Just why Christmas 1923 was “the best Christmas ever—the best I personally ever spent, and the best for the children of the Elberfeldt Branch of the Church—is not hard to explain.
For years, ever since the German economy had collapsed following World War I, the children had experienced circumstances that called for sacrifice—sacrifice of most of the good and necessary things that a child should have to eat. Laborers were paid daily, and they literally ran to get bread at the stores before closing. If they were successful, their families ate the next day. If not, they went hungry.
The children had long been taught that the “Christkindchen” (Santa Claus) was too poor to bring them presents; and, sad as it sounded, the majority had nevertheless reconciled themselves to this fact. Their expectations were, then, almost nil as Christmas drew near.
As a missionary, I had written home about a plan for an American Christmas, and the youth of my ward responded by canvassing the ward for food, clothing, and money. Soon, enough was collected to create a really joyous Christmas for these German children.
Some of the German youth also made their own plans to make others happy. For instance, as I sat one evening by the stove in the meetinghouse, contemplating the coming holidays, two of the older girls, nonmembers, came up, took a seat beside the stove, and began talking with me. Despite the poor conditions, they were happy, because they had planned to make others happy.
After asking me all sorts of questions about what I was going to get, and hearing my reply that “Santa” wouldn’t be able to give this year because he and his wife only had a few million marks (worth two or three cents), they hesitated a few moments and then, not being able to wait until Christmas, burst out, “Do you know what you’re going to get from us?” I couldn’t imagine. I was astonished to think that they, under those circumstances, were planning to give me something. The present was to be “a big orange.” Instead of answering them, I sat in shock, hardly comprehending their sacrifice.
Thinking I was disappointed, they inquired, “Sind Sie damit zufrieden?” (“Are you satisfied with that?”) I assured them that I was and could hardly keep from telling them of the American Santa who was going to come—but I kept the secret.
The days preceding Christmas were happy as I contemplated the surprised faces of those children when Santa would arrive with his load of presents. It was a pleasure I had never before experienced—planning and buying the different items for members of the branch.
I enlisted the aid of two of the brethren and let them in on the secret. Together we made the purchases, going into the city with empty suitcases and returning loaded down with bread, butter, beef, figs, apples, oranges, cookies, candies, chocolate bars, a handkerchief, and a nice book for each child. Prices were exorbitant—$15.00 for a bushel of apples! But we were careful in our purchases, and the money met our needs.
The bread and butter and beef we transformed into sandwiches which proved to be the best present of all. The other goodies we divided into some fifty-five different portions and placed into as many paper bags. These were loaded into a decorated wagon and put away for the approaching event.
The American image of Santa Claus and the German one were very different. I went to a costume shop and asked for a “Santa Claus suit.” “Jawohl!” said the fellow who was renting the suits, and he brought me a combination hood and jacket, dark brown in color, sleeveless, and bare of any decoration whatever. I looked at this layout and laughed. He seemed quite annoyed when I pushed this aside and, stepping to his showcase, picked out a red-and-gold mantel and cap. “What? That!” he exclaimed, and then he laughed. At a barbershop I picked up a beard and wig, borrowed a pair of fur-lined gloves, and awaited the occasion.
The day before the program, we arranged everything, decorated the tree, and set up the seats. Our program was to be the next afternoon.
At 4:30 P.M. the members of the Elberfeldt Branch assembled in the chapel to watch the Christmas program staged by the children. I remember one young fellow, eleven or twelve years old, who had an extra long piece to learn. The effort to recite the piece, coupled with stage fright, brought the sweat to his brow. As he finished he drew a finger over his wet forehead and solemnly said “Amen.” The whole house roared.
Toward the end of the program I slipped out, and as the act ended and the tree was set aglow with lighted candles, the announcement was made that the American Santa Claus was “vor der thur” (outside the door). An intense silence reigned. Suddenly I opened the back door and sprang in, drawing behind me the wagon loaded with the paper bags. In an instant a shout went up, and then a roar, and some of the youngsters jumped upon my back in glee. “Driving” to the front of the room, I made a gesture and all was silent. One by one the youngsters received their bag of goodies and presents, then the older pupils of the Sunday School—we had enough for all. In no time all were devouring the sandwiches.
During this time snow had fallen. The whole earth appeared white, and the heavens were clear as the happy group of children danced homeward—but I was the happiest of all!