9 Villa Verde
San Antonio, Texas 78230-2709
Dear Family and Friends of Jean and Henry,
So, I am sitting here wondering why, at this season of the year, I am afflicted with (gasp) writer's block. I can think of nothing to write about the year's events in the annual Impersonal Christmas Form Letter. And then it comes to me, an epiphany of sorts, too late for Christmas but at least in time for Epiphany. I can think of nothing to write about the year's events because there were no events this year. Nothing is changed in San Antonio, so readers in dire need of an Impersonal Christmas Form Letter can review last year's.
Others may enjoy a change of genre. I'm taking a page from my parents, who, each year, send out a story of their past. This year they turned to Christmas past, and so do I. Hark&emdash;
What loomed largest in the Christmases of my childhood was the trimming of the tree. Indeed, as I grew older, this ritual grew to the point of being completely unmanageable. My father insisted on getting a few new ornaments every year, and the rest of the family insisted on keeping and using all of these ornaments, and many others. Some of the oldest, and the ugliest, were ones that I made of tin foil at the age of six or seven or so. Eventually both the family and the tree became so burdened by the weight of the years that we had to give up the tree-trimming custom. It was good that we did this before my brother, Bro, and I killed each other in the annual icicle struggle. Bro was a hanger, and I was a flinger.
Our most important tree-trimming tradition centered around a single ornament. Made of wood, it was easily the ugliest ornament on the tree, and it was rendered all the uglier by a large red smear on its face. This ornament has been in our family for four generations, from the time of my great, great grandmother, Eve Halff. That a Jewish family would hang on to a Christmas ornament (especially such an ugly one) may strike you as strange, but therein lies a tale, one passed down from generation to generation with the ornament. Hark (if you didn't hark to the first "Hark")&emdash;
Eve grew up in the city of Lauterborg or Lauterbourg, in the sometimes German, sometimes French province of Lorraine. Now, the Christian citizens of Lauterborg celebrated Christmas with great gusto, quite literally painting the town red. They used other colors too, of course. Every Christmas eve, they would gather in NeuseStrasse or Rue de Neuse (depending on the current regime), the main street of the city. There they would decorate the buildings with ribbons, ornaments, greenery, and colorful paint. They also sang, danced, got drunk, and did other Christmassy things.
The Jews of the city, as you might guess, were proscribed, largely voluntarily, from participating in the celebration. They told their children, in the harshest of terms, that even going near the blasphemous event would bring the wrath of God down upon them. But Eve was an independent and curious child. So, she, along with a few independent, curious friends, sneaked down to Rue de Neuse one Christmas eve to see what all the fuss was about.
As luck would have it, nature decided, on that Christmas eve, to deliver a whopper of a thunderstorm to Lauterbourg, and the heavens opened just as Eve and her companions joined the celebration. With the first clap of thunder, the children knew that they were in trouble. God had been watching and was going to deliver his wrath, not just on them, but on the entire community. Eve ran home wailing as she splished and splashed through the puddles of mixed rain and paint. But for some unknown reason, she paused to rescue a fallen Christmas ornament from the gutter.
The storm passed, and neither Jewish nor Christian communities were much the worse for it. Eve hid the ornament away and used it every Christmas eve to remind her of the experience. When her own children were growing up, she would tell them the story of the ornament. And in each generation, the story is retold. It ends in a rather curious way. After Eve (or one of her descendants) finishes, a child asks, "But momma, where did the red stain on the ornament come from?"
And every Christmas, in every the generation, the answer is always the same, "Why, that's the red of the Rue de Neuse rain, dear."