Special thanks to reader Ted Tisdale for sharing this Christmas Story with us before. And a special “thank you” to military personnel serving worldwide, especially those away from home this Christmas. God Bless You!
CHRISTMAS in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany comes with heavy, low-hanging clouds that fill the winter air with droplets of water that freeze on your coat and on your glasses. Such days- and nights- make the friendly warmth of the neighborhood gasthaus especially inviting. A glass of hot, spicy gluhwein beside a crackling fireplace, a bowl of rich onion soup, joking and laughing with the rough, red-faced farmers of the village make the weather very tolerable indeed.
Anne and I were hurrying through the mist to just such warmth when we passed the little shop. With our heads scrunched down into our scarves, we almost missed it. It was tucked away on a sidestreet that we seldom took, its window dark and dotted with drops of water. A single strand of tiny lights was draped around the goods in the window. As they blinked on and off, the drops of water blinked with them like a thousand little stars. That’s what made us stop for a moment to glance at the display behind the stars. There were sets of schnapps glasses sitting beside heavy earthen beer mugs alongside shining steel carving sets with antler handles. The usual stuff the Americans stationed at the nearby base bought for their friends and families back home. A row of traditional German nutcrackers stood at rigid attention in their bright red and blue painted uniforms, the handles that moved their jaws all pointed smartly downward like the tails of their uniform coats. A quick glance into the window, nothing different, the same old stuff.
Then we saw him. He was standing off to the side looking at the other nutcrackers like a street bum watching a parade. A dozen or so black lines served as a moustache; about that many made up a scraggly beard and a shingle of hair sticking out from under his stocking cap. Two black slashes for eyes on a white background gave him a squinting, quizzical look. What were probably supposed to be mittens looked more like hands jammed into the pockets of his faded red coat. Not the jaunty jacket that flares around our Santa’s hips, but a full-length coat that ended just above a pair of wrinkled black boots. He was such a disreputable representation of Santa Claus we had to smile.
“Do you remember Al Sleet?”, Anne asked. I laughed out loud, recognizing immediately what she meant. Years ago, comedian George Carlin did a routine of a bleary-eyed, stoned hippie trying to do a coherent weather forecast. “This is Al Sleet, your dippy hippie weatherman with the hippie-dippy weather, man.” There in the little shop window was Al Sleet dressed up like Santa Claus.
The next day, I went to the little shop and told the owner I wanted to buy one of his nussknacker,” nutcrackers. When I pointed to Al, he was surprised. “Nein, nein,” he told me, “Ist nicht schoen” (It isn’t pretty). Surely, I’d rather have one of the others. I tried to tell him about Al Sleet, but my German wasn’t up to it nor was his English. So, he shrugged and took Al out of the window. “Ist vom DDR,” he told me as he took my Marks. He pronounced it, “Day-Day-Err,” and showed me the dim letters stamped on the bottom of Al’s stand. That explained a lot. Al was carved in the Deutche Democratik Republik. We called it East Germany.
Every Christmas, we take Al down, dust him off, and put him in a prominent place in our living room. I have wondered about the East German who carved him. I try to imagine someone living under the repression and the economic privation of the Communist system. I try to imagine the idea of Santa Claus being described to him so he could carve a number of “nussknackers” to ship to the decadent West. Sometimes I’m amazed that Al looks as good as he does.