Christmas in Mannheim, Germany

Christmas in a foreign land can be fun—if the family is together.

In the fall of 1962, my mother, brother and sister joined our father in Mannheim, Germany. We left behind our little house on a quiet, tree-lined street, our 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, and I left behind my first grade classmates—who I had only begun to get to know after exactly one week of school.

We took two airplane rides to get from Columbus to New York, and a jet took us over the Atlantic, a two-day adventure, courtesy of the U.S. Army. While it was sad to leave behind my grandparents for this strange country called Germany that I knew nothing about, it was strangely exciting, and the novelty of a jet ride where you are brought meals to eat right at your seat made it worthwhile.

This was to be the beginning of many “firsts” for me, both as a six year old learning about the world around me, and as a newbie Military Brat.

Things are different on base
I knew things would be different in the mysterious new country, but I had no idea that so much would be different . . . from cars people drove to the houses people lived in, to so many of the locals riding bicycles.

The base housing consisted of large, boxy apartment buildings with three stairwells and three floors, as well as temporary quarters in the “attic”.  There were about 20 families in every building, with rows and rows of gray buildings that looked the same—a stark contrast to our winding, tree-lined streets and unique, single family houses with their own yard I had grown up with in Columbus, Georgia.

While we didn’t know anyone at first at Mannheim, after a few weeks of school I made some new friends in our building, and I learned that this was a real community, and in many ways, more tightly knit together than the suburbia we had left behind.

Everything you need is on base
By December we had explored much of the base by taking the long way home from school and making excursions after our weekly dose of Saturday Matinees at the movie theatre. I learned where the library was, the PX, snack bar, baseball fields, playgrounds, schools, chapel, and other buildings which made up our community. Armed with our “dog tags”, to prove who we were, we had access to the entire base it seemed, though we later realized there were areas that were behind fences and barbed wire, and definitely off limits.

I had seen snow once before in Columbus, Georgia, but my memory of that snow was of large flakes drifting down to the ground and melting immediately. This was not the case in Mannheim. By Christmas, I had experienced a number of major snowfalls, with one to two inches of moist snow blanketing everything in sight. I also experienced the joy of building a snow fort with other neighbor kids and spending all afternoon out in the cold, overcast weather, protecting the snow fort from bands of kids from several buildings away who dared to challenge us.

Scattered around the base were several Christmas displays, constructed from plywood and depicting the Christ child, Mary and Joseph and the three wise men in a stable. At another location was Santa and his sled loaded down with a huge bag of toys. This display really held my interest as I associated Santa with delivering the presents, and the display was motorized so that there was some movement from several of the reindeer. At night the displays were illuminated, making them appear quite real.

Home is where you are
Most of the apartments had decorations in the huge living room windows, displaying twinkling lights, giant snowflakes, Christmas greetings and Christmas trees, and with prizes awarded for the most unique display, it seemed that everyone had a display to offer.

While we had not seen my father very much after we arrived and settled in our temporary quarters in September, during December, he took leave and we saw him most every day. From getting a Christmas tree to decorating it, driving us into the actual town of Mannheim for some shopping, and just being around us added to our excitement.

My brother and I were concerned at first that the apartment we lived in didn’t have a chimney for Santa to gain entrance, but we learned that Santa could get into the building via the chimneys which served the boiler room in the basement of the building. From there he would use his magic to shrink down and slip under the front doors of all the families in the building.

We stayed up as late as we dared on Christmas Eve, and finally went to bed before midnight, drifting off to the sound of music playing Christmas Carols on the radio in the living room and my mom and dad talking softly. Little did we know that as soon as we were asleep, their real work began.

Santa on the roof?
I woke up early in the morning and got my brother to wake up, then we crept out to the living room, not sure what time it was, and not wanting to disturb Santa doing his work if he was still there. We discovered that Santa had done his work as the base of the tree was full of packages. We found a couple of toy machine guns that were unwrapped and we picked them up.

After making a mental inventory of what was there, we went back to bed. I was tired, but excited about what was inside all those presents and I had a hard time going back to sleep. I finally drifted off, only to startle and find myself awake again. It was barely light outside and my brother and I milled around in our pajamas, shaking packages and wondering aloud what they could contain, waiting for our parents to wake up and join in the fun.

While waiting for the “sleepy heads” to make their appearance, my brother and I organized our packages so we could efficiently go to work opening them once everyone was present.

Finally my mom and dad arrived carrying my sister who was a toddler and unsure of what was going on. Once the camera was loaded with fresh film and a good supply of flashbulbs was handy on the coffee table, we got the go ahead and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes the apartment was filled with the sound of wrapping paper being shredded from carefully wrapped boxes and the shrieks of delight with what the packages revealed.

Occasionally there was a less than enthusiastic response when occasional pair of socks and gloves were found.

After the mayhem was over, we policed up the room, collected our “loot” into neat piles and we began playing while my parents retreated to the kitchen for some much needed coffee. We were lost in our own world for a while until the smell of bacon and eggs wafted through the living room.

As it grew lighter outside we checked to see if there was fresh snow and wondered if anyone would be outside to work on repairing the snow fort or to challenge the kids a couple of buildings down to a snowball fight, but with all the new presents to play with, it was a quick decision to stay in.

While this Christmas was one of my most memorable experiences, it was a little sad in that we had always gone to visit my grandparents on Christmas day, and we would also go to visit my mother’s sister, who did not have any children of her own, and always had a lot of presents waiting for us, giving us even more toys to play with.

It would be four years before we would be back in the U.S. again, and while we missed our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, Germany would keep us busy. While it was a new and different experience at first, after our first Christmas in Mannheim, it felt like home.

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  1. I too lived in Mannheim (BFV) from Jan. 1963-Dec. 1965.  I have lots of fond memories of Mannheim.  There was a German candy store off base that my friends and I used to go to.  They had wonderful candies.  My family went by boat (US Navy ship) to Germany.  It was in January and we left New York and arrived in Bremerhaven about 11 days later.  I remember we had a storm and the ship would rock from side to side and some of our things in our cabin would move back and forth across the floor.  My mother, brother and sister were seasick most of the journey, so my father and I went to eat our meals by ourselves.  I had my first (and only) Barbie doll on that journey.  I still have it today, minus some of her outfits.  I reallly enjoyed living in Germany.  Have been back a couple of times during my married life to visit and reminisce!!

    • Hi Joanne,

      I remember the candy store as well. I fondly remember “sour sticks” and the lunchmeat we could buy there for my Mom once in a while.

      They also sold some fireworks, which we were not allowed to buy, but we got to set off the small strings of fireworks and we got to play with sparklers on the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve.

      Thank you for the comment and I am glad to hear from someone else who was there.

    • Joanne, My name is candy whalen.I lived in BFV from 1964-1966.I lived on the street in front of that candy store.It was practically in my back yard.We used to go there before school.

      I was 14 years old.


      • hi mom was a house keeper on washington st  13 a.. she was german 1966..she worked for a James RICHMOND AND GAVE BIRTH TO MY SISTER THERE at the apartment…   mom my has sinced past away but are trying to found out a few things.. her name was Gertrud Palmen..they called her Gerdi..  she loved to bowl and was super sweet can you ask your parents if she may know her or the family she worked for..thanks

  2. We resided in Mannheim on BFV from 1978-1986.  Being half-German, spending time in the city of Mannheim (and beyond) was never an issue…ask me about spending an entire day (by accident) on the Strassenbahn between Mannheim and Heidelberg some day!  Sad to see it’ll be handed over in 2014.  Too many good memories of growing up a Bison…living on Lincoln Street, watching baseball/softball practices from my window…walking in the woods to play on the Trimmdichpfad…leaving the school during lunch to grab a Babe Ruth and Coke from the Shopette…good times!

    • Jim, I am sad too, but while it was our home for a time, we were just passing through.  I am wondering how many other brats would be interested in meeting up there before the handover?

      I haven’t been back to Germany since 1990 and I am past due for some authentic German food and a stroll down memory lane!

      • Vann,

        Just so happens there is a trip back next fall. Sadly we will miss the closing of the HS in June but we will still get a chance to walk through it. Check out then click on Germany 2011.



        Joe Land


  3. Hi van!  I read your article about Christmas in Mannheim.It took me back to when I was 14.I was living in BFV from 1964-1966.It brought back so many childhood memories.I lived on the street just in front of the candy store.I loved the sour sticks and the Gummy Pacifiers,and The chocolate covered mereingue.


  4. I was in Sogel Germany 1964-67, we lived in the village of Tinnen and at Christmas we went to see Saint Nick he walked the streets to find the bad boys and girls ( kinda like a parade).  We shined our shoes and left them to be filled with candy and trinkets.  There was something about Christmas in Germany that brought you back to true Christmas.  In Germany They had candles on the tree and would light one each day until Christmas.  I got a German tea set that I never played with but still have to this day.  We too came by boat (USNS upshore) about 11 days… All good OH and gummy bears yum yum. does anyone remember the almond pigs at christmas?? I loved everything about Germany and Christmas there was the best! I was blessed to of lived in the village and got a real taste of a German Christmas that I will never forget.

  5. I was in BFV from 1962 to 1968. We lived on Jefferson street. I was in the first grade in 62. I remember Christmas for all the lights. My story is almost the same as Vann’s. We use to sneak out the village to a small town that had fountain of water coming out of lions head and people drank there. Then there was the cherry trees and the swimming pool you had too walk to,off post. We had no TV ,so I still see old movies that I have not seen. My Brother and I would bike to the candy store with 25 cents ( a little over a mark) and load up. My Dad just passed away and I don’t want to tell my mother BFV is closing down. We all have  good memorys of that time.

  6.   I and my family were residents at Benjamin Franklin Village from April, 1980 to April, 1984.  I worked at Spinelli Barracks as the battalion finance clerk for the 28th Transportation Battalion.  We all loved Mannhein especially at Christmas even though I had to pull CQ for three years in a row on Chtistmas day!  We still managed to have good times…I remember pulling my son and daughter in a sled through the snow in Mannheim during the winter, going to dinner at the Top Hat Club, the library, the theater, etc.  

      I remember when we first arrived in Mannheim the mark exchage rate was only $1.61 to the Mark but by the time we left in 1984 it had gone up to nearly five dollars to the mark.

      I am deeply sadened about the closure of BFV and seeing all the units being deactivated and others moving away.  There will always be the memory and we all grow older it will fade just a little bit but that is just the nature of things.

      God bless everyone who lived and served in Mannheim and the good citizens who shared their wonderful town with us. 


      SSG Elliott, USA/USAR Retired 


  7. Dear SSG Elliott,

    Thank you for your service and I am glad you were also able to experience Mannheim and BFV.

    Wow, 1.61 marks to the dollar . . . a big improvement over the mid 70s when we were there where it was a lot less.

    Now there are no marks, and one unified Germany . . . how times have changed.


  8. there are so many of us that were with you! We traveled to Bremerhaven on the USS Maurice Rose and I was sooooo seasick. We lived in BFV in 1960 and 1961 – President Kennedy was assassinated while we were there and we had lots of air raid drills. (I was born in 1953). I don’t remember the street we lived on but it was a president…Washington or Jefferson maybe – my Dad was a captain. We would sneak off base and play on the bunkers – go to the candy store for cones of sour sticks for a mark (25 cents). And gummy strawberries and those little half-shells that had hardened honey in them…we would suck on them in school and if called upon, would fake cough them into our hands so we could answer the questions. I am 61 now and a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan….definitely a product of the military life! Thanks for the memories!

  9. We lived in Veirheim from 1960 to 1963. I went to grade school on BFV. In 1963 we went and stayed with my aunt and uncle who were stationed in Stuttgart. That’s where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Why we were there I don’t remember. I use to love the honey filled sea shells and the penny caramel candies from the baker at the bakery on the corner of our street.

    • Hi Bonnie, I loved the honey shells as well, as well as the “bread lady” who delivered fresh bread to our street every day. There is nothing like getting fresh bread that is still warm from the bakery!

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