Season’s greetings

Issue 4/2002 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Kolmastoista tuoli (‘The thirteenth chair’, Atena, 2002)

The start of the Christmas season was difficult for everybody, but it was one big upset for Ron and Dan, the twins. At Christmas, apparently, their whole world, all their schoolmates and backyard-mates, the whole gang of them, were avoiding the twins. No one seemed to be even talking to the twins, who said everyone was just concentrating on ‘being nice’.

‘Nice!’

The pain on the boys’ faces looked the real thing. They were without chums, and the reason was even more annoying.

‘They have to be nice, for they’re expecting presents from Father Christmas.’

Christmas was coming and was having a weird effect on the youngest. For the twins, effort and a reward for a good try were completely foreign concepts. At this point, their lives were sheer adventure. They were lavished with overflowing care and love – and not one Christmas present.

The twins were quite up to turning what they though was their dreary fate into a veritable passion play. There was a lot of talk about Christmas, and I tried to represent some sort of big, understanding relation for them. We all knew that Christmas wasn’t for Jews, but there was a certain charm in the festival. Everything that glittered was almost genuine gold, and everything that tinkled was pure crystal.

The lack of Christmas presents was no problem for any of our cousins: we were so spoilt over the years that we never thought of digging out one particular evening for getting more stuff than usual. But a Christmas tree – that we’d gladly have decorated, if we’d been granted one. There was some secret connected with it that we were not let into.

I found Christmas particularly charming. At Elina’s I was able to join in the preparations for Christmas, mainly the baking of the gingerbreads. I always wanted to be in the school plays, and many years I managed it. In almost every Topelius fairy story, in every Christmas play, there was some demon or witch or intriguer, and these characters were the province of a dark pupil; the fair girls were angels, princesses and benign spirits. I was the darkest in my form, so my role in the school play came entirely from my outside features. Perhaps there was also a pinch of irony from the teacher who was producing the play – which I thought I perceived but tried to surmount.

During the three days of Christmas our friends shut themselves up in their homes; no one invited us in, and we weren’t supposed to ring anyone. Our mummy, Rifka, made sure we learned to respect the holy days and not disturb anyone. They were long, boring days, with the radio’s endless transmission of a popular carol, Sylvia’s song, made everything still more monotonous.

Mummy, however, was convinced that Jews, as well, ought to know what it was all about. Each of us had to read about Jesus and know what the Christians believed in.

‘Religion’s part of culture, and we’re living in a Christian world.’

Her opinions differed radically from what our other relations thought. Even Auntie Sarah and her freethinking husband Tovia disapproved of such notions.

‘You’re playing with fire, Rifka. Watch out where will it lead to with your kids?’

The upbringing of me and my brother was always a suitable target for zealous arguments. When our relations criticised Mummy it made me boil inside. I was sure that if Papa had been here, nothing like that would have happened. Mummy had no one to defend her; she silenced me by pressing my hand hard.

Remarks, now, about my upbringing struck on deaf ears: Mummy was unshakeable. I had to get to know about the Christian religion and, in fact, everything that went on around us. It would of course be easiest to find out from a Christian herself, and I turned to the nearest one, the family’s Housekeeper.

‘Jesus has redeemed us Christian from our sins, but you’ll burn in hell, for all eternity! That’s the way it is.’

Was it as obvious as that? How on earth did some people know that, and others didn’t? It couldn’t be right; there was plenty here that needed to be made plainer. For all eternity! Whatever is there that can burn for all eternity? And where is this hell? Doesn’t Mummy know?

Our Housekeeper gave a little more detailed picture of this world of destruction, and then pictured that other wonderful summerland, where people went gambolling through flowery meadows and playing on harps.

‘Gambolling! What’s that? Harps!’

My questions were typical of the lost, the ignorant, the infidels, those who’ll burn for all eternity.

‘But I love you too,’ our Housekeeper said. ‘I love everyone, Christian or not, because that’s what we’ve been taught.’

This knowledge of Christian love I passed on to the twins, and after that nothing held them back. Christmas had taken on a totally new meaning for a Jewish family. All you had to do was work out who loved whom. Who were the ones who were loved so much they got presents? The nice ones!

The twins, Ron and Dan, had found their own solution to the problem of Christmas. If the Housekeeper had declared that she loved Jews, then the Jews should be getting presents. Now Christmas surprises were expected from the Housekeeper, and from their friends, and from their teachers and…

During all this, our eldest cousins, Leah and Uri, couldn’t restrain themselves from intervening. The temptation was irresistible, and they didn’t even try to resist it. Now was a perfect opportunity to get those innocent little angels, Ron and Dan, going.

‘Absolutely right, Christmas is the feast of giving. Yes, the Christians give presents at Christmas. It’s love. You can’t take them, they’re just given,’ Leah explained. She was the eldest of us and said to be the sensible one.

It ought not to have been said. Those words of wisdom, however, were scored on the wretched common account of errors of the whole third generation. Both Mummy and the twins’ parents, Uncle David and Aida, were reprimanded, by those in charge at school, the other adults and even the Housekeeper at the time.

The Housekeeper’s nerves were finally being tested beyond endurance by the posh folk’s spoilt brats, and so, out of hearing of the adults, she gave the twins a further scare:

‘If you’re not good children, Father Christmas won’t bring you any presents!’

‘Well, we shan’t ever be getting anything, anyway, since we’re Jews!’ whimpered the twins in chorus. ‘And how can Father Christmas know what we’re up to,’ they went on.

‘There are gnomes behind the window. They look through the window, and then they go to Korvatunturi Fell and tell Father Christmas what they’ve seen.’

In spite of it all, all the weirdness and uncertainties of Christmas, we cousins emptied every Christmas our piggy banks and bought books for our closest friends. This was a custom we never broke.

We spent our childhood Christmases in a handsome hotel a short train trip from Helsinki. For almost the whole of Christmas week this large hotel was patronised by people like us. Ten or so Jewish families didn’t fill up a large hotel, but that made all the more room for us children. We were given freedoms, had them fixed up for us, that the hotel clients wouldn’t otherwise even dream of.

The youngest of us were acquainted with the kitchen and the stores, and every one of us made use of the hotel’s telephone centre in turn. Well all knew which kitchen-maid the youngest and handsomest porter was in love with. He was the complete Robert Wagner lookalike.

‘No matter – they can do what they like: you must be all related!’ one of the hotel porters said, when Uncle Davidwas indignantly going to drag the twins down from the hotel reception desk.

The hote kitchen was cooking and baking Christmas delicacies, traditional Christmas dishes, though we outsiders could only be served the fish the vegetables, and sometimes the puddings. The hotel followed its own rules, and we followed ours. The respect was mutual.  The grand building was festooned with Christmas decorations. The hotel staff was reduced, but this didn’t seem to be bothering anyone. Everything went along according to a familiar plan and was repeated without change every year.

In the entrance hall, as soon as you came in, there was always a large, handsomely decorated Christmas tree. It welcomed the arrivals majestically, and it had its effect on us, as well, whose homes never had fir tree-decorations in them. Christmas decorations, emblems and garlands of spruce were everywhere, even in the lifts, and along all the corridors. The waiters, young and old, sported brownie caps the whole week. Perhaps they were trying to cheer themselves up.

The restaurant tables groaned under the good things. There was no shortage of any single thing in the hotel. The tables were set brilliantly: genuine farmhouse butter, pork crackling, stockfish, ham. What captivated us most all, of course, was a large pig’s head, shiny with grease, and with an apple in its mouth.

‘It’s not real, is it?’ Ron and Dan kept on asking when they came into the dining room. Neither of the boys ever got a proper answer. We, the eldest representatives of the third generation, didn’t want to give up the never-ending teasing we enjoyed, and the adults didn’t really know how to deal with the question. In the kitchen we heard that the pig’s head represented internationalism on the table otherwise so Finnish.

‘In Sweden we always had a pig’s head on the table,’ we were told by the young assistant cook. He’d been across the Gulf of Finland to Sweden, we heard, on a course, and he’d brought back a breath of the great world.

Our Jewish diet caused a little extra fuss for the hotel staff. The sausages, cold cuts, fatty ham and many other wonderful things went untouched – or so it was thought. In the safety of the kitchen the young chefs had fun letting us kids taste Christmas goodies that were eaten ‘in all proper Finnish homes’. Behind the pots and pans we set out on many forbidden taste trips.

‘You taste some ham, I will too,’ I threw out to my cousin Uri. That was enough persuasion. With a greasy piece of ham in our mouths we stared at each other, and the guilt felt horrible.

‘The Bible says you can’t eat pig,’ I said, and tears were not far off.

‘What’ll happen now?’ gasped Dan, the twin.

‘Nothing, I bet you,’ Ron assured us.

The piece of ham circled round my mouth for quite a while, and I found it difficult to swallow.

Maybe Mummy had a fair idea what we were up to in the kitchen before lunch. She smiled significantly at lunch-time when I even turned down the berry pudding.

‘Sometimes it’s worth letting yourself be a bit hungry when you know something really sumptuous is waiting for you just a little way ahead.’

‘But isn’t it a good idea to taste everything – so you know what not to eat?’ I was trying to turn Mummy’s own logic to good use. She nodded her head good-humouredly. It was clear we had no secrets.

‘Well, we did try picking and choosing,’ I said, trying to smooth things down a bit.

‘Fine. This’ll be left here. You have to choose for yourself. No one can choose for you. The responsibility’s yours.’

I couldn’t have got a worse punishment than this: the hint that I hadn’t come along enough in my judgement. The tasting I’d done wasn’t to find out, or for gratification: it was purely out of rebellion and curiosity. No matter what sort of mathematics you would try to use, no points could be scored here.

We waited a long time for Christmas Eve. There’d been chatter about it for weeks in school and among my friends. The Christmas gospel had been recounted so often in school that, though I’d had not been in the Religious Education classes, I practically knew it off by heart.

In the evenings the grown-ups gathered in the lounge to play cards. The doors were always carefully closed. It was good to keep together with our own lot when all the rest of the world had shut us outside.

‘We don’t want to upset anyone. Maybe the staff won’t like us playing cards at Christmas,’ the grown-ups explained. We had to disturb the staff’s sacred times as little as possible.

On Christmas Eve the hotel management invited the whole staff into the dining room before they served the evening meal. All of them including the bellhops and the cleaners gathered round the little dance-floor. We kids crept into the corners of the dining-room to see what went on. Maybe the Christmas atmosphere had softened up the management, because no one tried to chase us off.

In the midst of the staff stood our old Auntie Zipporah. She defended her right to be there on the grounds that she loved carols and loved singing along with the others. The oldest staff-members were used to Zipporah’s performances, while the younger ones stared in amazement at this tiny, strongly made up old lady who sang so loud, and in German. We never found out whether the foreign language was some sort of demonstration, or whether it was just that Zipporah only knew the German words. For a woman of her age, Zipporah’s it voice had a discomfiting carrying power.

First there was ‘Holy Night’, then Tannenbaum. The order and choice of carols was always the same, every Christmas. After the choruses the hotel manager gave a short speech.

‘Merry Christmas, everyone!’

When Father Christmas finally turned up he was an old geezer with a big sack.

‘There are nice children here, right?’

The staff obediently laughed a little. We so-called children, hiding in the corners, were making faces at each other.

‘I’ve come a long way, from Korvatunturi Fell,’ Father Christmas went on, directing his words at the grown-up’s; this time the kids were no longer part of Father Christmas’s audience. ‘Up there on Korvatunturi, the gnomes and I saw how the work was going on here, and how this hotel was doing so well. So we decided Father Christmas had to pay a visit to the place. Heh, heh, heh.’

We went on making faces, but no one was paying any attention to us. Father Christmas opened his sack and began to dig packets out. Screwing up his eyes, he read out loud the name of each staff member and handed the nice employee a present, wrapped up in multicoloured Christmas paper. All the packets were the same, and they all contained the same box of chocolates. This we knew in advance. When the packets were distributed we sang the song about gnomes that went ‘Tip, tap, tip, tap’, and then, after a moment, everyone piped down, ready for coffee. At this point we crept off.

It was now my business to explain what we’d seen to the others. Thanks to Mummy’s spurring on, I considered myself a Christmas expert.

‘A birthday was celebrated there. This is Jesus’s birthday.’

‘Whose? Was he there?’ my young cousins asked.

This was very congenial teaching territory for me. It felt good, getting everybody to listen. I stood for expertise on the Christian religion, and I relished my position to the full.

I don’t believe my doctrine was very profound. It was hardly very orthodox, but my words got my cousins thinking. Later in the evening, behind closed doors, there was a very stormy meeting of the grown-ups. Listening, I heard I’d shaken up the children, been expounding Christian doctrine and, on top of all that, maintained that the Christians were wrong because they didn’t give presents to Jews.

Now they were trying to get Mummy into a corner, but Mummy was able to hold her own, because she strongly believed in what I’d been doing.

‘Maybe what Hannele said was absolutely right, maybe you should find out more, before jumping to conclusions.’

‘Heavens above, Rifka! Have you gone completely out of your mind? Have you… become something else?’

I listened to the adults’ talk, and I thought all the barbs directed at Mummy were unfair and uncalled-for. I knew what Mummy was driving at. Why on earth didn’t the others understand?

Stupidly, the conversation quickly became violently heated. None of the adults were in favour of the children’s visits to the kitchen – about which they all seemed to know. No one was in favour of my teaching lessons – and they all seemed to know about those too. Help came from an unexpected quarter.

‘In my view you’re all hypocrites and ignoramuses.’

The opinion was Auntie Zipporah’s, who was superior in age to everyone else present and so couldn’t be opposed. Zipporah was right. A mountain had been made out of a molehill, and the grown-ups had got the wind up when there was actually nothing to be scared of. There was quite enough hypocrisy and ignorance to go round. The attacks on Mummy came to an end.

But also the shared Christmas holidays in the hotel came to an end too. In the years after this, the families travelled to scattered places. The shared ‘Jewish Christmas’ no longer seemed a good idea.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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