We tighten in around the church, those of us with toy-sized dogs more out on the periphery, to reduce the chance of stepping on four-leggeds in the dark. Smallest children ride men’s shoulders, fur-lined gloves clasp tiny mittened hands. Several thousand bodies shift and sway; no one gets lost as faces lift, up and up, to where the singers will appear. Air stings nostrils, frigid, furnace-bittered. Elbows touch, nylon raincoats rustle against wool. Soon, we will look at each other, will strain to recognize friends and neighbors in low light, will wish each other Frohe Weihnachten, a joyful Christmas. But now, we wait: three thousand humans, wordless. Streetlights stand extinguished, store displays recede in gloom, all traffic stopped. There is silence in the heart of town, there is darkness, and I can feel my breath, can hear my own heart beating, feel it expand, and expand, as though the cage of ribs could crack for breath to rise on high and higher yet, beyond the tower pointing at the sky.
For three hundred years, we have gathered around St. Peter’s church on Christmas Eve—as long as we have decorated trees, as long as we have walked our dogs. Some say a pastor from the East brought tower singing to this German town. The song draws Protestants and Catholics, folks who never worship anywhere. We call it the world’s oldest ecumenical event. We also call it Hundeweihnachten—“The Dogs’ Christmas”: it’s about taking the pups to pee before we eat and sing and give each other gifts; it’s one parent taking children and visitors outside so that the other can hang last ornaments and candles on the tree; it’s about arriving in the warm and lighted house with frost-burnt cheeks and open hearts; it’s about flushing haste and pettiness from everybody’s mind with icy air and stillness in the dark.
It’s about what it means to have a home. Less than half of the three thousand houses in this town survived the bombings on St. Nicolas Eve of 1944. At war’s end, a blockbuster crushed St. Peter’s eight-hundred-year-old Roman arches, blasted stained glass across the streets. But the tower stood. On Christmas eve of 1945, in the midst of post-war hunger, cold, and poverty, teenage boys clawed their way home from internment camps, snuck the bronze bells from hiding, heaved them up and up the spiral stairs, re-hung them in the tower. They looked down on rubble, orphaned walls of churches, broken rafters, partly shingled roofs. When darkness fell, bells rang. People and dogs tumbled from basements and ruined homes, two or three families from a single room. They squinted up, at lamps shining from the spire after six years of blackout nights. Then voices rose: for peace on earth, for men of good intent.
Who stood below the tower on that Christmas Eve in 1945? The record books list 192 Jewish people in my town in 1932. The entry for 1943 says: none. In 1987, home from college for the break, I leaf through local histories to teach myself. I walk from city gate to church, run hands along doorframes of half-timbered houses. My fingertips probe for the gouge where someone levered a mezuzah from the jamb. Who lifts a grandchild on his shoulders during my childhood’s Christmas Eves? The men of the SS who burned the synagogue and Jewish school along this street in 1938? The firemen who stood by and watched the flames? The men and women who looted Jewish stores?
In this town that’s built on bones peace feels forever fragile, a resurrected thing. When backhoes roared across the street from my bedroom window to tear down the tax office, a building slapped up in haste after the war, four-thousand-year-old skeletons surfaced, bearing fractured skulls. People fought here in every century. At least once in every week I sat in school we all stuffed fingers into ears as NATO jets swooped low on practice dives. And still, today, in every classroom, children duck and freeze: chicks beneath the shadow of the hawk.
The bell strikes seven times. Lights blink near the tower’s tip, one lamp, then two, then four, then eight, circling out and around. Trombones strike up, then voices lift: Gloria, gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Who’s of good will? Who gets to sing? Will we—will I—step out, speak loud, step in between? Trombones pick up. Silence returns as singers and trombonists circle, lanterns sway. Glory to the North, then to the East, the South, the West; I am one and two and three, I am six, thirteen, then thirty-one, and no matter how old I am, or what questions Deus might evoke, the silence and the blackened sky, the rustling of nylon against wool, the elbows and mittens and the bells, the press of people and of dogs, the uplifted faces and trombones, the voices of high-schoolers drifting from above, they crack me every time: something held tight bursts open, cold breath whirls into deepest tips of lungs, and hope moves up and out like steam, spreading wide, spreading wings.
® Catharina Coenen
[This piece was the winner of the 2021 Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition]