The Story Of My Life From Childhood To Manhood by Georg Ebers
Chapter III. On Festal Days
The celebration of a memorial day by outward forms was one of my mother's customs; for, spite of her sincerity of feeling, she favoured external ceremonies, and tried when we were very young to awaken a sense of their meaning in our minds.
On all festal occasions we children were freshly dressed from top to toe, and all of us, including the servants, had cakes at breakfast, and the older ones wine at dinner.
On the birthdays these cakes were surrounded by as many candles as we numbered years, and provision was always made for a dainty arrangement of gifts. While we were young, my mother distinguished the "birthday child"--probably in accordance with some custom of her native country--by a silk scarf. She liked to celebrate her own birthday, too, and ever since I can remember--it was on the 25th of July--we had a picnic at that time.
We knew that it was a pleasure to her to see us at her table on that day, and, up to the last years of her life, all whose vocations permitted met at her house on the anniversary.
She went to church on Sunday, and on Good Friday she insisted that my sisters as well as her self should wear black, not only during the service, but throughout the rest of the day.
Few children enjoyed a more beautiful Christmas than ours, for under the tree adorned with special love each found the desire of his or her heart gratified, while behind the family gift-table there always stood another, on which several poorer people whom I might call "clients" of the household, discovered presents which suited their needs. Among them, up to the time I went as a boy of eleven to Keilhau, I never failed to see my oldest sister's nurse with her worthy husband, the shoemaker Grossman, and their well-behaved children. She gladly permitted us to share in the distribution of the alms liberally bestowed on the needy. The seeming paradox, "No one ever grew poor by giving," I first heard from her lips, and she more than once found an opportunity to repeat it.
We, however, never valued her gifts of money so highly as the trouble and inconveniences she cheerfully encountered to aid or add to the happiness of others by means of the numerous relations formed in her social life and the influence gained mainly by her own gracious nature. Many who are now occupying influential positions owe their first start or have had the path smoothed for them by her kindness.
As in many Berlin families, the Christmas Man came to us--an old man disguised by a big beard and provided with a bag filled with nuts and bonbons and sometimes trifling gifts. He addressed us in a feigned voice, saying that the Christ Child had sent him, but the dainties he had were intended only for the good children who could recite some thing for him. Of course, provision for doing this had been made. Everybody pressed forward, but the Christmas Man kept order, and only when each had repeated a little verse did he open the bag and distribute its contents among us.
Usually the Christmas Man brought a companion, who followed him in the guise of Knecht Ruprecht with his own bag of presents, and mingled with his jests threats against naughty children.
The carp served on Christmas eve in every Berlin family, after the distribution of gifts, and which were never absent from my mother's table, I have always had on my own in Jena, Leipsic, and Munich, or wherever the evening of December 24th might find us. On the whole, we remain faithful to the Christmas customs of my own home, which vary little from those of the Germans in Riga, where my wife's family belong; nay, it is so hard for me to relinquish such childish habits, that, when unable to procure a Christmas tree for the two "Eves" I spent on the Nile, I decked a young palm and fastened candles on it. My mother's permission that Knecht Ruprecht should visit us was contrary to her principle never to allow us to be frightened by images of horror. Nay, if she heard that the servants threatened us with the Black Man and other hobgoblins of Berlin nursery tales, she was always very angry. The arguments by which my wife induced me to banish the Christmas Man and Knecht Ruprecht seem still more cogent, now that I think I understand the hearts of children. It is certainly far more beautiful and just as easy-if we desire to utilize Christmas gifts for educational purposes--to stimulate children to goodness by telling them of the pleasure it will give the little Christ Child, rather than by filling them with dread of Knecht Ruprecht.
True, my mother did not fail to endeavor to inspire us with love for the Christ Child and the Saviour, and to draw us near to him. She saw in him, above all else, the embodiment of love, and loved him because her loving heart understood his. In after years my own investigation and thought brought me to the same conviction which she had reached through the relation of her feminine nature to the person and teachings of her Saviour. I perceived that the world as Jesus Christ found it owes him nothing grander, more beautiful, loftier, or more pregnant with importance than that he widened the circle of love which embraced only the individual, the family, the city, or, at the utmost, the country of which a person was a citizen, till it included all mankind, and this human love, of which my mother's life gave us practical proof, is the banner under which all the genuine progress of mankind in later years has been made.
Nineteen centuries have passed since the one that gave us Him who died on the cross, and how far we are still from a perfect realization of this noblest of all the emotions of the heart and spirit! And yet, on the day when this human love has full sway, the social problems which now disturb so many minds and will permit the brains of our best citizens to take no rest, will be solved.
OTHER OBLIGATIONS TO MY MOTHER, AND A SUMMARY OF THE NEW
I omit saying more of my mother's religious feelings and relations to God, because I know that it would be contrary to her wishes to inform strangers of the glimpse she afterward afforded me of the inmost depths of her soul.
That, like every other mother, she clasped our little hands in prayer is a matter of course. I could not fall asleep until she had done this and given me my good-night kiss. How often I have dreamed of her when, before going to some entertainment, she came in full evening dress to hear me repeat my little prayer and bid us good-bye!
But she also provided most carefully for the outward life; nay, perhaps she laid a little too much stress upon our manners in greeting strangers, at table, and elsewhere.
Among these forms I might number the fluent use of the French language, which my mother early bestowed upon us as if its acquisition was mere sport-bestowed; for, unhappily, I know of no German grammar school where pupils can learn to speak French with facility; and how many never-to-be-forgotten memories of travel, what great benefits during my period of study in Paris I owe to this capacity! We obtained it by the help of bonnes, who found it easier to speak French to us because our mother always did the same in their presence.
My mother considered it of the first importance to make us familiar with French at a very early age, because, when she reached Berlin with a scanty knowledge of German, her mastery of French secured numerous pleasant things. She often told us how highly French was valued in the capital, and we must believe that the language possesses an imperishable charm for Germans when we remember that this was the case so shortly after the glorious uprising against the terrible despotism of France. True, French, in addition to its melody and ambiguity, possesses more subtle turns and apt phrases than most other languages; and even the most German of Germans, our Bismarck, must recognize the fitness of its phrases, because he likes to avail himself of them. He has a perfect knowledge of French, and I have noticed that, whenever he mingles it with German, the former has some sentence which enables him to communicate in better and briefer language whatever he may desire to express. What German form of speech, for instance, can convey the idea of fulness which will permit no addition so well as the French popular saying, "Full as an egg," which pleased me in its native land, and which first greeted me in Germany as an expression used by the great chancellor?
My mother's solicitude concerning good manners and perfection in speaking French, which so easily renders children mere dolls, fortunately could not deprive us of our natural freshness and freedom from constraint. But if any peril to the character does lurk in being unduly mindful of external forms, we three brothers were destined to spend a large portion of our boyhood amid surroundings which, as it were, led us back to Nature. Besides, even in Berlin we were not forbidden to play like genuine boys. We had no lack of playmates of both sexes, and with them we certainly talked and shouted no French, but sturdy Berlin German.
In winter, too, we were permitted to enjoy ourselves out of doors, and few boys made handsomer snow-men than those our worthy Kurschner--always with the order in his buttonhole--helped us build in Thiergartenstrasse.
In the house we were obliged to behave courteously, and when I recall the appearance of things there I become vividly aware that no series of years witnessed more decisive changes in every department of life in Germany than those of my boyhood. The furnishing of the rooms differed little from that of the present day, except that the chairs and tables were somewhat more angular and the cushions less comfortable. Instead of the little knobs of the electric bells, a so-called "bell-rope," about the width of one's hand, provided with a brass or metal handle, hung beside the doors.
The first introduction of gas into the city was made by an English company about ten years before my birth; but how many oil lamps I still saw burning, and in my school days the manufacturing city of Kottbus, which at that time contained about ten thousand inhabitants, was lighted by them! In my childhood gas was not used in the houses and theatres of Berlin, and kerosene had not found its way to Germany. The rooms were lighted by oil lamps and candles, while the servants burned tallow-dips. The latter were also used in our nursery, and during the years which I spent at school in Keilhau all our studying was done by them.
Matches were not known. I still remember the tinder box in the kitchen, the steel, the flint, and the threads dipped in sulphur. The sparks made by striking fell on the tinder and caught it on fire here and there. Soon after the long, rough lucifer matches appeared, which were dipped into a little bottle filled, I believe, with asbestos wet with sulphuric acid.
We never saw the gardener light his pipe except with flint, steel, and tinder. The gun he used had a firelock, and when he had put first powder, then a wad, then shot, and lastly another wad into the barrel, he was obliged to shake some powder into the pan, which was lighted by the sparks from the flint striking the steel, if the rain did not make it too damp.
For writing we used exclusively goose-quills, for though steel pens were invented soon after I was born, they were probably very imperfect; and, moreover, had to combat a violent prejudice, for at the first school we attended we were strictly forbidden to use them. So the penknife played an important part on every writing-desk, and it was impossible to imagine a good penman who did not possess skill in the art of shaping the quills.
What has been accomplished between 1837 and the present date in the way of means of communication I need not recapitulate. I only know how long a time was required for a letter from my mother's brothers--one was a resident of Java and the other lived as "Opperhoofd" in Japan--to reach Berlin, and how often an opportunity was used, generally through the courtesy of the Netherland embassy, for sending letters or little gifts to Holland. A letter forwarded by express was the swiftest way of receiving or giving news; but there was the signal telegraph, whose arms we often saw moving up and down, but exclusively in the service of the Government. When, a few years ago, my mother was ill in Holland, a reply to a telegram marked "urgent" was received in Leipsic in eighteen minutes. What would our grandparents have said to such a miracle?
We were soon to learn by experience the number of days required to reach my mother's home from Berlin, for there was then no railroad to Holland.
The remarkable changes wrought during my lifetime in the political affairs of Germany I can merely indicate here. I was born in despotic Prussia, which was united to Austria and the German states and small countries by a loosely formed league. As guardians of this wretched unity the various courts sent diplomats to Frankfort, who interrupted their careless mode of life only to sharpen distrust of other courts or suppress some democratic movement.
The Prussian nation first obtained in 1848 the liberties which had been secured at an earlier date by the other German states, and nothing gives me more cause for gratitude than the boon of being permitted to see the realization and fulfilment of the dream of so many former generations, and my dismembered native land united into one grand, beautiful whole. I deem it a great happiness to have been a contemporary of Emperor William I, Bismarck, and Von Moltke, witnessed their great deeds as a man of mature years, and shared the enthusiasm they evoked and which enabled these men to make our German Fatherland the powerful, united empire it is to-day.
The journey to Holland closes the first part of my childhood. I look back upon it as a beautiful, unshadowed dream out of doors or in a pleasant house where everybody loved me. But I could not single out the years, months, or days of this retrospect. It is only a smooth stream which bears us easily along. There is no series of events, only disconnected images--a faithful dog, a picture on the wall, above all the love and caresses of the mother lavished specially on me as the youngest, and the most blissful of all sounds in the life of a German child, the ringing of the little bell announcing that the Christmas tree is ready.
Only in after days, when the world of fairyland and legend is left behind, does the child have any idea of consecutive events and human destinies. The stories told by mother and grandmother about Snow-White, the Sleeping Beauty, the giants and the dwarfs, Cinderella, the stable at Bethlehem where the Christ-Child lay in the manger beside the oxen and asses, the angels who appeared to the shepherds singing "Glory to God in the Highest," the three kings and the star which led them to the Christ-Child, are firmly impressed on his memory. I don't know how young I was when I saw the first picture of the kings in their purple robes kneeling before the babe in its mother's lap, but its forms and hues were indelibly stamped upon my mental vision, and I never forgot its meaning. True, I had no special thoughts concerning it; nay, I scarcely wondered to see kings in the dust before a child, and now, when I hear the summons of the purest and noblest of Beings, "Suffer little children to come unto me," and understand the sacred simplicity of a child's heart, it no longer awakens surprise.