We decorated our tree recently. It’s a six-foot artificial tree, one bought with fire safety, young dogs, and cats in mind. The dogs and cats play havoc with real trees, the scent drawing them all like magnets to mouth and chew and pull ornaments off. The cats in particular seem to be drawn by the heavenly scent, and clearly, as any fool knows, the ornaments were only hung for them to play with. Most importantly however, Darleen had watched a sobering local public service announcement that illustrated just how quickly a Christmas tree can go up in flames. Given the number of fires we have had in our area this year, and the amount of devastation caused by them, fire is much on our minds, so I acquiesced when She Who Must Be Obeyed announced it was to be a fire-resistant artificial tree or nothing. I miss the scent of the real thing, but I admit that burning down the house would kind of ruin my day too. But it was while we were decorating our fire-resistant-artificial-pre-wired-with-white-lights-easy-to-assemble-stand-included-lasts-for-years-made-in-China Christmas tree that I suddenly remembered a long-ago Christmas in Germany. Time, nearly six decades worth, may have dimmed some details and my imagination may have added others, but I have the basics right. If anybody out there has ever heard of the lady in question, or knows of a descendant of hers, please get in touch with me.
My parents had met an old, old lady, Baroness Caroline von Kempis, who lived in a Wasserburg somewhere north of Cologne, about an hour and half drive from our apartment in Bad Godesberg. Wasserberg means, literally, a moated castle, which it was, but this particular moated castle had been stuccoed sometime back in the 18th century, stuccoed and then, ill-advisedly, painted Pepto-Bismol pink. I think it was a poorly chosen tip of the hat to the over-the-top Rococo exuberance that began in France and swept through Europe all during the seventeen-hundreds. As my father once observed, Rococo was a stylistic fad that frequently resulted in architecture that looked as if it had been designed by a mad pastry chef, with icing everywhere and vibrant shades of chrome yellow and chartreuse and gold-leaf and turquoise. And pink. Very bright pink.
The Baroness came from an extremely wealthy family and the castle had not been their primary residence when she was a child. Instead, it was used exclusively as a hunting lodge, and the baroness had been herself an enthusiastic hunter as a girl. She had a long scar that ran up the outside of one calf where the dogs had let a boar slip loose before she was ready to bring her spear into play, and the boar had opened her up as it ran by.
Yes, spear. I don’t know whether it had been considered a rite of passage in her family, or an homage to an earlier and more robust time, but according the baroness, back in the days of her childhood, the family always hunted boar with dogs and spears. The spears, many of them, still hung in the vast entry hall, crossed in great x’s. They were long, heavy things, with a substantial cross-bar just below the pear-shaped blade intended, as the baroness explained to me, to prevent the stabbed boar running right up the spear and into the hunter’s lap, a crossbar that only worked, obviously, if you had time to bring the spear into play. There were boar’s heads, stag’s antlers, roe deer antlers, shields, and the ingenious hunting swords unique to Germany, stout, short-bladed affairs, with knives and forks in the specially built scabbards, for hunting is hungry work. There was a suit of armor at one end of the hall, paintings of hunting scenes, an immense, dark, massive table in the center with an enormous silver bowl that always held flowers, and oriental rugs from one end to the other. It was, in short, an entry hall designed to entrance an impressionable young boy who longed for adventure. I probably couldn’t have even lifted one of those spears, but in my mind’s eye, I was there in the woods with my dogs and the other hunters, hunting sword on my belt, spear in my hand, linked not only to the time of the baroness’ girlhood, but to earlier centuries stretching back to the hunts described by ancient Greeks a thousand years before the birth of Alexander.
The baroness must have understood the effect that hall had on me because after lunch, when she and my parents would go upstairs to the library, I was allowed to linger and gaze and wonder and dream. My father had told me the baroness had come within a few days of losing her life in a concentration camp for helping Jews escape the Holocaust, and that scrape with death at the hands of the Nazis, coupled with her scrape with death at the tusk of a boar, made her a compelling and fascinating figure, but not so fascinating as swords and spears and dreams.
But it was the library that figures in this particular Christmas visit. They had all gone up as usual, but suddenly my father came back down the stairs and told me there was something he wanted me to see. I knew and trusted my father enough to know that if he said something was worth seeing, it was almost certainly, by golly, very worth seeing indeed, and I went up with him.
It’s hard to give an accurate sense of the size and scale of the place. Perhaps that lovely Wasserberg has grown larger in my memory than it really was because I was, after all, so much smaller then, but the rooms really were, well, baronial. The library was as large for its function as the entry hall was for its, and it had the same dusty and immutable sense of an earlier time captured in stone and wood. There were towering bookcases on three of the four walls, tall elegant windows that looked out over the grey German winter, ancient furniture and equally ancient oriental rugs, bronzes and vases and stacks of magazines. And in one corner was the largest Christmas tree, a freshly cut spruce, I have ever seen in any private home anywhere. I used to think it must have been eighteen or twenty feet high, but realistically it was more likely about twelve feet, and its scent filled that dusty room with the clean and heavenly smell of the outdoors and ancient rituals of faith and hope, peace on earth, and goodwill to men.
It was hung from top to floor with ornaments, most of which I later realized, pre-dated even the baroness’ birth, but what stunned me, even then as a child, was that on the tip of almost every branch, were actual, burning candles. I was as heedless and reckless as the next boy, but even I was a little aghast and aware of the potential for disaster. I was also aware, even as the beauty of it took my breath away, that there were buckets of sand and buckets of water discreetly and conveniently placed just outside the lowest circle of branches. My father explained to me that because of the danger, the candles were only lit for special occasions, but that the baroness had had them lit especially for us, for my parents and me, so that we could see how Christmas was celebrated in the old days.
Dear me, those days are the old days now, but I was fortunate enough to have been given a glimpse of an even older Christmas, all through the kindness of an ancient lady of courage and what Jews so accurately call righteousness. She died not long after we returned to the United States, but if, as Homer once wrote, the dead continue to survive as ghosts for as long as they are remembered, like the light from long-dead stars, she is still in her pink Wasserberg, and I wish her and all of us a safe and merry Christmas.