Tag Archives: christmas

The Gift of The Little Drummer Boy

little-drummer-boy-album-cover“At last,” Servaas sighs as he tears ‘December’ from the calendar above the counter in Boggel’s Place. “I simply cannot listen to that silly tune any longer.”

As usual, Servaas is in a bad mood in the beginning of the year. He says he’s just gotten used to writing 2015 on his cheques and now it’ll take weeks before he gets 2016 on every one. Gertruida laughs at this, knowing it isn’t true: Servaas simply doesn’t want to add another year to his age.

“Oh shus, you old sourpuss! Christmas and New Year is a time to count your blessings, man! Cheer up and have another Cactus Jack…”

“It’s the tune with all those barumpapapum’s in it. It’s like the composer didn’t have enough words for the music, so it’s barumpapapum this and barumpapum that. And it’s been on the radio since November. Argh! I can’t stand it!” He knits his brows together and stares angrily at the old transistor radio on the shelf. “At least we’ll have eleven months of peace now…”

“But it’s such a beautiful story, Servaas. A little boy with a drum, no gifts to offer the newborn Christ, and then the solution: he plays his best for Him. So sweet, actually.”

Servaas shrugs. He’s not going to grace the debate by adding to it.

“Did you know, Servaas, that it’s one of the most popular modern Christmas songs?  However. it has its roots way, way back. If I remember correctly, it’s based on the 13th-century medieval legend by Gautier de Coincy, in about 1220, called Le jongleur de Notre-Dame. The story tells of a juggler who became a monk and the French author,  Anatole France, published it again in 1892. Beautifully written, the legend sketches the events on Christmas day, when all the monks in the monastery offered gifts to the statue of Mary.  However, the juggler was too poor to buy one and had nothing fancy to offer. What to do? When it was his turn to lay down a gift in front of Mary, he stepped up and did what he does best: juggle.

“The other monks were furious…but then a miracle happened. The statue came alive, and smiled at the monk. Oh, the  surprise on the other monks’ faces! One moment they’re scolding the poor juggler, the next they realise the importance of honesty. If you give your best to Him – however insignificant it might be – there is joy in heaven!”

“Thanks for the lecture, Professor Gertruida. I don’t need it.”

“Oh yes, you do, Servaas. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the song in the middle of WW II, in 1941 and called it The Carol of the Drum. That song evolved into the popular song we know today. Incidentally, the Trapp Singers – the family made famous by The Sound of Music – made the first recording. You’ll remember that an earlier generation of the Trapps were responsible for the preservation of Silent Night.

“The point, Servaas, is this: something out of antiquity resurfaced after centuries to bring joy and hope to us today. The message is simple, but strong. Be who you are – the best you, you can be – and that is good enough. No need for pretence and glamour – just be simply who and what you are. For that, you get a smile from Him.”

Servaas keeps on staring at the radio.

“Oh, and one more thing, Servaas. If your mood is the only thing you can offer Heaven today, I doubt if you will be smiled on. The song is a challenge, my friend: it asks you to offer the best in you at all times. Your gift to those around you are as important as the drum the little boy played, or the apples the poor juggler tossed up in the air. If it is given with a joyous heart, it is the most precious thing you can bestow on others… Think about that and stop glaring at the radio. It’s not going to help anything to be angry about a song…or will you keep on spoiling the day by being childish?”

Servaas goes ‘harrumph’. Then he blushes.

Then, to everybody’s surprise, he starts drumming on the counter with his fingers…

 

No ‘Happy Holidays’ here

linux-christmas“I don’t like it.” Vetfaan points at the Upington Liquor Store’s pamphlet, advertising the specials for the season.

“I do. Look: the beer is a bargain.” Kleinpiet smiles.

“Not the beer, man. It says here: ‘Happy Holidays’.” Vetfaan frowns. “Whatever happened to Merry Christmas?”

“Politically incorrect, my friend. It’s not fashionable to advertise your religion any more. It’s like BEE – if you don’t comply with the norm, you don’t do business. Christmas is seen as an excluding factor in society these days; you have to respect other religions, too. So, ‘Merry Christmas’ is no longer acceptable.” Gertruida sighs. “It was so much simpler in the old days…”

“But what about Ramadan? Are they going to wish those guys ‘Happy Fasting’ now? Or ‘Happy Candles’ when it’s the Festival of Lights? And what about ‘Happy Adulthood’ for Sammie’s nephew’s bar mitzvah?  What’s with the ‘Happy’, anyway?”

“Good question,” Oudoom says. “‘Happy’ is such a nonsensical word. It’s the name of one of the Seven Dwarfs, isn’t it? One of these days somebody from the Association of National Cretins will demand compensation for the abuse of the poor midget’s name. It’s all so politicized these days. Even Father Christmas flies in the face of gender equality…and who says he’s got to be a fat, middle-aged, bearded chap with a booming laugh? And don’t get me started on carols either; Jingle Bells and White Christmas doesn’t really convey the wonder of what we’re celebrating.” He hums the tune and does a little jig around his chair. “Not very pious, see,” he says as he sits down again.

“Well,” Vetfaan gets up to make his point, “I’m sticking to the Afrikaans, which is what Christmas should be about, anyway. ‘Geseënde Kersfees’ says something about blessing and grace – for everybody. When I shake somebody’s hand with that wish, I’m not trying to advertise religion. I’m merely confirming a universal faith. We all believe in something, and that’s okay. Words like ‘halaal’ and ‘kosher’ don’t offend me; simply because I respect the way other people go about their lives. Surely it’s not too much to ask that they see my wish as a gesture of goodwill?”

Oudoom nods and drops the frivolous attitude. “Goodwill to all. Yes, that’s what it’s about. You can go on a happy holiday in the Drakensberg or Kruger Park – that’s fine. Happy holidays are for summer days , braaivleis and lots of fun. Geseënde Kersfees is about celebrating God’s love for us all.”

The group in Boggel’s Place falls silent while they contemplate the grace and mercy  of the Christmas message. It is – they’ll all agree – a concept that has been commercialised and watered down to such an extent that many people simply miss the point of it all.

But, despite the political frowns and all the other objectors, the people of Rolbos – all of them -unite in wishing every reader a Geseënd Kersfees. May this time be a time of grace and blessing; allowing peace, love and goodwill to flourish amidst the turmoil of a world we all hope will be a better place next year.

Rolbos will be back in the new year, but if you feel like reading up on a miracle in the meantime: read the story of Silent Night. It really is one of the best Christmas stories ever.

Vetfaan’s Disaster

wrapping-paper-envelopes-tags-discarded-in-pile-after-Christmas-2-DHD“Christmas,” Vetfaan tells the group at the bar, “is such a waste!” He waits for a reaction, gets none, and is forced into a submissive smile. The townsfolk know him so well! His inability to endure silence in Boggel’s Place often makes him say controversial things to get the conversation flowing again. Today, being Saturday and after the festive days of Christmas, the patrons at the counter seem content to share a reflective quiet, which doesn’t suit Vetfaan at all.

“I mean, all that paper!” He glances around hopefully, but still nobody responds.

“Okay. Here’s the thing. How about we discuss something and I buy a round for everybody?” This, of course, results in everybody’s complete and undivided attention. Naturally, they wait for Boggel to serve the promised round before Servaas lets out a protracted ‘Ye-e-e-s?”

“Look, every Christmas we exchange gifts. Right? And so do the people in Grootdrink and Upington?” All eyes now on him, he proceeds to expand on his plan. “And that’s nice. But…what about the wrapping? Tons and tons of paper, ripped and torn and useless?” He pauses.

“Is that a rhetorical question, Vetfaan? Nice one.” (Gertruida, of course.)

“No! Think of all the trees! And don’t forget that paper gets made in huge factories that aren’t always environmentally friendly. Paper, my friends, shouldn’t be thrown away after a single use. We’re killing the planet…”

“That’s true. The carbon footprint of paper is more than that of plastic. There’s this professor…mmm… I think it’s David Tyler, who worked it all out. He’s not all that keen on paper at all.” Now it’s Gertruida’s turn to smile. “He’s made a few strange statements, though. He says the environmental impact of owning a dog, is worse than driving a 4X4!.”

Vrede, dozing quietly on on Boggel’s cushion below the counter, looks up proudly, wags his tail…and slips into his doggy-dreamworld again.

“The point I want to make is this: we owe it to the planet to do something with the paper.” Vetfaan refuses to be sidetracked. “I suggest we collect as much paper as we can, and then build a statue or something. You know, with that porridge you make with paper…?”

“Paper mache.” (Getruida, again.)

“Whatever. But something useful, understand? So we can help the planet.”

It is quite evident that Vetfaan must have spent a great deal of thought on the subject, and Kleinpiet is suitably impressed. Even Servaas seems mildly enthusiastic.

o“But it has to be something useful, Vetfaan. It won’t do to make a sculpture of a cow, like they did in America. In Redwood Falls, if I remember correctly – The Calf Fiend Cafe. Those Americans are great at coming up with useless ideas. Look at what it cost to put a man on the moon? I mean…why?” Gertruida allows a moment for them to come up with a reason why it was important to take a small step for man, a huge leap for mankind. “No…whatever we do, it must serve a proper purpose.”

“We’ll build a house! Wow!” Obviously impressed with the idea, Precilla jumps up with a commanding finger in the air. “Think about it! If we can perfect the building of a Christmas-paper home, we can patent the design. We’ll make millions! With the entire South Africa’s Christmas wrappings, the government won’t have homeless people to worry about anymore! The next Nkandla will cost next to nothing!”

They all agree that Precilla has just come up with the best idea to come out of Boggel’s Place for 2014 – an honour that deserves to be rewarded by a round of peach brandy.

“A house? Well…that could be tricky.” Gertruida – always the practical thinker – tells them that they’ll have to experiment a bit. “While paper mache should dry extremely well in our weather, we have to make sure it’s strong enough to hold a roof. I don’t know…”

“We’ll build a model.” Determined enthusiasm in his voice, Vetfaan takes command of the conversation again. “Something small. Like architects do. And if it works, we go big. Really BIG!”

***

One of the strange things about small, rural towns, is the phenomenon Gertruida calls the ‘collective communal mind’. She says it’s a universal thing. If, for instance, somebody did something wrong, the community unites in it’s disapproval. Or if somebody comes up with a brilliant idea, everybody believes he or her initiated the project. In cities the community is too large to accommodate collective thinking, which (according to Gertruida) is why you have drugs and parliaments in such places.

Be that as it may, Boggel’s veranda soon resembles a scene from one of those American movies, where they depict the aftermath of a tornado or one of those asteroids that they are so keen on these days. Oudoom is greatly saddened by this tendency. He laments the fact that the end of the world draws more people into movie theatres than the church does.

Paper of all colours and sizes flutter about on the veranda: shredded paper, old newspapers, cardboard boxes from the shed behind Sammie’s Shop, beer cartons, milk cartons, boxes of many sizes and shapes. Paper piled up to the window sill, forming a mountain of waste.

Gertruida (who else?) supplies the recipe for paper mache, using flour and water…and shredded paper products. The townsfolk’s enthusiasm is directly proportionate to the amount of peach brandy Boggel supplies, resulting in an almost-Shakespearian scene where the witches dance around the boiling cauldron.

When at last they’ve boiled down the waste, they stand around the huge pot, looking down at the meagre result.

“All that paper…and we’ve only got this much mache?” Vetfaan’s disappointment is obvious.

“We’re only building a model, Vetfaan. It doesn’t have to be much for that. Have another.” Kleinpiet pats his friend’s back while offering a tot from the next bottle.

“It’ll have to be a hut.” With a shake of his head, Vetfaan tells them a Nkandla would take about as much wasted paper as one would find in the Union Buildings.

***

zuluhutsThe traditional Zulu hut is a masterpiece. Carefully formed over a mould of chicken wire, it draws an appreciative applause when Gertruida smooths own the dome. The model gets parked in the middle of Voortrekker Weg to dry while the hard-working townsfolk retire to the bar for some well-deserved refreshments.

They have, they tell each other, just solved the housing crisis in the country. However, Vetfaan’s remark that even the president would want to live in one of these huts, just doesn’t ring true. Like Gertruida has to remind him: these huts are only supposed to accommodate normal families.

When they return to Boggel’s Place the next day, the fatal flaw in their thinking is obvious.

***

“It’ll only work if there are no dogs around.” Vetfaan scowls at Vrede, who yawns his embarrassment.

“Ag, come on, Vetfaan! It was a great idea. Dogs will be dogs, you know? And how could we know that Vrede had this affinity…this taste…for paper mache?”

“That, and the other problem, of course.”

The stand around the dried model with the somber looks one reserves for a wake. Vrede did an excellent job at shredding the model, that’s quite obvious. The more subtle damage is, however, the most upsetting.

“Imagine a simple act like that causing so much destruction?”  Pointing at the fresh hole in the structure, Vetfaan shakes his head. Rimmed by a yellow stain, there is no doubt as to what (or who) caused the new opening.

“Maybe….” Servaas smiles impishly, “maybe we can market it as doggy toilets? You know, for beaches and parks and things like that.”

***

Boggel’s Place is known for it’s comfortable, friendly atmosphere. Usually. Unless you ask Vetfaan about paper mache houses. For some reason, it causes a twin growl – one from below the counter and one from above…

The Day After

Credit: jennykellet.com

Credit: jennykellet.com

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly – but still the way it happens every year – Christmas was over. The tinsel and the figurines, even the Star of Bethlehem, looked out of place. Tired, even. The mistletoe above the door of Boggel’s Place, once greeted with so many lewd but understanding smiles, no longer attracted a second (hopeful) glance. There was, once again, place in Life’s proverbial inn for everyday matters.

Sadly so.

Vetfaan had been thinking about this when he walked into Boggel’s Place..

“What did you get for Christmas?” He asked during a lull in the conversation.

He got a mixed-up chorus of answers, ranging from peach brandy to a new beer glass.

“No, that’s not what I asked. I asked: What did you GET for Christmas? You know? Up here?” He tapped his head. “And here?” His calloused hand rubbed his chest.

Silence.

“A hangover? And…heartburn?” Kleinpiet had no idea what Vetfaan was going on about.

“No, I get it!” Servaas brightened. “You mean on a…spiritual…level?”

“Too commercialised,” Gertruida quickly said. “Too many Jingle Bells and Drummer Boys. The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in the shops, but that’s all. I heard there was a queue in Pick ‘n Pay in Upington. Can you believe that? Unheard of! But Oudoom says Pastor Holiface delivered his Christmas sermon to three people: his wife, the janitor and a somewhat weird homeless person.”

“That’s the new reverend in that church where they threw out the organ and replaced it with  band? Shew! I thought they attracted so many people?”

“Just goes to show, Servaas. To change people, you need more than a guitar – unless your name is Elvis, then you change the world.”

They all laughed at that, of course, but not because they thought Gertruida had been so funny. No…because they realised how true her words were. Shock, rather than mirth.

“Sooo…why was he weird?” Boggel arched a curious eyebrow, steering the talk in a more relaxed direction.

“Oudoom says that man was already in the building when Holiface opened the doors yesterday morning. But it was Christmas, so he decided not to make a scene. If the man sought shelter there overnight, then it would have been wrong to throw him out. Anyway, the man had such a sad face that he decided to talk to him after the service. However, when he said Amen, the man just got up quietly and left. Holiface actually looked for him afterwards, but couldn’t find him.”

Anybody who knows rural life, knows how seemingly small, insignificant events tend to be subjects of lengthy discussions. It’s no different in the Kalahari. People get tired of talking about the drought and the president’s wives, so it’s not strange that the Weird Man became the subject of speculation. Who was he? Where did he come from? Where is he now? Is he really…homeless?

The ever-romantic Precilla said something about Jesus often being in our midst without us recognising Him. Oudoom scowled at that, turning the concept over in his mind, and decided not to say anything. Yes, The Saviour might be present in an invisible form, but to think of Him as more than a spiritual presence would be absurd. Still, getting into an argument about that – on the day after Christmas – would be unchristianlike, right?

Precilla’s remark did spark a discussion, though. What if (Servaas asked) Jesus returned to the earth? “To check up on things a bit, understand? Sort of like a pre-Rapture inventory before the real Apocalypse. I bet He wouldn’t be impressed…”

He wanted to go on, but this time Oudoom did break his silence to admonish his head elder. He was saying something about blasphemy when Sersant Dreyer walked in with the troubled look he got when there was work to do.

“There’s been an accident near Grootdrink. An unidentified male was killed while he was hiking. A lorry ran over him. I just had a call from Upington – said it appeared to be a homeless person. Still, they wanted to know if anybody from Rolbos was missing.”

One can assume that the shocked silence following his remark might have puzzled Dreyer.

“Dead? He’s dead?”

“That’s what they said, Precilla.”

They all thought it but didn’t dare say it.

“Well, that settles it. Couldn’t have been Him.” Servaas sounded much more confident than he was.

Dreyer frowned. “Who…?”

“Ag, you won’t understand.”

***

Although Vetfaan then said something about the drought  – a subject everybody suddenly seemed very keen about – the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place remained subdued. It was as if an inexplicable sadness settled amongst them – a melancholic post-Christmas feeling for a homeless man they didn’t even know.

Should one have asked Gertruida, she would have explained that it was the way of the world: we celebrate things we don’t understand simply to have a good time. The mad shopping, the wild parties and the too-often repeated (and therefore almost meaningless) wishes – according to her – aren’t really what Christmas is all about. Christmas, she would have reminded them, should be the culmination of a year-long quest for kindness and humility – and not just a single day dedicated to  frivolous partying. And, she could add, while Christmas represents  the end of another year’s struggle to achieve these goals, it also signifies the beginning of the next period of  effort to do the same.

And…she could have told the group at the counter that Jesus – during His time on earth – also didn’t have a fixed address.

But we all know Gertruida: she often retreats behind the walls of her immense intelligence, which is why she doesn’t always say everything that crops up there.

She sat there in her corner, listening to the rest talking about their hopes for a better season in 2015, and thought about how effectively the commercial world hijacked Christmas. It’s as if we took Christ out of Christmas and then drove over His legacy with our eighteen-wheel desire for a few superficial laughs.

The homeless man? Could have been anybody, really.

Or not.

He is, however, no longer with us.

Just like Christmas…

Gertruida’s Four Letters

Credit: bonhams.com

Credit: bonhams.com

Gertruida hates Christmas time. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not quite true – she doesn’t hate all of it. She loves the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place in the days running up to Christmas and attends Oudoom’s service on the day itself. There, with everybody saying nice words and shaking friendly hands, she always manages to shake off the black cloud hovering over her past.

But…

There is that black cloud. It’s that voice inside her head, reminding her of what could have been. She’s read somewhere that it isn’t unusual for people to become reflective towards the end of the year – before the blank calender promises new opportunities and the proverbial clean slate. She understands that Life requires one to take stock from time to time; that this analysis has to be brutally honest and that the report card of this examination isn’t always flattering. This, she is quite happy to accept. But those four letters, the backbone of the black dog sniffing at her heels, are different. They represent the poignant, sad moments of opportunities missed.

And every year, in the days before Christmas, she finds herself standing on tiptoe to reach the box she hides behind the old linen in the cupboard in her bedroom. How often has she wished she had burned them, torn them up, destroyed them! But no. She can’t. Even if she could, she won’t be able to forget the words. They have become part of Christmas. And, although she detests reading them again, she knows she has to. She believes – despite the pain it causes – that it’s a form of repentant healing. Limit the reading to once a year, she tells herself whenever she thinks of it,  that way you don’t ignore them, but at least they don’t rule your life.

Sighing,she spreads them on the table.

***

My darling daughter

You’ve made it through school! Well done! What excellent results! I’m so very proud of you. 

Well, this Christmas will probably be the last you spend at home. University beckons and you have a new life waiting. You’ll spread those clever young wings and discover new friends and new places. My Christmas wish for you is that you’ll find success and happiness in the years to come.

And remember – even if you’re far away, I’ll always be near.

Love,

Mom.

Gertruida puts the letter back in the envelope. Her mother died that February – a car accident – making this is the last letter she ever received from her. She should have reciprocated by writing something back: a letter telling her mother how precious she had been, how much she had meant and how much she loved her. She never did…

Hi Gerty,

Wow! It’s Christmas again! Can you believe the way time flies? When we started studying, university seemed so daunting – and here we are, graduated and ready to make a difference in our beautiful country.

I’ll be reporting to Voortrekkerhoogte on the 3rd of January to start my compulsory year in the army. It’s a drag, but we all have to do it, I suppose. I almost can’t imagine what it must be to march around in browns on a dusty parade ground, bearing a rifle – you know how I hate guns!  I’ll just have to grin and bear it.

How about you and I sneaking off to some remote spot over New Year’s? We can pitch the tent at that waterfall in Eastern Transvaal, just like we did over Easter. We’ll have wine, lots of debate and make love under the stars? Come on, Gerty, say yes!

Looking forward to your reply,

Love,

Josh.

The date stamp on the envelope is for the 4th of January. By the time she received the letter, Josh was in the army. And…he never returned.

Hello again, you sexy thing!

Gosh, you challenge me in so many ways! Well, this is Christmas and you have to give me a break. Let’s – you and I, alone – disappear for a while. There’s this delightful little hotel in Arniston – a great view over the sea, a fantastic menu and a wine cellar you won’t believe! We can read and have fun – which will be a change from travelling all over the world, trying to tell heads of state that we’re not such a bad lot. (An impossible task, but that’s the diplomatic corps for you!)

So, what do you say? Let me know so I can arrange the bookings.

Lots of luv,

Bertie

Gertruida smiles, despite the anger building up again. Yes, they did go to that romantic hotel. That’s where that bastard Bertie met that hussy. On the third day of their stay, this young…vixen...started talking to Bertie while they were on the beach. Despite the intervening years, Gertruida can still close her eyes to view the scene: Bertie the seasoned diplomat, so often on the front page of the newspapers. And Angie, the ‘American girl on vacation‘, dressed in the skimpiest tiny bikini, rolling her eyes and fluffing up her hair. Bertie had no chance.

Two months later Bertie knocked on her door at midnight. He was so sorry, he said. Made a huge mistake, Please forgive him? He had fallen for the oldest trick in the spy book and now the Russians had certain…er…compromising…photos of him, courtesy of Angelina Suvorov, Moscow’s GRU agent.

Bertie told her he had no choice in the matter. He was defecting to Russia. His career in South Africa was over, maybe he can start over in Moscow. He did, he reminded her, have a lot of information the Russians would kill to have.

She told him to go away, not realising how prophetic his words were.

Dearest Trudie,

It’s Christmas again and I must tell you how much I miss you. 

Let me start properly, otherwise I’d confuse you. I don’t want to do that. Remember me? Bennie Botha? We dated a few times – three, to be exact – way back in our second year in varsity. Two movies and the church picnic. 

Well, we were young and a bit stupid, I suppose. I was, anyway. I don’t think you’ve ever been stupid in your life. Still, as quietly as we drifted towards each other in those silly days of sunshine and laughter, so silently we drifted apart again. Students can be so…shortsighted!

And here we are, thirty years later, and I can still remember the yellow ribbon you wore in your hair. And the brooch, the one you said you inherited from your mother. And the way you laughed at my meagre jokes. And the tree. It is still there, on the lawn where we used to chat between lectures.

I’m writing to wish you a merry Christmas. In fact, many merry Christmases. You see, this will be my last Christmas – that’s what the doctors say. And, as such, I’m trying to make up for the many Christmases I didn’t wish you well. It’s not that I didn’t think of you. Never! I did…all the time.

You know – of course – that I eventually married Vanessa Greyling, who started studying law while we were in our final year. She loves me and I tried to be a good husband for her. That’s why I never contacted you – didn’t want to upset dear Vannie. But now, with the end nearing, I told her about you. You know what? She said she knew all along! And she encouraged me to write, saying she’d like to meet you someday. 

So. This is a confession and a goodbye. I needed to tell you that I thought about you often, that I cherish the memory of the time we spent together, and that you served as a guiding light – even in absentia – over the years.

And, Gertruida? Enjoy Life. It’s the greatest gift. 

Yours,

Bennie.

Gertruida stares at the letters. One from Mom. Another from a school friend. One, a reminder of such a sad affair. And one from dying man. All of them in the past, all of them reminders that life is fleeting and that nothing lasts forever.

And yet – this is the sad part, the reason for the hovering black loud – the letters also convey something else. Love, Gertruida realises, does not conform to the limitations of time. Reading the words every year, she gets the feeling that they are as real and actual now as when they were written. Before she returns the letters to their hiding-box, she hugs each one in turn – wishing that time wasn’t such a cruel thing. Would things have turned out differently if she had spent more time with the writers of the letters? Could she have said more? Or less? Or done things differently?

Oh well.

Once the letters have been read, Gertruida will return to Boggel’s Place. The patrons know her well by this time. They’ll let her sit quietly at the window while they joke and carry on at the counter. But then, later, they’ll draw her into some impossible argument and force her to debate a silly point. And then she’d thaw, laugh with them, and shove the black cloud aside.

Four letters. Life. Love. Hope. Time.

This Christmas, she decides, she’ll make time stand still. Cherish the moments. Live and love and hope with those around her. She will not repeat the mistakes of her past.

Gertruida’s Gift

What-Women-Really-Want-for-ChristmasThe orphanage in Grootdrink was much like Boggel remembers it. The buildings were a little more dilapidated, the fence a little more worn down and the cracked chimney had lost another few bricks – but the basic structure and layout had not changed since the days he spent his youth in the place. The new government didn’t have much funds for such social projects anymore; their attention was then on the voters, who relied heavily on social grants to eke out a living in the shantytowns the president insisted on calling informal settlements. It was two years after Nelson Mandela coined the phrase of The Rainbow Nation, and people still believed in a better future. Like the orphanage, the term would erode away in the years to come.

When they stopped at the gate, Vetfaan saw the curtains of the lounge part for a second, to reveal the excited faces of the children who had been waiting for Santa Clause – or Kalahari Santa, as they called him. This was a yearly pilgrimage by the Rolbossers (Boggel’s initiative) to bring joy to the rather dreary lives of the orphans. Vetfaan dressed up as Father Christmas because he didn’t need stuffing under the bulky red coat. The rest of the townsfolk came as themselves, each bearing a few presents. Even Servaas managed a smile when they knocked on the door – to give to these kids was a reward unto itself. When you have so little, the excitement of receiving surpasses the value of the gift. The children got something they could actually call their own, in contrast to the toys, books and clothes they were forced to share amongst themselves.

“Ho, ho ho!” Vetfaan had practiced a lot to manage an authentic Father Christmas laugh. It was Gertruida who suggested the double tot of peach brandy which perfected the sound. “Can I come in?”

“Yay! Ye-e-e-es!!” The exuberant welcome left no doubt about the children’s anticipation.

Oudoom quitened the children down, read the famous passage from Luke 2, and reminded them that Jesus too – in a manner of speaking – had been an orphan. The man who guided him into adulthood, wasn’t his father.

“We’re all orphans – did you know that? Yes, some of us have earthly mothers and fathers, but our true Father is in heaven.” Oudoom faltered for a second as he shot a nervous glance to Gertruida. They’ve had numerous arguments about heaven, where it is and what it is. Please, his look said, not now. We’ll just confuse the kids. He sighed in relief when she winked back. “And us grown-ups? Our parents may have long since departed, making us true orphans, as well. So…what I’m telling you, is this: being an orphan doesn’t mean you are unwanted or unloved. Nothing – nothing – compares to the love of your Heavenly Father….”

“…or Father Christmas!” A scruffy little boy with a mischievous grin interrupted Oudoom’s sentence, much to the delight of the rest.

“Ah yes. Father Christmas. The man with the red coat and the black boots. Okay, he might be an important figure at Christmas time, but where is he the rest of the year? Anybody seen him in June?”  Seemingly unflustered by the interjection, Oudoom picked up on the remark, anyway. He waited while the children shook their heads. No, the rest of the year, Father Christmas was strangely absent, indeed. “So I want you to change your thinking about Father Christmas a little bit. See him as the one who comes bearing gifts once a year – that’s quite all right.  But remember the other father, the Real Father, who loves you every day of the year.”

Satisfied that he’d said enough, he sat down. Now it was Vetfaan’s turn to be the center of attention. With solemn dignity, he picked up the presents the townsfolk had given one by one and proceeded to distribute these amongst the orphans.

“Johnny? Who is Johnny?” He read the little card on the box while Johnny rushed towards his present. “This is from Oom Servaas. Be careful, now.”

Johnny ripped the wrapping off the box and gasped as he stared down at the Swiss Army knife. “Wow!! Just what I wanted!” Vetfaan smiled at the matron – she had been the one who made the list of what the kids really wanted.

One by one, the kids got called to the front to receive exactly what they had wished for. Boggel’s gift was a set of children’s books for the clever girl who simply loves reading, Kleinpiet’s present of a toy train set went to the serious little boy with the dream of becoming an engineer. Precilla’s talking doll brought a yell of delight from a pig-tailed young lass…and so it went on until the last present – a beautiful leather-bound Bible for the solemn-looking young Paul, who wanted to become a social worker one day – was safely in the children’s hands.

“Gertruida!” Vetfaan’s whisper made Gertruida glance over at him. “Have you forgotten your present?” Having checked, he was sure he didn’t notice her name on any of the presents.

“No, Vetfaan. I have brought something completely different this year. Johnny, come here?”

And so Gertruida proceeded to do something odd.

“Johnny, my gift to you this year, is friendliness. With this gift, you will make lots of friends, do well at school, and become a very popular little boy. Use your friendliness well, and you’ll reap a rich reward.”

The girls received grace and kindness, respectively, while her gift to Paul was wisdom. Every time she gave the blessing-gift, she said a few appropriate words, until she at last called the final child: David – the scruffy lad with the impish face.

“For you, dear child, I have two gifts. The first is called Freedom. Freedom to be yourself and to be happy. But, remember, freedom isn’t free. It never was and it’ll never be. With Freedom you have to accept the second gift – it’s called Responsibility. In other words: you can do anything, be just what you want to be, say anything…but you have to accept the responsibility for those things as well. If your freedom leads you to kindness, you’ll never be sorry. But…if your freedom makes you do bad things, you cannot escape the consequences of your deeds or words. There. Take your Freedom, enjoy it…but never think you aren’t responsible for it.”

***

Matron saw the same thing every year. By the middle of January, the talking doll couldn’t say a word any more. The Swiss Army knife broke a blade when it was used to open a can of paint. The train set became an object of dispute after one of the tracks disappeared mysteriously. Even the set of children’s books ended up on the shelf after being read.

But somehow, Gertruida had struck a chord with the children . At the next year-end function, Johnny got the prize for the best behaved boy in the orphanage. Paul spent his last year in the orphanage before enrolling in a seminary.

However, it took David almost two decades to begin to understand his gift. By that time, he was a tall and emaciated man of twenty-eight. After leaving the orphanage, he joined a group of Rastafarians. Later – bored  by the laid-back lifestyle – he started peddling drugs in Hillbrow. By the age of twenty-two, he owned a BMW and had a string of girlfriends. Three years after that, he became famous for the endless party in his Sandton mansion.

Then, one day, he noticed the skin lesions and the swollen glands in his neck. He started losing weight. And then the cough started. Like the country, his freedom cost him dearly. His rainbow dream had become a colourless nightmare…

If his health permits, he’s planning to travel to Rolbos this Christmas, where he wants to have a chat with Gertruida. He’ll want her to explain – again – the implication of his two gifts. And then he wants to tell her what a terrible present she had given him, all those years ago.

The Miracle of Silent Night (#3)

Oberndorf in the 1800's. Note the church in the background. Credit: carokee.com

Oberndorf in the 1800’s. Note the church in the background. Credit: carokee.com

When Gertruida relates the history of Silent Night, the patrons in Boggel’s Place stop their usual banter. They never interrupt. The story – they all agree – demands respect.

So…when Franzl and Joseph inspected the damaged organ on the day before Christmas in 1818, it became patently clear that the organ would be silent until spring melted the snow to allow the organ mender to get to their village. To have a Christmas Eve Mass without music would be unthinkable; to confront Father Nostler with the news would be suicide. There was no way either of the men was going to face the wrath of the strict old man. No, they had to come up with some other solution…

Maybe, they thought, they could have the choir sing a cappella, hoping that they would manage without instrumental support. But what to sing? What is simple enough, easy enough, to teach the choir in an afternoon’s time? The two men were desperate to find an answer.

This is when Jospeh Mohr rushed home to bring back the page on which he had written a poem recently.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.

Nur die traute heilige Paar

Holder Knabe im lockigten Haar

Schlafen in himmlischer Ruh…

If, after all these years, we read these lines, we get to understand them a bit better – especially if we remember the life of Joseph Mohr, illegitimate son of a deserter. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think his childhood must have been horrible. Look at the words carefully: it is actually a lullaby; the perfect picture of a baby being rocked to sleep by two adoring parents. Were the words the result of many a forlorn evening during which a lonely, unwanted child wished he had a normal family?

Of course, the English translation focussed much more on Jesus and the Afrikaans translation even brings in Mary and Joseph, the earthly parents of Christ. In the original German – the one Joseph Mohr wrote – the accent is on the infant that may rest, because Jesus der Retter ist da (Jesus the Saviour is there – not born as the words got translated). It would be totally wrong (if typical of human nature) to start a debate here on what exactly Joseph Mohr had in mind when he penned the words. The point Gertruida makes is the obvious one: Joseph Mohr maybe wrote these words for a thousand reasons – but certainly not to be sung at the main Christmas Eve Mass as a carol. Next time you hear the words, it won’t be wrong to think of all the lonely children who wished they had somebody to love them.

But to return to the two men next to the broken organ. Franzl was impressed by the simple words his friend had written. Maybe…just maybe…

Now that they found a ray of hope, all he had to do was to put a melody to the words. As the more musical of the two, he stuffed the bit of paper in a coat pocket and trudged back home through the snow. He promised Joseph he’d give it his best shot. The instrument he chose to use for the melody? The spinet his father bought him, of course! The same one that came as an apology because Papa Gruber initially refused Franzl’s plea for music lessons. Only when he thought he had the music sort-of-sorted out, did he take his guitar from the wall to play and sing the song for the first time.

That afternoon Mohr, Gruber and twelve children gathered in the priest’s small study. Six of the choir’s best boys and six of the girls had been selected to participate in the gamble to ensure music and song accompanied the evening’s sermon by Father Nostler. Twelve children and two men to substitute for the full choir and the solemn organ – in the hope that the congregation would be pleased and that Nostler would be satisfied. Even if the children could memorise the words and remember the melody, there was one more little issue to consider: Gruber would accompany the choir on his guitar! They were on the verge of testing Father Nostler’s short temper to the utmost.

That evening the congregation gathered in the little cathedral. Of course the news of the organ’s problem had spread through the community and it is fair to assume that curiosity contributed to attendance that evening. Nostler knew about the organ, of course, and assumed that the choir would sing an appropriate song – but no choir was gathered on the balcony. We can only guess at his irritation – what was Mohr up to?

Father Nostler gave his usual, solemn Christmas sermon, citing Luke 2:1-14 and reminding the congregation of the miracle in Bethlehem. After he finished he closed the Bible and looked up at the empty seat in front of the organ. Where was the choir?

This was the signal for Mohr, Gruber and the twelve children to march in from the vestry to arrange themselves before the altar. Gruber’s guitar was decorated with red and green streamers, the girls wore them in their hair and the boys had the same streamers folded into rosettes attached to their stockings. The congregation gasped. Father Nostler held up a hand to put a stop to the proceedings. Nobody was going to ridicule the birth of Jesus with fancy streamers and a guitar, for goodness’ sake!

Joseph Mohr ignored the priest’s attempt to stop the little choir from singing and addressed the audience. He told them about the organ and said that he and Gruber had prepared a special song for the occasion. Without further ado (and without a glance to Nostler) Gruber shifted his guitar into position and plucked the first notes.

Mohr with his fine tenor voice and Gruber with his baritone fell in with Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!. The melody and the words blended perfectly. When they came to the end of the first verse, the children started with Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh… The clear young voices held the audience in their spell as they repeated the line as a benediction.

The verses followed each other until the children assured the congregation that Jesus the Saviour was there. Then complete silence descended on the people in the church. The song had a profound effect on the congregation – and on Nostler. He rushed through the communion and immediately retired to his study to write an outraged letter to the Bishop of Salzburg.

Mohr and Gruber stood at the door as the congregation filed out. They wanted to know what the people thought about their song even if they knew that Nostler was hugely upset. The reaction was mixed, to say the least. Some thought the song was acceptable, a few complimented the melody and yet others thought it was a sort-of reasonable substitute for the real Christmas songs they were used to hear.

When the last worshippers disappeared into the crisp night, the two men stood alone for a while. They had similar thoughts: Nostler was going to have their heads for this. Then again, the congregation seemed mildly pleased with their effort – and surely they did the best they could under the circumstances?

Gruber held out his hand to his friend. “Merry Christmas, Joseph.”

As it turned out, Silent Night resurfaced again many years later; but the rendition of the song on Christmas Eve, 1818, may well have been the last.

Let’s leave the later history of Silent Night for the moment and consider the background once more. When faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, we often turn to others to solve them. We stick to convention and work within the rules. What Gruber and Mohr did, was to face the issue and make the most with what they had. Mohr’s harsh childhood may have driven him to a wasted life and he could have blamed his absent father for many things – but he didn’t.

Mohr did what we all do from time to time – he dreamt of love. He wrote a poem about the perfect family. And when the time came, he shared his poem with the world. Although he was destined to be a poor priest all his life, he gave us all one of the most precious gifts – one that is new and fresh every year when we gather to wish each other Merry Christmas.

One more thing: we all have Nostlers in our lives. Whenever we venture into the unknown, Father Nostler is there to remind us that the earth is flat and we’re going to fall off the edge if we test the horison. Look carefully at your colleagues, family and friends – there is at least one Notsler to prevent you from achieving the (seemingly) impossible. And yet, if you have the courage to pursue your dreams, you’ll find that Nostler is wrong: the horison is not the end.

So, how did Silent Night survive? In the rest of the story involves organ fixers, kings and famous composers. Gruber didn’t become famous overnight (not even in his lifetime) and Mohr died penniless – yet it remains the world’s favourite Christmas song. Silent Night isn’t only a song; it has become the symbol of overcoming adversity. It’s there to encourage us when the odds against us are stacked sky-high. It brought hope to soldiers in trenches; it encouraged others over the years in times of hardship. Like in the past, it will be sung with the same nostalgic longing in far-off mission stations, in snow-bound little Alpine villages, in the mud-and-grass huts on Africa’s plains, and in the great cathedrals of many magnificent cities. Jesus, the saviour, is there

Gertruida always savours the moment when she reaches this part of the story. The future of Silent Night hangs by the most friable thread. With Father Nostler set to have his revenge on Joseph Mohr and the single, hastily penned, copy of the music now an object of his wrath, the song might as well have been doomed to be forgotten. But, she knows, the miracle of Silent Night didn’t end that night. It was only the merest hint of the miracles to follow…

(To be continued…)

The Miracle of Silent Night (#2)

The Organ in Oberndorf

The Organ in Oberndorf

Gertruida loves weaving the apparently insignificant bits of the story of the famous song into a rich tapestry of coincidences – or miracles. She says the origin of the song is a testimony to the significance of events we usually discard as unimportant. Smiling at the paradox, she then  elaborates on the life of another rather unlikely person who also didn’t have an easy life.

Franzl Gruber (born 25 November 1787) was more fortunate than poor Joseph Mohr: he at least had a father, even if they were terribly poor. Papa Gruber, however, scoffed at his son’s ambition to be a musician – according to his thinking, there would be no future for the lad other than following the family tradition of weaving.

But, Gertruida says, mothers have a way of cutting through paternal red tape to achieve impossible ends. Men might think they own the steering wheel, but the engine of any household is controlled by a much softer hand. Behind the stern back of Franz senior, Ma Gruber arranged for organ lessons for her son with Andreas Peter Lichner, the choirmaster in the church of Hochburg. The boy’s progress pleased his teacher tremendously and so mother and tutor agreed that it would be a travesty if Franzl ended his days in the weaver’s chair. But what to do and how to get past the head of the house?

Fate intervened. When Franzl was twelve, Peter Lichner fell ill and there was no one to play the organ that Sunday. Not a single soul in Hochburg was able to perform the High Mass…except the boy who received the secret lessons his father didn’t know about. When the service was about to start, young Franzl quietly slipped from his parents’ side, hurried to the console and sat down in front of the organ he loved so much. With feet barely touching the pedals, he played the High Mass to perfection. The townsfolk were astounded, and could hardly wait for the service to end before congratulating Papa Franz on his brilliant son.

Fathers are great at getting out of  such situations. Of course he knew the child had a special gift. In fact, was it not he, the hero, who earned the money to pay for the boy’s tuition? No, they misunderstood him! Franz senior did a smart about turn and now supported Franzl – even to the extent of spending 5 Gulden on an old spinnet for his son to practice on. Later he sent the youth to Berghausen for two years to study under Georg Hartdobler.

Eventually (1816) Franzl secured the position of teacher in the village of Arnsdorf, where he was to stay for 21 years. Here he married the widow of his predecessor, acquiring not only a wife, but several offspring. She unfortunately died and he married a local lass – who died as well. A third wife (presumably of more sturdy stock) followed. With all these mouths to feed (by this time he managed to produce a few children of his own) he was forced to accept the post as organist in the neighbouring town of Oberndorf as well.

And it  was here, in St Nicola’s Church in Oberndorf, that Franzl met up with Joseph Mohr, assistant to the pious and strict Father Nostler.

Priests, like us ordinary folk, tend to display their basic personalities. Some are genuinely kind-hearted souls, bent on serving their communities. Others bear the burden of their holy duties with solemn frowns and many sighs. While Joseph never lost the fun-loving side of his character, mD4AsOUKu-2tIRdR_mjc7nQFather Nostler was a morose and vindictive character. He detested the young priest’s tendency to play lively music on his Zupfgeigen,as guitars were called those days. Literally translated, the word means ‘pluck violin’, for guitars were plucked and not stroked in those days. It is maybe not far-fetched to compare the young Joseph (later accompanied by the more musical Franz) to a more modern-day Elvis – their progressive ability with the guitar led to disapproving frowns from the upper echelons on the theological pyramid. Gertruida is quick to point out that this is where the comparison with the King of Rock and Roll stops – Joseph did certainly not invent the hip movements that became so popular more than a century later.

With the two main characters established in the birthplace of Silent Night, we now turn our attention to the night of 23 December 1818. The third, and maybe the most important, actor in the drama that was to unfold on the day before Christmas, had waited patiently for the doors of the church to be locked. The cold and hungry creature peered from its lair, made sure there was no one around, and scurried on its four tiny feet hither and thither, as mice do when they’re scouting for food.

History does not record the circumstances surrounding the life or death of this nameless mouse, yet it deserves mention every time we hear the stirring melody of Silent Night. Had it not done the unthinkable, we’d have one less song in our Christmas repertoire. .

When it found that Joseph had, indeed, cleaned the church very well in preparation for the evening mass the following night, the mouse cast around for a meal – any meal. With no crumbs on the table, the floor or between the seats, it scampered up the stairs to his last resort – the bellows and the leather pipes that fed air to the flutes of the organ. Here it gnawed away contently, not complaining about the quality of its meal, until it heard the great key turn in the lock. Like clever church mice do, it hurried to its home. That night, after Christmas Mass, it hoped to feast on the crumbs and the little pieces of wafer grumpy old Father Nostler always spilled at the altar.

So there we have it: Joseph Mohr (assistant priest, part-time musician), Franzl Gruber (teacher, organist, feeder of an extended family) and a hungry mouse (professional gnawer of no historical ancestry). The simple recipe for Silent Night.

But how?

When Franzl sat down in front of the organ to practice for that evening’s mass, it was the morning of the 24th December and the service he was preparing for a mere twelve hours away.  So was the first public rendition of Silent Night, although he didn’t know it at the time. One can only imagine his shock and horror when the leaking pipes wheezed and the notes remained silent. There was no possibility of repairing the organ – the organ mender from Zillerthal would only be able to reach the snowed-in village by May. Yet, the assistant priest and the organist had to come up with something; Christmas Mass without music was unthinkable.

Gertruida always pauses at this point to remind her listeners that it is worthwhile to consider the series of apparently insignificant ‘coincidences’ (or miracles) that brought them to this point in the story. Joseph, the illegitimate child with a hangman as sponsor for his baptism. Franzl, whose mother defied his father to allow her child to master the organ; now married for the third time and having to accept another job to support his family. Peter Lichner, whose illness caused Papa Gruber to do a smart about-face. And of course, the mouse: it could have chosen 364 other days to ruin the organ.

Christmas, too, is a coincidental date for many people. Most of us accept that it isn’t really the birthday of Christ. Some will remind you that 25 December is associated with the winter solstice to celebrate the ‘unconquered sun’ as it retreats from its migration to herald the advent of spring. Others maintain it has its origin in Scandinavia with it’s celebration of Yule. We all agree it is a time during which billions are spent on cards and gifts, making it the most expensive feast of all. Somehow, we tend to think about Christmas as a feast of the past (remembering Bethlehem) and not a promise of the future.

The point, Gertruida says, about Gruber, Mohr and the mouse is this: circumstances developed over many years to place them together at exactly the right time, facing an insurmountable problem and leaving them with an impossible task. Life does that to us all from time to time. It is all too easy to simply give up and allow the tides of misfortune to drown the dreams we cherished – but that is the wrong approach. Overcoming the odds is what life is all about. It is also the message of Christmas.

Gertruida tells her audience that they, too, can look back on 2014 to pick out moments of misfortune, tragedy and hardship. In South Africa we have had many of these – ranging from political mayhem to personal loss. But…the message of Silent Night forces us in a different direction. It reminds us that the rungs on the ladder of Life are placed exactly right for each of us to overcome every adversity.

That, she says, is what Christmas is all about.

So – how did Gruber and Mohr achieve greatness? How did they manage to make music that night? And what does this all have to do with Silent Night?

Like all good storytellers, Gertruida never rushes the ending. Stories, like Life, represent a journey of discovery. A good story, she’ll tell you, should be savoured and enjoyed. It is in the intertwining of apparently insignificant events that the magic of a story lives. And here she’ll laugh softly, saying that no significant building can rest of an insignificant foundation. That, she says, makes the word ‘insignificant’ obsolete. And, she adds, what is true for buildings, is also true for Life. Or Christmas, come to think of it.

(To be continued…)

The Miracle of Silent Night

silentnight-german-version-staff-chordsEvery year – when the patrons at the bar get dewy-eyed while the radio oozes out Christmas at Sea, Jingle Bells and The Little Drummer Boy – somebody will ask Gertruida to tell them the story of Silent Night again. Boggel, an orphan who overcame so many obstacles to be successful in his own right, especially loves to hear how a humble priest crafted the song out of desperation. The other Rolbossers identify with different parts of the tale; like Vetfaan, who still marvels at the way the history of the song ties in with the Von Trapp family and The Sound of Music. He always says it’s a miracle – a remark that makes Oudoom smirk. The clergyman has to remind Vetfaan every year that the wonder of Christmas isn’t the song; but that the real miracle happened long before the words were penned down. Almost 2000 years before the song, in fact.

Every year, Gertruida (who knows everything) tells the little audience that they surely know the story by now, but always relents because they then tease her by saying she must have forgotten about Joseph Mohr. This forces the clever woman to sit down, take a deep breath, and prove them wrong.

***

Baby Joseph Mohr had the odds stacked up against him. There was absolutely no earthly reason why one would expect such an infant to change the world…but he did, in his own unique way. However, his mother must have despaired when she realised there would be one more mouth to feed in her little household. And she must have worried about his future.

After all, children born out of wedlock – illegitimate, fatherless – can be expected to get it all wrong; especially when you consider how we view parental influences these days. Walk into any bookshop if you don’t believe me: the shelf with volumes on how-to for fathers is filled with current wisdom. Browsing through this is enough to convince anybody that it is totally impossible for a boychild to achieve anything in life if the father isn’t involved in a big way. The term “dysfunctional family” has become a booming industry over the past few decades.

You see, poor little Joseph Mohr never knew his father. He should have ended up as a criminal or a beggar, not so? At the very least, you’d think, a boy like that should become a seriously disturbed delinquent.

Just shows you how prejudiced we are about stereotypes. And how often we are proven wrong…

Sneak up to your mental almanac and reverse the date to 11 December 1792; and while you’re at it, quickly travel to Salzburg. Here you’ll find the seamstress Anna Shoiberin in labour, giving birth to a little boy. She had been …involved…with a musketeer in a relationship of convenience. A kept woman of apparently few virtues, Anna had to do what she could to keep a roof over her family’s heads. However, as soon as the evidence of her pregnancy became too obvious to ignore, her soldier-lover promptly deserted her – and the army – leaving her pretty much destitute..

Forward a few months. It is time for the baptism – but there is a problem. In accordance with custom, the baby boy would have the right to his father’s name, but a sponsor had to be found to appear in church. The seamstress, it seems, had built up quite a bit of a reputation by that time. With this, her third illegitimate child, no one could be found to be associated with her, the boy or the baptism.

Enter now a nefarious and highly unlikely character, one Franz Joseph Wohlmuth – the town’s hangman. For whatever reason, the kind-hearted executioner took pity on the woman and the infant and consented to fulfil the role of sponsor. But, like so many incidents in Joseph’s life, this one wasn’t without a hitch, either.

You see, hangmen weren’t really seen as pillars of society. After all, they kill people. The church frowned down on such individuals and barred them from attending services. Thus young Joseph Mohr had a sponsor who had to appoint a substitute to attend the baptism on his behalf.

Of course, having a name didn’t solve the problems facing the little boy. He grew up in abject poverty while his mother sewed away quietly to sustain their simple life. Were there other men in her later life? We don’t know and prejudgemental speculation is not what the story is all about. Suffice to accept that Joseph was a poor and deprived little boy.

Back to the bookshop. For every shelf filled with advice for fathers, there are two for mothers. Chances are that Joseph Mohr didn’t attend any special program to help him adjust to his lot. His mother worked all day; he didn’t socialise with the ‘right’ kids; Christmases were bleak affairs; birthday parties were non-existent and education was rudimentary. Toady, social workers and paediatric psychologists would label such a boy as the one most likely to fail miserably in life and suggest an array of measures to correct the situation.

But in those days Joseph and his mother had to fend for themselves, There was no quick-fix or an easy way out of their poverty. The road to ruin must have seemed unavoidable.

Except for one tiny little detail, Joseph might well have ended up on the trapdoor of his baptism sponsor. You see, the only thing Joseph Mohr had going for him, was his sweet voice – he could sing. This brought him to the attention of one Johann Hiernle, the priest in charge of the Cathedral choir.

Oh, the scandal and gossip such an arrangement would have caused today! Here you have a choirmaster-priest taking special interest in an unwanted young boy. And yes, the clergyman took the boy into his house to become a type of foster-father, teaching him music and educating the lad. Back then it must have been seen as a charitable act; but today we’ve become a vindictive and suspicious society. Such kindness would be tagged as inappropriate while we look for less than honourable intentions on Joseph’s benefactor’s part. .

Despite our misgivings, Joseph developed a fine tenor voice and learnt to play the violin and the organ. Then, once again with the help of the kind priest, he was enrolled in the Seminary of Salzburg, where illegitimate youths weren’t allowed. Another miracle? Of course!

Maybe not surprisingly, there were a few odd hiccups. Joseph (remember the lack of fatherly discipline?) often sneaked away from the austere atmosphere of the seminary to visit the local pub. He thought the songs were much livelier and the company more stimulating. Poor Father Hiernle had to come to his rescue every so often.

Despite this, on the 21st of August 1815, he was ordained as priest. He swapped the gay life of a student for the frock and now faced a lifetime of solemnly serving the Church.

There was another problem. Due to a chronic chest problem (asthma?) he didn’t have the stamina to conduct a full service. Joseph Mohr would always be an assistant priest – there was no way he could handle a congregation on his own. Joseph, one may be excused to assume, was destined for obscurity.

Not so, for this was the man who penned the famous words for Silent Night. He created something we all associate with Christmas: in fact, Christmas without Silent Night is just about unthinkable.

The point of the story of Joseph Mohr is a simple one: being a single parent doesn’t necessarily mean your child is doomed to end up a loser. Those books with the well-meant advice may be of help  – and trying to give your child the best balanced childhood isn’t wrong… But…

There isn’t a thing called a “Normal Home”. It doesn’t exist. No matter how perfect a family seems to be: there are skeletons in all our cupboards. Go on: check it out for yourselves. Go and live in the Joneses house for a week.Or the Smith’s.  You’ll find cracks in the thin veneer of perfection. There are no perfect parents, no perfect children and no perfect homes.

The fact that Joseph Mohr was illegitimate, sickly and poor, didn’t prevent him from achieving something special with his life.

Maybe that’s the miracle of Christmas. Maybe this is the time of year when we must throw out the excuses, the guilt and the quest for normality – and celebrate our individually unique imperfections. It is, after all, in overcoming these problems and difficulties that we unite in the dream of a better life.

***

At this point, Gertruida will always pat Boggel on the shoulder while reminding him that all this talking makes her very thirsty indeed. While he opens a beer, she allows her audience to mull over the many questions arising at this point in the story: how did Joseph Mohr get to pen down the words of the famous song?  Who wrote the music? And of course, there are the delicious little inserts of a hungry mouse, a cold winter and a broken organ waiting to be recounted.

With growing impatience, they’ll wait for her to finish her drink before going on.

(To be continued…)

The Rolbos Christmas Wishes.

Kalahari Christmas Tree

Kalahari Christmas Tree

Oudoom: My wish is that everyone of you – every one – will go up to a complete stranger and wish him or her a merry Christmas. Preferably with a hug.

Gertruida: I hope you all will take a moment to reflect on all the good things that happened to you this year. Forget the politics – that’s not important. Remember a shared smile? A quiet moment? Well, those are priceless. Enjoy.

Servaas: I hate to admit it, but Life isn’t so bad. Look at the sunset tonight, or sit under the stars for a while. Count your blessings.

Kleinpiet: Ag, man, I’m not one for speeches, you know that. Just go out there, put a nice steak on some coals and open a beer. Oh, and don’t forget to clean the chimney before you go to bed tonight.

Precilla: All of us have a bit of baggage we drag along. Put it down for today – even if it’s just for one day – and feel how much lighter you feel. Come on…try it!

Vetfaan: I agree with Kleinpiet. And…if any of you has a spare carburettor for a ’76 Massey Ferguson, please tell me?

Fanny: A simple wish for all parents: tell your children how much you love them.

Boggel: May kindness be the one thing about you that people talk about after you’re gone. In the meantime, if you have to gossip, do it under the shower – alone.

Mister Stevens: Well, Sirs and Madams, I’m a bit old fashioned, as you might have noticed. I wish you a Christmas like the best one you’ve ever had – wherever and however that might have been. I wish you mistletoe and shared laughter, the comfort of knowing you are loved, and the peace of Christ. As for myself, I think I’ll ask Miss Kenton over for a nightcap. You never know…

Mevrou: I’d like us to remember all those incidental people we meet every day. The attendant at the petrol pump. The cashier in the shop. The teller in the bank. You know: those men and women you hardly notice because your life is such a bustle. Next time you see them, smile, look them in the eye and tell them you appreciate them. Then write me a letter and tell me what their reactions were. That’s my wish. Really.

Ben Bitterbrak: Harrumph. Christmas? Is it Christmas again? Well, I think I wasted my year on grumbles and complaints. Nobody listens, anyway. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I don’t listen so well either. My wish? I’d like to hear more and complain less. And don’t you dare think that I’m getting soft. No sir! Not me.

Sersant Dreyer: Love. I wish you love.

Gertruida (has too have the last word with a quote from Roy Smith): “He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.”