In the short, six-hour day, the sunlight fades by mid-afternoon in the sitting room where Silvia is trimming the Christmas tree. Beautiful and majestic, it stands over twelve-feet high. Starting from the top, she fastens the white candles in their fluted tin holders to the branches, deftly arranging each clip to keep them upright. Shiny red apples weigh heavy on thick branches before she hangs each delicate silver bulb and tinkling bell. Stepping across the room, Silvia critically admires her work before making small adjustments. It has taken her hours to trim the tree, but the “nicety of execution”, allows her to enjoy the process.
Purchasing the tree was the task of Silvia’s father, Juhan. Each year he would take the children by horse-drawn sleigh, the jingle of harness bells enlivening the frigid air. From one sale stand to the next they would walk through the rows of trees, undecided. Juhan claiming, as he did every season, that the tree “was the most difficult purchase of the year.” He liked to say, “it took much less energy and care to buy a million’s worth of goods for his firm than this one Christmas tree for five crowns.” Finally, with frozen fingers and toes, everyone had agreed on the perfect tree.
Silvia opens the box of silver icicles, polishing any strands for tarnish before draping them over the branches. One by one they dance like sprites in the cool breeze from the open window, until every branch of the tree shimmers.
Tying a candle to a long stick, Silvia shuts the window and begins to light the candles. A few of the needles catch fire and filling the air with the fresh scent of pine. The warm flickering glow soon lights the room, casting a honeyed tone over the heavy oaken furniture. With the tree lit, the sliding doors are opened between sitting room and dinning room, revealing the fantastical blaze that beckons the children with excited awe. Drawn to the light, the littlest hand reaches out to catch a flame.
It is Christmas Eve at 28 Tatari Street. As Silvia lights the tree, so too are others. Each spilling a cheerful glow from window to window up and down Tatari Street, spreading across the snow covered city of Tallinn and into the countryside.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
Silvia sits at the piano and begins to play as the voices of her family join together in song. When the carol ends, the long ring of the doorbell is heard from below, exciting a small flurry and prompting expectant looks on the faces of the children. Father Christmas arrives with his long white beard and fur cap wearing a familiar red dressing gown, the birches fastened to his belt. “The older children notice at once that he wears their own father’s trousers and shoes” but wouldn’t want to ruin it for the others. The little ones step forward timidly to recite their poems to Father Christmas before being rewarded with a present.
“Everybody is called upon to recite something learnt expecially for Christmas and everybody gets a parcel, but the bags The Old Man of Christmas brought with him are still half full.” Father Christmas reaches into his sack and pulls out a metal tube, asking for Juhan Nihtig (Narma).
“That is Father,” the children cry out.
The Old Man of Christmas tells them his “gift is for a little boy by the name of Juhan Nihtig, but it is possible that he has grown up in the meantime and become your father, because this gift has been a long time in coming.” With wide eyes the children listen as Father Christmas tells the story of a young boy working for a farmer as a cowherd. It was the end of October when the herd was no longer taken to pasture and the farmer has put the boy to work kneading clay to repair the sauna stove. It was the young boy’s ninth birthday, but no on had acknowledged the occasion. Instead, he spent the day treading icy clay with cold bare feet. Tears were welling in the young boys eyes, when he vowed to have land of his own. When he grew up, “on his own farm, his young children would never have to work for their living and neither would he make his cowherd works so hard.”
The children sit wide eyed, listening to a rare story from their father’s childhood. As he finishes his tale “The Old Man of Christmas has tears in his eyes, and so has Mother.” Father Christmas presents the tube, telling them, “It is a long time since, but now I brought him his farm. The deed is in the tube.”
“Now, how about another carol?” asks Father Christmas. “I like children singing.” Everyone smiles and “with throbbing hearts” join together in song, before Father Christmas takes his leave.
The thick rug is scattered with mounds of wrapping paper interspersed with toys, shoes and mittens from grandmother, as well as tall stacks of books, as “The Old Man of Christmas has a habit of bringing to the family almost all the books that appear in Estonia in the Christmas season.”
Later that night, after the Christmas Eve meal, everyone selects a book and heads off to read. Silvia curls up on the dining room sofa with her book, depicting the adventures of brave knights and fair ladies.
The melting candles cast their shadows on the walls and ceiling, where they “tremble and change their shape whenever a candle goes out”. The last candle “twinkles in the green-black embrace of the tree and looks lost.” Silvia keeps her eyes fastened on the small yellow light, feeling a “kindred” connection with this lonely candle and its enduring flame. The last light burns down then grows stronger, bigger than before only to be snuffed out in the blink of an eye. A thin wisp of smoke curls upward, barely discernible in the sudden dimness. “The death of the candle” was inevitable. Anticipated, yet all the while, unexpected it gives Silvia “a light shock”. The candle is now known as “something dear that was lost.”
Many years later, Silvia will light a candle in the dim room of her New York flat during the Christmas season of 1952. Sitting at her typewriter, she brings to life her father’s face with words on the page, remembered behind the snowy white beard of Father Christmas. Now a cherished gift, she envisions the Sunday walks with her father around the perimeter of the farm. The deed in the metal tube.
His long hours working and his taciturn nature leave but wisps of smoke; so much remaining forever unknown. Her father lost in the “milky mist” hours of twilight, after saving his wife and children from the fate of the rushing trains in 1941, before their steel wheels could reach the Estonian border. Juhan steps back into the boxcar, filled with fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sons. Looking through the gap in the rough-hewn slats, “was it only a dream?” “The wheels howl and the walls groan.” Lost to the “killing emptiness of Siberia”. Lost to the Soviet Gulag.
The candle on Silvia’s polished desk flickers as if lighting a tree. Its shadows shift to flit, across the limestone walls of the house on Tatari Street, and all they had once contained on a Christmas Eve.
- All italicized quotes are from the Silvia Narma Papers. For this piece I have referenced the first chapter of “Across the Bridge,” (1953) and her short story, “Farewell,” (1952). There are many posts I wish I could publish in Silvia’s words alone. This is one of those posts.
- Estonian families traditionally celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve.
- Silvia uses “The Old Man of Christmas” and “Father Christmas” interchangeably.
- To read more about Silvia’s father see an earlier post, Juhan Nihtig (Narma).