Christmas in the city
Mebratu opened the door of the wooden stall on this chilly December morning. Even before turning on the lights, he went to the back of the hut to turn up the oil heater. Despite having lived 16 ½ of his nearly 18 years in the Eritrean Highlands, he had not gotten used to the bone-chilling winds in the large Swiss city where he now lived. “Föhn”, the locals called the jerky gusts which made you zig-zag in your path and upturn your umbrella. People laughed when they saw him pull on a second pair of cotton gloves and wind his shawl in triple layers over neck and nose.
But it wasn’t just the cold that made him turn up the heat. In fact, the stall owner had instructed him to turn it off completely over night. After all, the large red-and-green spidery metal tree stands he had been hired to sell at the city’s Christmas market didn’t require warmth.
It had been December 6th Mebratu remembered fondly, the day St. Nicholas had walked past his stall. He was dressed in a long, red gown, tied around the waist with an ankle-length cord ending in a substantial tassel that gracefully rolled with every step he took.
With one white gloved hand, St. Nicholas rhythmically rang a golden bell in front of his chest. With the other, he waved at the curly haired young man behind the stall with his spidery Christmas charges.
Mebratu enthusiastically waved back with both hands and a deep belly laugh tumbled through St. Nicholas’ fulminant white beard. His blue eyes twinkled and the magnificent tall head covering on top of the white hair seemed to tremble just a touch. Mebratu had seen a similar head covering once before from the time his parents had taken him and his sister to the Christmas Mass at the Cathedral in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.
St. Nicholas was accompanied by what Mebratu later learned was “Schmutzli”, the dark-clad counterpart to “Samichlaus.” The grey donkey between the two impressive figures was laden with brown burgeoning burlap bags; one on each side. Schmutzli grinned, reached into one of the bags and tossed Mebratu two Clementines and a gold-wrapped chocolate coin.
Mebratu was happy even though he didn’t quite understand the meaning of all of this. He sold a record number of tree stands that day.
Today as then, the Föhn was blowing. The city was cloud-covered and dark even at mid-day. As Mebratu had enacted his usual entry ritual that morning, he heard short little tweets coming from behind the heater. A smile lit-up his handsome dark face and the delight of familiarity warmed his heart. Many times in his native mountain village had he heard this sound. It instantly brought him back to the community farm on which he and his sister Selam had lived with their aunt after the death of their parents during one of the Ethiopian war raids.
Life in the Eritrean Highlands
The farm was a white washed stone building with a roof made from branches at the edge of the rugged Eritrean Highlands. Several families shared the living space and all worked together to grow sorghum, maize, teff and other durable crops on the meagre plots. When the community could spare some of the harvest, the siblings were dispatched to the closest market town, four hours walking distance, to sell the valuable goods together with fresh goat milk.
Mebratu loved the silent walks with his sister on the sandy road east. They set off during the last hour of dark – the air soft and not unpleasantly cool – and soon fell in step with the cart wheels’ rhythm on which they carried their market items. He thought of it as desert music in tune with the fading stars overhead.
The siblings watched as the horizon before them became a living canvas. Selam always wanted to make it a game who could first spot the feeblest glimmer of light on the horizon, announcing the day to come. He usually let her win. Neither one ever tired to watch the fulminant crescendo of pinks, purples and reds that followed, pushing away the darkness before them. Before long, the sun started to rise behind the horizon, until – in one master stroke – fiercely revealed its full power, blinding their eyes and illuminating the dry landscape around them.
When they arrived at the market, the siblings would join the vendors squatting on the dirt road, spread out their goods on a clean cloth, and barter all day before returning home mid afternoon.
Life in Switzerland
Despite these memories, Mebratu was not unhappy living in Switzerland now. Just three weeks ago, he had been able to move in with a Swiss family. Out of the asylum center where he had stayed with other refugees for the first 13 months. He liked rooming with the Ruttishausers who had two sons around his age. From day one at the center, Mebratu had attended all offered schooling and educational courses and rapidly learned German. He could even speak a little Swiss which had enabled him to get this short-term job, selling tree stands at the Christmas market.
He did miss Selam, though. She was two years younger and together they had decided to undertake the dangerous journey out of their war-torn country before being separated anyway by Mebratu being called to serve in the Eritrean army. It was a dangerous, arduous journey north, but the siblings succeeded. It had taken them six months to reach Libya and the trip had forged them together even more since their parents’ death.
Salem’s wails and screams were still in his ears as they were forcibly separated at the Libyan coast and put on different smuggler boats that promised to bring them safely to Italy. Mebratu did not know what had happened to his sister. He thought of her every day and prayed for her every night. He had not given up hope to find Salem and had spoken to the Swiss authorities who promised to start a European refugee center search.
Suddenly, he was taken out of his reverie. The tweets at his feet had turned into whale-like yelps. Mebratu moved the heater further and squatted down to greet the mouse family. A ritual since he had discovered the nest inside the tree stand the day St. Nicholaus had passed by. The Eritrean youth had been delighted to find five tiny, naked, blind, red, wiggly newborn mouse pups plus their parents inside a cozy nest.
The stand was a misfit. Its four spidery legs stood uneven and the green color flaked off. Tossing the faulty item behind the heater, his boss had instructed Mebratu to discard it into the metal bin at some point.
“And how are you little ones today?,” he asked with a smile in his voice. “Did you stay warm through the night? My, you’ve really grown big in the last couple of days.” He loved talking to the mice, and they seemed to respond! The yelping stopped and they remained fearlessly in their nest, all wound together over and around each other. It was getting very tight in their home and the pups were veritable little mice now with fur, round ears and growing tails. Good thing, too. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, was the last market day. The stalls would come down and his little charges thrown out, if not worse.
Mebratu knew that mice coupled for life and this pair had definitely found a Christmas jackpot of a home to raise their family! Not only in safety and warmth inside Mebratu’s stall, but the nest was clearly made courtesy of the Christmas tree seller next door. The opening was cushily lined with sisal string interlaced with green needles and bits of brown packing paper. The Christmas colors of the tree stand gave the nest a distinctly festive appearance.
The mouse family’s dinner, Mebratu speculated, came unbeknownst courtesy of his other stall neighbour, the Christmas bakery. Everyday Mebratu had been exposed to mouth-watering scents wafting over. Sugar coated almonds freshly roasted in an enamelled cast-iron pot hung on the stall’s edge. Other delicacies made on site such as the traditional Magenbrot, Christmas cookies, Lebkuchen, Läckerli, Stollen, chocolates, breads, and panettone! These were true Christmas mice through and through!
…and the locals
A knock made him swing around. “Salü Mebratu” said the old woman standing at the counter of his stall. “How are they doing?” she asked, moving her head in the mice’s direction. “They must be getting big by now.”
Mebratu smiled and greeted Louise. She was his favourite customer. Strictly speaking, she hadn’t bought anything, but she was kind, funny and always interesting to talk to. Louise had been a math & sciences teacher at the city’s down-town high school. Both widowed and retired some years ago, he knew she didn’t have any family, but still lived in the same small apartment around the corner from her school and this market. She had come on his first day on the job and frequently since for friendly chats. They were friends by now, but Mebratu still thought Louise looked a touch eccentric wearing a baggy, Scottish patterned duffel coat and a felted black hat from under which grey curls spilled out in every direction.
“I’m worried about where they will go when the stalls come down tomorrow”, answered Mebratu. “They’re so not fearful of humans and could easily be squished during the commotion of dismantling.”
“I wouldn’t worry about them, Mebratu,” said Louisa with a broad smile. “Animals have a sixth sense about what’s going to happen! But listen, I came to ask you something. Why don’t you join me and we attend the Christmas Day Service at St. Peter’s together? It’ll be a very special ceremony.”
Mebratu agreed, happy and sad at the same time, remembering the festive atmosphere of the Asmara Cathedral service when his family had still been complete some Christmases ago. Never in a million years would he have thought he’d spend Christmas Day in a cathedral in Switzerland, with his parents gone and his sister missing.
They discussed where to meet and he asked Louise how she planned to spend Christmas Eve. “Oh, I’ll light a candle and watch whatever’s on TV,” she answered nonchalantly, turning on her heel with an airy wave of farewell and a decisive throw of her cotton shawl over one shoulder, followed by a carefree “See you Christmas Day!”
The rest of the day passed quickly and Mebratu slept well that night. He was excited when he woke up in the morning, remembering that it was Christmas Eve – his last day at the market.
“Are you ready for Christmas, Mebratu?” his neighbour Hans, the Christmas tree vendor, called out cheerfully to Mebratu as he came into sight. “Come on over for a minute, I’ve got something for you!” He pulled out the smallest of the few remaining Christmas trees. Hans knocked the stem on the ground to make the branches unfold. “What do you think, Mebratu? It’s a tree with personality, isn’t it, and it is for you! Merry Christmas!”
Mebratu beamed like a light house as he thanked Hans, accepting the shoulder-height fir tree. The needle foliage was full and dense, and his nostrils picked up a waft of forest scent as the little tree passed between them. It definitely had personality – it stood somewhat lopsided off the ground as if it had been pushed out of the way by a taller tree. In order to keep it straight, it needed to be held at an angle. Mebratu liked it at first sight and carefully leaned it against the wall, searching for the key to his stall.
Inside, everything was quiet and Mebratu felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. In two jumps he was at the heater and impatiently moved it forward. His fear was confirmed: the nest was empty, his Christmas mice had left during the night. Mebratu had hoped and feared that this would be the case, but still, he would have liked to see the mice one more time. “Merry Christmas, little ones,” he murmured, staring down at the empty tree stand, “and be safe!”
An idea came to him. Mebratu removed the mouse nest in one swoop and carried the stand outdoors. He picked up his new Christmas tree and placed it carefully into the opening of the stand. He turned the tree so its arched stem sat over the highest point of the uneven tripod stand. The tree stood nearly straight up!
“Well done”, called out Hans cheerfully, who had watched the operation. “You have the perfect base for that little pine!” “It sits quite all right, doesn’t it,” grinned Mebratu, “and I’m going to give it to Louise for Christmas!”
Few customers came to the market on the last day. It had started to snow. Fat, large flakes tumbled slowly from the sky and accumulated quickly on pavement, buildings and trees. The vendors tidied up their stalls, stashing their remaining goods into boxes for the vans to whisk away later. Everyone chatted with their neighbours; excitement was in the air. Most vendors would celebrate Christmas Eve with their family as Mebratu knew. A delicious meal, the candle-lit Christmas tree & gift giving, followed by midnight mass.
He was looking forward to celebrate with his new host family, the Ruttishausers, but that made him think of Selam and his heart grew heavy. He was wondering where his sister was at this moment and how she would spend Christmas. If only he knew that she was safe. The uncertainty was so difficult to bear.
Mebratu’s boss came by and complimented him that he had done a great job selling nearly all the tree stands. In the spring, his boss explained, he also ran a craft stand at the twice weekly farmers market, and if Mebratu wanted to job, to give him a call early spring. Mebratu blushed and thanked him for the offer. They stashed the remaining tree stands into his van.
Wishing Hans and the bakery stall neighbours a merry Christmas, Mebratu put on his two pairs of gloves and picked up the little fir tree by the midriff with one hand, and the stand with the other. The temperature had dropped and the snowflakes grown even thicker. Mebratu watched the snow accumulate on his tree and felt the heaviness on his cap.
Dusk settled over the busy city. Public Christmas lights on lamp posts and over street sections contributed to the glow coming from the shop windows. The smell of roasting chestnuts wafted in from all directions. There was a green-and-brown sales stand with wide copper pans over burnt-roasters at nearly every corner. Buyers liked to warm their hands on the hot chestnuts through the brown paper bags in which they were packed.
The red Christmas tram did its last rounds and blue-and-white street cars drove by every couple of minutes. Packed with people inside, they added more moving light to the festive scenery.
Women dressed in furry hats and knee-length thick camel coats met by elegant, high leather boots carried colourful packages peaking out of paper bags. Or they walked dogs – big and small – all of them wrapped in fashionable thick fleece tailored to their bodies, some extended right down to their paws.
Businessmen in dark blue winter coats held their umbrellas over themselves and their brief cases, and children with backpacks coming from the last day of school stopped for a snowball fight, giggling and laughing as they missed their targets.
Mebratu felt good being part of this city as he left tree and stand perfectly mounted and topped a little with snow at Louisa’s entry door to her ground floor flat. He was sure she would like his surprise when she returned home.
At the Ruttishausers that evening, he enjoyed the Christmas Eve celebration around a tall fir tree that was decorated with colourful glass balls, straw- and wooden ornaments and red candles. After a multi-course dinner, the family taught him to sing “Oh du Fröhliche…”, a traditional Swiss Christmas song, and finally, he got to taste the delicious sweets baked around this time: Mailänderli, glazed cinnamon stars, anise Chräbeli, Spitzbüebli filled with jam and chocolate Brunsli.
Mebratu was very happy that everyone liked his gifts. In the wood working class offered at the refugee center, Mebratu had crafted a plant holder for Mrs. Ruttishauser, and a pallet wood wall rack for Mr. Ruttishauser’s work shop in the basement of the apartment where they all lived. For the twin brothers Julian and Luca he had made equal size wood boxes with removable lids.
Mebratu’s gift under the tree, beautifully wrapped in golden paper, turned out to be a pair of black leather gloves lined with sheep skin. The family looked on as he patiently unknotted the decorative string, carefully released the scotch tape on the glossy paper and finally unwrapped his present. They laughed as they saw his delight putting on the gloves, wriggling all ten fingers and putting his hands to his nose to breathe in the leather scent.
That night, Mebratu said a prayer of gratitude for all the blessings in his life. For the safety, the warmth, the kind people around him; for the new opportunity of life before him. He ended with a prayer of safety for his sister and the hope that they would find each other again.
Mebratu awoke to a silent world of white on Christmas morning. The snow had piled up high on rooftops, parked cars and Christmas lights over night. Now the sky was clear and blue, the air icy cold, and the sun illuminating a wondrous wintery world.
The city was quiet. Waiting for the streetcar, he tried out his new gloves by throwing a few snowballs into the slowly flowing river, separating the city’s two old towns. He watched a gracefully floating pair of swans at the opposite shore, which made him think of his Christmas mice.
An old man and his dog walked by, side-by-side; slowly, silently. They seemed quite contented in each other’s company, leaving a long line of tracks in the fresh snow which reminded Mebratu of his desert walks with Salem. The sound of the approaching streetcar was muffled on its snowy tracks and Mebratu in his reverie would have missed the tram if the driver hadn’t clanked the horn. Mebratu jumped out of his thoughts and into the tram, thanking the driver with a wave.
Louisa had clearly taken great care to decorate the little fir tree with antique looking glass ornaments, feathered birds and beeswax candles. It stood in the alcove window of her small living room and she gave Mebratu a hearty hug as she thanked him for his gift.
“Joy to the World”
The bells of St. Peter began to ring as they walked in the bright day through the old town to the church concert.
Slow and deep, the majestic sound of the first bell travelled through the icy air, gathering momentum with each ring. The deep sound was joined by four brighter bells, one at a time, until they became a lively, joyous chorus. The steeple was festively decorated in long, blue and white flags which slowly undulated in the wind. People appeared from all corners, as if flushed out by the bells, and by the time Louise and Mebratu entered through the massive wooden doors, the church was filling quickly.
They settled in their wooden pews. Sunlight streamed through the colourful stained glass windows, flooding the church with a warm brightness and above their heads made visible the dance of dust particles in the air.
The service was about to begin. Powerfully, the organ set in with the first chords to “Joy to the World”, filling the massive romanesque interior with the vibration of the famous Christmas hymn. Everyone rose to join in singing. As Mebratu stood up, he felt a strong tug on his arm.
Turning his head, he stared into Salem’s glowing face, looking up at him, linking her arm with his and standing right there, next to him in the pew!
Mebratu stood frozen and speechless for an instant. Salem’s eyes grew even more glowing and tears started to roll down her face. “Salem!”, he exclaimed coming to life, and in one motion turned and swooped up his sister in his arms.
There they stood, brother and sister, holding on to each other for dear life, while Louise and the congregations around them looked on with smiling faces, the harmonious crescendo of organ and voices rejoicing everyone’s heart and soul.
Merry Christmas to you. Enjoy a wonderful time with your family and friends!