A Christmas Story
written by: Michal Reibenbach
I pull the white net curtain of my sitting room window to one side and I’m delighted to discern that outside silvery flakes of snow are floating downwards from the sky, faster and faster. It is mesmerizing. My daughter comes and stands behind me, she gently puts her hand on my shoulder, “Look at the snow, isn’t it marvelous? We’re going to have a white Christmas,” she says. “Yes, it’ll be a wonderful Christmas,” I say, “We’re lucky, in that to-day everything is so plentiful nothing like our Christmas celebration during the Blitz.”
“Mummy, please tell me about it, we’ve still got a couple of hours until everyone arrives,” says my daughter.
“Darling it’s a rather long story, I think we should go and sit down by the fire,” I answer.
We brush past the Christmas tree which is adorned with glittering ornaments and already has wrapped presents underneath it, as we walk over to an armchair situated in front of the blazing fire crackling in the grate. I settle myself down comfortably into it, while my daughter plonks herself down on the carpet next to my feet and nestles her head in my lap. There is a pleasant smell in the air of the Christmas cake and fruit mince pies we’d finished baking a short while ago. Thus we sit enjoying the warmth of the fire and staring at the hypnotic flames as I recall my story:
‘Celebrating Christmas when there was severe rationing and at the same time trying to survive the heavy bombing during the Blitz was not an easy undertaking…..
During the war, we lived in a tiny rented apartment in Mill Hill which is a suburb of London. My father decided on that suburb because it was at the end of the line of the underground station. He reasoned that there we’d be away from the center of the city, whilst he could still travel in the underground into the heart of London to the bank where he worked. My father hadn’t been recruited into the army because he was too old, and also because of health issues. However, he volunteered as an A.R.P which was an air raid warden. I remember that the air raid wardens used to wear dark blue overalls, helmets, and sometimes gas masks. Their main task was to check that the streets were empty after a siren had screeched and that all the houses were blackened out properly.
At the end of our garden, with the help of our neighbors, my father constructed an Anderson air-raid shelter which was provided for free to poor people from the government. My father with the help of a neighbor dug a large hole, into which they fixed the corrugated iron shelter, and then they amply covered it over with earth. At approximately six feet long, and four feet wide it was a tiny, cold, damp, and unpleasant place to be in. My parents endeavored to make it as inviting as possible. They arranged a bunk bed with brightly colored blankets onto the side of the shelter. In the middle, they placed a little table on which there was always a bowl of jelly babies, about the only sweets available at that time, so that we girls, my sister, Julie, and I would always have something to look forward to. On the table, there was also a Kerosene lamp.
Periodically through the night, the sirens would screech their frightening wail. Each time we’d run to the air raid shelter clutching onto our torches to light up the way. As we sat and waited, we’d hear the anti-aircraft guns blasting away at the bombers. Then we’d hear a terrible explosion, and after a while, there’d be the all-clear signal. Our family increasingly found refuge inside the bomb shelter.
Every morning my mother would staunchly rise at six o’clock. She’d go out into the garden to feed our two hens the scraps of leftover food from the previous day, and collect two eggs which she’d cook for my father with his breakfast. Eggs in the shops were rationed to one a week for each person. Despite the air raids every morning my father bravely left for work. My mother was always petrified less she’d never see him again. At daybreak, the sky above London was lit up by the most lurid red glow from all the enormous fires still burning there.
There was no way of avoiding the war so my older sister, Julie, and I did our best to adapt to it. Quite often on our way to school, we’d witnessed yet another pile of rubbish and wreckage where once a house had stood, the smell of bombs would still be in the air, and dust would be swirling around in the morning sunlight. Collecting shrapnel was a wartime hobby with most of us kids. Usually, it came from exploded anti-aircraft shells which our boys fired at the German bombers. In the mornings the pieces of shrapnel were often still glowing hot, so Julie and I would remember where they were, and we’d pick them up on our way back home from school. They’d be added to our collections which we keep in small boxes. At school, we would admire each other’s collections and swop pieces. Also while walking home I’d peer into the vapor-covered shop window of a toy shop. On display was the most beautiful doll in the whole world. She had long blond silky hair, a rosebud mouth, and blue eyes with long eyelashes. Her white ballroom gown was decorated with delicate light blue forget-me-notes sewn into the material. I’d look at her wistfully and wish with all my heart that by some miracle Santa Clause would bring her to me as a Christmas present. At eight years old I was still suitably gullible enough to believe in Santa. I named her Christabelle.
One evening at an hour when my sister and I were both supposed to be tucked up in bed, but instead we are peeping down over the upstairs banisters. We happened to see our father climbing up a wobbly step ladder in the hall where there were some wall cupboards. In one hand he was carrying two boxes of chocolates. Upon reaching a top cupboard he opened it and pushed the boxes deep inside, and then firmly closed the door. After having climbed down the ladder he carried it back out into the garden.
As she often did, the next afternoon our mother went outside into the garden to attend to the vegetables which grew there. They were an important addition to our food supply. While she was outside my sister precariously balanced some chairs one on top of the other and clambered up them to reach the hiding place of the chocolate boxes. Upon successfully getting hold of one of the boxes she discovered it was filled with Fry’s chocolate creams. She surreptitiously took out two chocolates and stripped them of their silver paper wrappings. Then with tissue paper which I handed up to her, she artfully stuffed the wrappings and replaced the fake chocolates into the box. We were hopeful that in this way our pilfering wouldn’t be noticed. The chocolates were a rare treat and tasted delicious. All too soon, within about a month we had finished off all the chocolates. We waited in dread lest our father should discover our thievery, but nothing happened.
Two weeks before Christmas I woke up to a light snowfall. Outside powdery snow covered the ground. As Julie and I set off for school the snow made me feel light-hearted, that is until from the distance I saw that the front of the toy shop had been destroyed during the night by a bomb. In a panic, I raced over to inspect the extent of the damage. The broken shopfront already lay wasted by looters, and there was wreckage all around. I felt as if my heart would break because Christabelle had disappeared. I kicked at the rubble in front of the shop frantically in the hope that by chance I’d find her. Suddenly I saw one of her legs sticking out from the debris. I tugged at it and pulled her out. She was a sorrowful sight, bald, naked, and charred. I clutched her to my stomach and wailed, “Oh Christabelle, my poor Christabelle!” and I wept loud heavy sobs. My sister who had caught up to me came over to see why I was sobbing. She put her arms around me and said, “Sweetie, don’t cry, I’ll fix Christabelle for you, I’ll make her as good as new. Now dry your tears and give her to me.”
I wiped my eyes and runny nose on my sleeve and handed Christabelle to my sister. She promptly shoved her into her satchel, then grabbed hold of my hand and said, “Come along, we’ll be late for school.”
My family prepared for Christmas as best they could. My father bought a small Christmas tree. Julie and I adorned it with glass balls, silver tinsel, handmade ornaments and we put a small fairy on top. My mother improvised in her cooking using such things as mashed potatoes mixed with sugar instead of cream.
Christmas Eve arrived, and as always all the windows were blackened out, for we had no way of knowing when the sirens would wail. As it turned out there was an unofficial postponement of bombing from Christmas Eve and over the following two days. Determined to make Christmas cheerful Papa turned on the radio and the Christmas Carols added an atmosphere of festivity.
My balding father with his strong features, and my gentle-faced mother, with her large, light blue eyes, and hair which had suddenly turned prematurely white because of the stress of the war, looked on lovingly as we girls opened our presents. My mother’s gifts consisted of thick woolen socks and woolen hats which she’d knitted for all the family, also some pretty beaded jewelry which she’d made for Julie and me. My sister watched on as I opened her gift with tension playing over her features. Wow! I could hardly believe my eyes, as my beloved Christabelle appeared out of the wrapping. She was completely changed but she was still beautiful. My skillful fourteen-year-old sister had scrubbed, painted, added new hair, and made new clothes for the doll. Her once blond, silvery hair was now long, ginger tresses. Her once white dress was now a light blue dress adorned with a pattern of pink roses. My sister had also fashioned her little booties, and a basket full of pink roses for her to hold. I was ecstatic and said, “Thank you so much, Julie, I love her, she’s the best Christmas present ever.”
“You’re welcome, I’m glad that you love her,” beamed my sister.
Next, I unwrapped my father’s Christmas present. I got a terrible shock when I saw that he had given me one of the boxes of Fry’s chocolate creams out of which we had eaten all the contents. Through wild eyes, I beseeched my sister for help but saw she was in the same predicament as I was, for he had given her the other box. I felt like dying from embarrassment and I began to tremble inside with fear. “Th-thank you, Papa, I-I’m not hungry I’ll keep them for la-later,” I stammered and I went bright red.
“I’m not hungry either,” agreed my sister hurriedly.
“Well at least offer me and your mother one of your chocolates,” said my father. With so saying he stretched out an arm, lifted the lid of my chocolate box, took out two, unwrapped them, then he gave one to our mother and popped the other into his mouth. “They are scrumptious,” he said, and he began to laugh at our astonished expressions. I felt completely bewildered, for I didn’t understand how real chocolates had suddenly replaced the tissue paper. I thought it must be a Christmas miracle! Our father and mother laughed heartily until tears rolled down their cheeks, for they knew that our kind father had replenished the chocolates.
Despite the war, I felt happy for I was surrounded by people who loved and cared for me. It was a ……” ‘Ding-dong-ding dong’ “The door bell’s ringing, darling would you go and let the family in?” I ask my daughter.
“Of course mummy,” she answers, and as she rises to her feet she adds, “Thank you, mum, that was an amazing story.”
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