AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: The Last Christmas of the Cold War

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1 StudentenWerk 

At Wittenbergplatz, he changes to the U2.  He rides the U2 to the university – the only university in West Berlin – where he will spend the day at the training in the auditorium.

This is the year that he is going to be Santa – traveling from house to house to distribute gifts on Christmas Eve – employed by StudentenWerk, the student employment agency. He had never considered it before.  His Christmases in Berlin have always been quiet – a day spent reading or running his route next to the wall, alongside the graffiti splashed barriers guard towers blocking the other side’s no man’s land (there was less traffic that way).

Tourists photograph him there, call attention to him as he makes his way to and from the residence hall.

The residence hall is filled with foreigners, like him, except for Dagmar, who is from Spandau, the Berlin neighbourhood that embarrasses her with its lace curtains and flowered table cloths and meals of sausage and potatoes.

StudentWerk has sent him to moving jobs, to lightbulb factories, to chocolate factories where the cocoa dust rises in clouds and settles into everything.

The Santa assignment, he learned in the pub, is the best-paid student work: 300 marks for one night’s work.  And that’s not including tips from the families he’ll visit.  A group of them will do it.

The other Santas will also be foreign; the German students will be hitchhiking to Swabia and Bavaria, stuck in family-filled homes with roast goose and schnapps toasts until late into the evening, faking interest in long walks along snow-packed roads and fingering their rolling papers and plastic bags in their pockets.

Dagmar isn’t going home this year.  They will all stay in the hall. They’ve painted the walls bright blue.  Dagmar found them an old sofa and they now spend evenings together in the common space sometimes, cook one another meals.  There are jalapenos growing in pots on the window sill.  There’s lentil dal that one of the students was taught to make before he left India for Germany.

He’ll get a route in Spandau; Dagmar will help him plan it.

Outside of Thielplatz Station — a shingle-roofed  ticket hall that looks a cottage plucked from a fairy tale — protesters line the streets, their spraypainted banners announcing the formation of a liberated uni.   A lecturer is delivering a class to hundreds of students assembled on the plaza.  Clouds of mist rise from the students’ mouths.  There’s a newsprint pad on an easel, covered with equations. On the edge of the crowd, a woman in an anorak and kafiyah explains to a TV reporter that the university’s facilities are underfunded and unfit for purpose.

The Santa training is in the Henry-Ford-Bau, a pale stone and glass rectangle raised soon after the war ended.  When he steps inside, his glasses mist up.  He takes them off to wipe them, puts them on again, and sees hundreds of students in Santa suits.

A Santa sitting at a table ticks his name off a list, reminds him about the fee for the costume, and hands a burlap sack to him.  He takes the sack and pulls out a fur-trimmed jacket, a white wig and long white beard.

He puts the costume on in the lecture hall.  It is cold there, the heaters weak and hissing.  The jacket makes the cold tolerable.  He tries on the beard and looks around.  They all do – smiling, twinkling – the foreign Santas. Finally part of a crowd.  In this city where it is always possible to be outside, always possible to be removed if you are not from here, they are all now visible and invisible, a part of the scenery that everyone will approve of.

2 The Route

“The most important thing is the route.  Unless you plan your route carefully, you will never get to all the houses – you will never deliver all your gifts.”

They bend over the maps of West-Berlin in their red jackets, their hats off.  The maps show the city’s streets in black and white, the U-bahn lines in red; the bus lines in blue.   And around the city limits, there is a territory marked in beige — East Germany and the east of the city defined as irrelevant territory.  The East German map, which he bought during one of his day trips to East Berlin, show the street grids and transport links of these places, a tangle of roadways and rail lines in which West-Berlin is a white splotch – an island of nothing without any streets or landmarks.

The families will hide the presents in a bush, or behind the basement door, or underneath the staircase of the building.  And he will have to put them into his burlap sack, ring the bell, and distribute the gifts to the children.

“The children will ask where you are from,” a big-bellied man in jeans and a Santa jacket advices.  “Please do not answer Nigeria.  You are Santa.  You tell him…”

The Santas look at their cheat sheets and read:

From out the woods I now appear

To tell you Christmas is now here!

“This is the best job you will ever have,” the instructor reminds them.  “You’ll make more than 300 marks for a night’s work.  You’ll get to give away presents all night and you don’t even have to buy them.”

He gestures for them to start again, and they read the whole first stanza of the poem — about fir trees and lights and heaven and the Christ child.  They are advised to memorise it.  They are advised to read Luke 2 if they are not familiar with the Christmas story to learn about it.  They are advised that, if a family asks to have a white Santa, they family will be told that these requests are not accepted.  This is an equal opportunity Santa employer; families that insist upon a white Santa will not be visited by Santa.

Santa is offered schnapps, they are advised.  Almost every family will insist; you must not take it. If you accept the schnapps, you will not be able to complete the route.

He imagines the navigation; the trip from house to house.  He will be covering Spandau.  Dagmar is from there; she’s going to help plan the route.  He’ll take the 45 bus from Bahnhof Zoo.  Dagmar is going to leave a bike chained up for him waiting by the first house; she fishes abandoned bikes out of skips and repairs them.

Spiessig Spandau, with its squat sand-coloured apartment buildings.  The first time he hears this word, he is told it means: square, smug, stuffy.   A neighbourhood re-assembled after the war; a neighbourhood that ends at the Wall.

3 Bahnhof Zoo

In Bahnhof Zoo, he begins his journey.  He has the red fur-trimmed jacket on to keep warm.  The long white wig and fake beard are in his burlap bag.  He has the list of houses.

Bahnhof Zoo smells like piss and cigarette smoke, and on Christmas Eve —  in the fluorescent light of station that tinges everything yellow — the rough sleepers slump against the wall staring into space, Pen and ink signs nearby ask people to be kind.  And every now and then, a coin drops down with a clink and a thank you is called out.

On Jabenstrasse, next to the station, rent boys stand waiting, wild-eyed smack-users stand waiting, and the kids who left home because they couldn’t stay stand waiting.

He gets onto the bus bound for Spandau.  On the upper deck, old ladies in woollen coats sit with their packages, children insist to their parents that they’re getting off soon.  Charlottenburg slides by; tiny white lights on trees eek out festivity in the grey afternoon.  And  then they cross the canal and reach Rathaus Spandau.

And he gets out with the others, and he turns down a street, and then another, and he looks into the clutch of bushes, and he finds it: the bicycle that Dagmar has left for him.

The key to the lock is in his trouser pocket.  He unchains the bike, leans it against the shrub.  Then, he takes the rest of his costume out of the sack.   He shakes out the wig and fits it over his short brown hair.

During his first years in Germany, he had a beard; he had hair past his shoulders.  One day, walking home with friends who looked like him, an old man in an overcoat saw them and spat something at him.

“Did you hear that?” His friend checked.

He hadn’t; he was still learning German.

“He said Hitler should have gassed us.”

He puts on the beard, and he climbs on the bike.   Just then a boy walks by, so small that he must hold his mother’s hand.  The boy’s mouth opens, his eyes grow wide.

“See,”  his mother says.  “I told you he was real.”

Cycling to the first house, he is heckled.  A group of men standing outside a bar shout after him: “Someone steal your sleigh?  Where’s your reindeer, Santa?  Come back here, Santa!”

He keeps cycling as fast as he can.  And then, he reaches the first building.  It’s a low slung altbau.  Through the window facing the front he can see an enormous tree covered with lights, and old man filling everyone’s glass, a boy climbing on the back of a sofa.

He rings the bell very briefly, just a touch.  The old man, smelling of schnapps and cigarettes,  opens the door to the building, gestures for him to come inside.  He can hear a din of music and laughter coming from the apartment, shouts.  The old man points to a bag under the stairs, winks, and slips back into the apartment.  The entrance hall is still now.

He stuffs the gifts into his burlap sack and looks at the list that shows who will be here.  There are so many names, it will be impossible to remember them all — perhaps these are two or three families together.  Then he rereads the rhyme he is supposed to recite and bangs on the door.

The old man opens the door, this time wide. “Look!”

The smell of roasting goose wafts over, the smell of pine needs.   A fug of cigarette smoke wafts.

The children – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine of them – run over.  They are shouting, “Santa!”  They squeal impatiently, stand before him reciting a rhyme to welcome him, shouting over one another.  One of the men in the family – a father? – comes out and tells them to shush.

He tells them he’s come out of the woods.  He recites the poem to them.  Then he reaches into his bag and begins to pull out gifts, reading the names on the packages.  The children take them, calling out, “Thank you, Santa! Thank you!”

They rip off the paper immediately, roaring their approval.

There’s a tap on his arm.  The old man holds a glass of schnapps out for him.  He refuses, explains that he has other houses to go to.

Then he is handed a little bottle of sekt, walnuts, oranges.  He puts the stash into his burlap bag.  He takes an envelope from them; his tip.  The envelope goes into his pocket.

The children are absorbed by their gifts:  Simba Bears, pink plastic horses, Nintendo cartridges.  He wishes them a good Christmas, and shakes hands with the adults, and as he slips out he hears the children calling after him, “Bye, Santa!”

4 Spandau

Spandau is street after street of mass-produced housing, apartment houses assembled quickly after the war, their smooth fronts and boxy balconies repeating again and again.  He has to look at his list of addresses again to find the building number.  The sack, used to deliver gifts, has now filled up with things he has been given: liebkuchen, tangerines, little bottles of schnapps, oranges and walnuts.   The sky is dark and starless now, his fingers cold as he grips the burlap sack.

This will be his last house for the night.  It is the visit he is most nervous about.  When he phoned the parents to arrange his visit, they had explained all the things that the children had done wrong: they had broken things, disobeyed their parents, and spoken back rudely.  The parents asked him to tell their children they have not been good this year.  And then, they repeated it all again, until he said, he’d heard them, and he understood.

He reads the number on the glass door – one more neubau identical to the others –  and, behind a shrub next to the building, finds the plastic bag filled with gifts.  He takes the wrapped boxes out, puts them into his burlap sack.  Then, he rings the bell, is buzzed in, and he walks up the stairs, sack on his shoulder.  He can hear a door opening – already – upstairs.  But there is no music coming from the house, no shouts, no squeals from the children.

And he reaches the landing, and there is a man in a white shirt and black trousers, his short brown hair neatly combed.  There is a woman beside him with straight blonde hair wearing a dress and a cardigan.  They smiled at him stiffly, warily.  They are no older than him.  The man beckons him inside.

The apartment is quiet, neat, perfectly neat.  There is a tree that’s been uniformly decorated, lace on the armrests of the sofa, prints of flower bouquets on the wall.  He thinks, this is not how a house should look if there are children in it.

But there is a boy and a girl – young enough so they have perhaps just started school – and they look at him wide-eyed.  Then they recite the rhyme:

Dear, good Santa Claus, don’t look at me that way.

I’ll always be good from now on.  Put your cane away.  

It is the same poem that all the children say.  But he cannot help it – he has to swallow.  He turns to his burlap sack and takes out a gift.  He answers:

From out the woods I now appear

To tell you Christmas is now here!

The parents take a step toward him, then a step back – like soldiers on reconnaissance.  They are expecting a speech for him, and admonishment of their children for their bad behaviour.  Instead, he hands the girl her gift.  And then he finds another gift in his bag.  And another.

The children thank him, and they go to the sofa with their gifts while the parents clear the wrapping paper away, resigned.

He tells them he has to go.  He wishes them a happy new year.  And the parents give him an envelope – his tip.

Then he is out again in the night.  The bike he has used to ride from house to house is locked up, hidden in the bushes to collect later.  He walks toward the bus stop, down the silent streets, and as he passes the houses, he can see into the apartments  — all the people laughing and drinking in a golden glow.   And he reaches the bus shelter, empty and dark.

He has visited 13 families.  He has given out dozens of gifts, and winked at the older children to get them to play along and pretend he is really Santa.  He has been plied with schnapps, and cake, and shaken hands over and over.

A group of teenagers pass, laughing and singing, a cloud of cannabis rising as they pass.  One calls out, “Hi, Santa!  Happy Christmas!”

He smiles wearily and waves at them.  And then the bus arrives, a cylinder of light gliding down the street, coming to take him back to the centre of the city.  It stops and its doors open with a sigh, and he steps inside.  The driver waves his money away when he tries to pay his fare, and the driver calls out:

Dear, good Santa Claus, don’t look at me that way.

I’ll always be good from now on.  Put your cane away.  

He nods and says thank you and happy Christmas, and he walks down the aisle of the almost empty bus.  Sunk into his seat, his sack by his side, hetakes off the wig and beard.

The streets are dark and silent; the shops all closed, the traffic gone.  Lights are strung across the streets, taped up onto tower block windows, droop of off balconies where they blink slowly and sadly.

5 The U9 Platform

At  Bahnhof Zoo, he walks through the cold, filthy station to get to the U-Bahn platform.  There is hardly anyone there now.  A slumped over man and his dog sleep against a wall on one side.  A teen-age girl in a down coat looks crestfallen, then sees him and smiles.  He realises he is still dressed as Santa.

But the night of being Santa has exhausted him – the children running to him with expectation, the treacly music and the cigarette smoke, the snippets of family life either sad or sodden with forced merriment.

“Happy Christmas, Santa!” someone calls to him.  On the U9 platform, three men sit together on a bench, passing a bottle back and forth, torn plastic bags and bedrolls by their side, dressed in jackets that are filthy.

He wishes them a Merry Christmas back, feels the weight of the burlap sack in his hands, and opens it.  He pulls out oranges, cakes, clementines, lebkuchen, bags of walnuts: the gifts he has been given by the families throughout the night.

The rough sleepers take the gifts, laughing.  “Thank you, Santa!”  He is offered the bottle, but says no.  He does not offer the little bottles of sekt he has been given, the miniatures of schnapps.

The man with the swollen face asks him, “Have you had a long night?”

“Of course,” he answers.

They clear a space for him on the bench.  He puts the sack on his lap, and he takes another clementine out.  The rough sleepers want to know his evening has been.  They want to know about the elves.  They want to know the North Pole is like.

Every time a train pulls in, a spurt of travellers trickles out.  And he, like the rough sleepers, is ignored, or he is admonished for sitting with them, or he is smiled at benevolently. Once, a group og middle-aged couples arrives, dressed in their Christmas-best suits and dresses, and shoot him a look of consternation as if he is besmirching the reputation of Santa.

Each of the rough sleepers has a story to tell – how something terrible happened to them, how they were wronged, how an injustice led to them being here, on the train platform, at Christmas.

And, finally, he announces that he has more houses to go to that night.  And he boards the next train and rides it to Turmstrasse Station.

The residence hall is empty when he arrives.  In his room, he empties his pockets and counts the cash – 357 marks – which he places in an envelope and slides into a desk drawer that has a lock on it.  He takes off his boots and socks and puts on his Birkenstocks.  Then he picks up his guitar and his amp and carries them down to the pub, down in the cellar.

They are all there: Dagmar, Ben, Moussi.  And the other Santas.  Moussi takes his guitar and asks if he can play it.  Dagmar gives him a hug and a kiss and asks him what kind of beer he wants.  Maher is behind the bar and fills a glass with Berliner Kindl for him.

Ben and Moussi begin to play.  The Santas in the pub all come together now, in this city surrounded by a wall.

At the checkpoints dividing the country, there are West Germans rushing back from visits to family in the East, returning to the West before their visas expire at midnight.  There are British, French, American, and Russian military stationed in their sectors.  There are bored bureaucrats stamping passports.  The Santas lift their glasses.

o          o          o

Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim’s most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press).  She is also the co-host of Why, Why, Why: The Books Podcast,  which asks writers why they wrote the books they wrote, editors why they decided to publish the book, and readers why they picked the book up and read it. Originally from New York, she is based in London and in Berlin, where she is doing research for her next project.

Linda’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

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