to friends obsessed with Father Christmas was tricky and full of danger that She (the Angel, not my mother) might be the cause of teasing to be avoided at all costs.
“What do you mean she lights the candles? What candles? You don’t see your Christmas tree until Christmas Eve? When it’s dark?”
Explaining that we opened our presents on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day and that the Angel came back later on to bring our stockings, caused - at best - more pitying consternation . I think my brother and I separately but quickly decided not to even try to describe how we would huddle together behind our sitting-room door and listen to our dad talking to the Angel.
“I heard her knocking on the door!”
We rush to the closed hall door and listen to our dad,
“Hello, come in. How are you? Have you come far?”
As the catch on the sitting-room door rattles we rush through and stand in the hall straining our ears to hear her replies as my dad continues to chat.
“Would you like a drink? No? Well I suppose you need to keep a clear head with all that flying ahead of you tonight. Are you alright with that candle? Can I help you?”
Literally hopping with silent thrill we listen, listen, listen, trying to quiet our sister who exclaims loudly at intervals, trying to hear the voice of an angel.
“Be quiet! If she hears us she’ll be scared and fly away. Shhh.”
At last we hear my dad saying goodbye.
“Well, it’s been lovely to see you. Take care and fly carefully. Goodbye!”
We hear the sitting-room window open and crowd to the little window in the porch where we can see my father just closing the window.
“I saw her, I saw her!”
We’re thrilled, convinced beyond question we can see her flying off into the Christmas night sky.
My dad tells us that we can come in and we enter. The room is beautiful, breathtaking, and transformed. Touched by the Angel the place glows with the candles on the tree and those dotted around the room. Firelight moves against the hearth. The tree looks beautiful. We see the wooden robin perched on a high branch, the star on the top and all the other familiar decorations which thickly hang with artistic abandon year after year. Underneath the tree are presents spread out – surreptitiously we check that they are spread thickly under the tree. Around the room, bowls of crisps and dried fruit are laid. Coke and lemonade stand alongside wine and whisky. This is enormously exciting to us – through the year we feel horribly deprived of such delectable treats compared to our friends, but not tonight.
“Get what you want and then come and sit down,” mum says, pouring juice for my sister. We fly about deliriously happy, grabbing handfuls of crisps and nuts. Finally we sit, all of us in our traditional Christmas places, and my dad settles on the floor next to the presents ready to choose them one at a time and give them out. He waits until the lucky person has opened, admired and shown off before moving to the next one. So the excitement of present giving is drawn out to the last possible moment.
Later it’s frankfurters with herring and potato salad with fruit salad and cream for pudding. Unfailingly, for forty years I’ve eaten this on Christmas Eve. Unfailingly, the idea is always better than the eating, and unfailingly every year we’ve considered eating something different. But the strength of the tradition passed down from my German/Austrian grandparents to my mother and her brother and sister, and then to us, is too great a bond with the past to break. It’s frankfurters for us, I fear, for many Christmas Eves to come.
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