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Celebrate the Light
by Helen Grace Lescheid Share page
The second World War raged in Europe during Christmas Eve in 1944.
Mother, with four small children, had fled our native Ukraine with the retreating German army. Father had been reported missing in action.
Now we were refugees living in a two-room shack in Dieterwald, Poland. But again the fighting front was only about fifty kilometres away. Frequent air raids sent us scurrying for cover. Explosions rattled the windows. Army trucks brought in the wounded and the dead. Hay wagons filled with refugees rumbled west; bombers droned overhead and army tanks rolled east. Partisans (underground resistance) attacked innocent women and children at night.
Nobody in his right mind went out into the dark winter night.
And yet, it was Christmas Eve. Two women had prepared a Christmas party in a neighbouring village and invited us. Mother, wanting to give us children joy, accepted.
She instructed my sister and me to dress warmly against the winter's cold. "Tonight we're going to a party," she said. Being only eight-years old, I sensed no danger--only wondrous excitement.
Hurriedly my sister, two years younger, and I dressed. If only Mother would hurry! A simple wick flickered in a saucer of oil--our only light. We could barely see her shadowy form as she bustled about getting my four-year-old brother, Fred, and almost two-year-old sister, Katie, ready. Finally Mother was putting on her heavy winter coat, kerchief, and warm felt boots.
With one small breath, she blew out the oil lamp. It was pitch dark now.
"Open the door, Lena," she called to me.
We stepped onto the crisp snow covering the farmyard. A moon crescent hung above a large house across the yard where the estate owners lived--kind people who treated us refugees well. It, too, was shrouded in darkness.
Mother lifted Katie and shuffled her to her back: she'd carry her piggyback for the five kilometres.
"Hang tight onto my coat collar," she coaxed. Then, turning towards us girls, she said, "You take Fred's hands." My younger sister and I complied. We had often taken care of our little brother while mother had culled potatoes in the big barns or had done other chores for the landowners.
At the road, we stopped. Although I knew it well from my treks to school, I could barely make out the houses on either side of the street. No street lights were allowed now. Windows heavily draped permitted no light to seep out of the houses.
My mother hesitated for a brief moment. Then she said, "Come, we'll take the shortcut across the fields."
The snow crunched as four pairs of feet punched holes in the white expanse of open fields. Stars spangled the vault of sky above us. A blood-red glow smeared the eastern sky. At times an explosion sent flames shooting into the sky.
"Girls, recite your poems to me." Mother's voice sounded a bit shaky. Her arms aching, she put Katie down on the snowy ground. Our recitations of Christmas poems made white puffs in the cold night air.
When we finished, Mother said, "Speak up loud and clear when your turn comes. No mumbling."
She lifted Katie once more onto her back, and we began to walk again. On and on we walked. But we were far too excited to be tired.
Finally we arrived at our friends' house. The door opened and we stepped inside. I felt I had stepped into heaven itself. Lights! A whole room-full of lights.
Candlelight flickered from a small Christmas tree and bounced out of happy children's eyes. Heavily draped windows kept the light inside--for us to revel in. Red paper chains decked the tree; delicate paper cherubs smiled down upon us.
We squeezed in amongst women and children sitting on the floor. Soon the room filled with singing: "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht."(Silent Night, Holy Night) Some mothers sang alto, the rest of us, soprano. We sang with gusto and from memory, songs that lifted our hearts above the terrors of war and inspired new hope for the days ahead.
I can't remember our long trek home that night, but I do remember the wonderful gifts I received; my right pocket bulged with the most beautiful ball I'd ever seen. A very colourful ball it was. Much later, I learned it had been made out of scrunched up rags wrapped in rainbow coloured yarn probably gleaned from unravelling old sweaters. The other pocket held three cookies!
Soon after that wonderful Christmas party, we were evacuated. Icy winds blew snow into our faces as we cowered on an uncovered hay wagon pulled by two scrawny horses. With the front so close behind, we traveled day and night. Once it was safe to stop, we slept in drafty barns. We ate hunks of frozen bread and drank the occasional cup of milk supplied by a Red Cross jeep.
But the warm memory of that Christmas celebration shone like a small candle in the darkness.
Even years later, when my own life's circumstances seemed too bleak to celebrate Christmas, I remembered the truth of Christmas born in my heart that night: Jesus, the light of the world came to us at Christmas time and no amount of darkness can put out that light. (John 1: 4,5)
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