It’s Heiligabend, the most important of the three days of Christmas in Germany. I think 900 people died yesterday and the day before and the day before that. The numbers don’t change, a grim army that’s march has formed the soundtrack to this month. The children are overtired, having woken at 5 almost everyday since the first of December, courtesy of the Adventskalendar, and over-excited, bouncing off one another with an intensity borne of this weird, weird time. We’re all fractious, chafed by weeks of lockdown, the net tightening in the last fortnight. But we are alive and we’re healthy. The privilege of irritation, of fractiousness, the privilege of squabbling siblings and a warm cabin in which to feel feverish. I grab it by the face everyday and squeeze its cheeks, make myself look into its eyes.
It hasn’t been a particularly cold December, which is, of course, to be expected. Climate change hasn’t stepped aside to let a virus wreak havoc. It’s cold enough, just, to put the beer and wine outside, to chill for this year’s quieter Christmas lunch. I don’t know if we’ll get snow, but I almost want the throat-hurting cold this year, I want everything to snap-freeze, so this weariness can be forced to rest. I hate snow, beyond those first couple of hours of painted silence, in which everything looks draped in fondant, like a fruitcake at a christening. At least, though, if it snows, everything will be white momentarily, a marked change from the purple-brown tree branches and the wet-washing skies.
It’s sort of snowing, icy little drops that rustle when they hit the evergreens. The children think it’s the most wonderful thing, and they’re running around in circles screaming ‘es schneit!’ and singing the snow song all kids seem to know here. Es schneit, es schneit, kommt alle aus dem Haus … They have been waiting for snow, as if it’s a given – everyone acts as it is, but I’m not sure sure that’s true for us up here. In our part of the country, if it snows at all, it tends to do so in February or, cruelly, in March. Decembers and Januaries are wet and the wind whistles right off the expressionless Baltic. But still, they stand outside, staring at the sky, trying to catch the snow on their tongues. Eventually the little icy drops become proper, fluffy snowflakes. It doesn’t stick, but it’s enough. The magic of such things falling from the sky. For half an hour, it’s truly wondrous.
More snow fell overnight and it was cold enough for it to stick. This morning, the garden was white. The kids built an icy-looking snowman and made snow angels as it all turned to slush and mud. The snowman had dates for eyes and a mouth of sultanas. The air that rushed in everytime the back door was opened, was hard and frigid.
More than 1000 people died today.
We have taken to going on walks in the dark. Before the winter solstice, the sun starts setting around 3.30, although most days you don’t see the sun, the sky simply grows more leaden until the day disappears. Now, nine days after the solstice, the days are starting to lengthen, by what feels like a few minutes a day. Now our dark walks happen between four and five pm.
In spring, the garden saved us. Potting and planting and watching it all wake up, the blossoms and the bees, the movement and song. I think, this time, walks will. Walks taken around the neighbourhood with torches, looking at all the fairy lights people have wrapped around trees and windows, the stars they have strung up. Walks taken in rain so fine it’s almost mist, cold red hands shoved in pockets, the kids’ Matschhose rustling as they move. Walking in the dark is prettier than walking during the day. You can’t see the bleakness, only the lights. There is, of course, that – slightly voyeuristic – solace to be found in looking into people’s windows as you pass by, into the warm squares, as if you’re walking through a picture book, not peeking at people in their kitchens, stretching and scratching.
Another 1000 people died today.
Winter lends itself to hibernation anyway, to curling up like a centipede and waiting. My first winters here were so horribly surprising. I underestimated not so much the cold, but the length. The months of darkness, of cold hands, clumpy boots, bulky jackets, wet toes. I learnt, eventually, to stop expecting an end, that winter doesn’t switch off overnight, that spring is a little bit shy but also a little bit flirtatious. I learnt what gets me through the months of ugliness – food and wine and TV and deliciously junky books. With children, I forced myself to do better, to learn to look for its beauty. So I did. But we hate each other, we really do. Winter hates my brattish petulance and I hate its bare ugliness. Really, what got me through the winter was, as often as I could afford, leaving it.
We won’t leave this winter, and my brattish petulance means I suspect winter is laughing at me.
We went to the water today, to get out of the house, out of our neighbourhood. It was freezing, the entire scene bleached of its colour. The sand looked like the surface of the moon. The brown and white speckled seagulls were almost invisible, picking quietly through the black seaweed. The village heaves in summer, its holiday apartments – built for sheer volume and nothing else – full of Germans spending their summers by the Ostsee. But the restaurants with their faded signs were all shut up, the parking was free. The wind scampered through the empty centre, snuck into the tops of our jackets. The kids, undeterred by the cold, built sandcastles and collected shells and climbed over rocks.
Later, we sawed off the Christmas tree’s branches and tossed them into the fire dish, watching them crackle and burn. I warmed the last bottle of Bratapfelpunsch and we toasted the tree as it went up in piney flames. It felt fitting to raze it, to stand in the cold as the last yardstick of a strange year got sucked into the sky.
Tomorrow is January.