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.