Christmas without the clutter

The Christmas Eve congregation at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church, Dec. 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, we walked up narrow cobblestone alleys to a church dating to the early Middle Ages, our minds anchored to the remembrance of all the generations that made this same trip on this same night through centuries past.

The church is set in the uneven footings of the Jura Mountains, an impressive Gothic building with high ornamented vaults, a massive pipe organ, polished stone floors and faded murals high on its clerestory walls.

It tests the nerves to sit through a service in a language we have yet to grasp, with customs to which we are clueless. Would the congregation do cartwheels? Sing a Las Vegas show-tune? Expect us to stand up and explain ourselves? Test our mettle by demanding we sing Handel’s Hallejulah chorus? Make a public confession of some sort?

The people were quiet – in a building fashioned from stone and stained glass, one expects to hear echo, but it was hard to pick up even a scratch. The service started precisely at 11 p.m. – we are, after all, in Switzerland, the land that guards time. The only decoration was an evergreen tree, adorned only with electric candles, a small wreathe on a flat-cut stone altar and a single burning candle.

A white-haired man in a black suit stepped slowly from the front of the church, not in an air of pomp or down the centre aisle, but in a subdued manner, off to the side, unfurling a beckoning solo from a woodwind instrument. The pipe organ chimed in and this went on until a small man in a black clerical robe with a white bow took the podium.

Mural on the clerestory walls at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church

He started reading, and although it was in German we recognized it as the Gospel narrative. He read of Mary’s visitation from the angel, Bethlehem with its paucity of hotels, Jesus’s birth in the grit of a Middle-Eastern stall. The reader paused  now and again, at which the pipe organ filled the church with sounds very much like a steady wind moving through a forest.

And so the service went, woven between a single human voice,  answered by the pipe organ’s choral timbres.

In the silent moments, there was not a sound to be heard, making us wonder about the difference between North American and Swiss Christians. North American churches are alive with noise, shuffle, chatter, even the more stoic ones. This is the first time I’ve sat in a church where there was literally not a sound, a cough, a swish of fabric or the scrape of shoe against the floor. It was as silent as though we were not there.

We sang four songs from the hymn book, beginning with A Mighty Fortress is Our God. As midnight approached, the minister came into the congregation with a candle with which he lit the candles that we had been given at the door. There was no music or reading, just the sound of people tilting their candles one to the other, so that the drops of light slowly spread back into the dark.

When all were lit, the churches lights were turned off altogether and we sang Silent Night.

The pipe organ sang one more piece and then without benediction or comment, the congregation rose and drifted outside, some still carrying their candles into the tranquil night, painting amber pools against the grey cobblestone.


Where are we?

We may be entering an electronic cone-of-silence over the next few days as we travel east by train to check out Viennese pastries and Bratislava’s …. well, whatever it is that makes Bratislava what it is. Auf wiedersehen.

Bratislava Old Town

Vienna: Because we haven't seen enough cathedrals, castles and cobblestone ....

Christmas markets here and there

Zürich Christmas Market - like any other market, but with boughs and lights.

Do one million Swiss Francs of crystals a Christmas tree make?

That is the question posed by the Swarovski tree, a crystal-encrusted tree in Zürich (with similar trees posted across the world).*

It stands in Zürich’s train station, towering over rows of huddled tiny evergreen-topped sheds that altogether make up Zürich’s famed Christmas Market.

Swarovski-jewelled Christmas tree. Who is the star in this display?

At 95 buckeroos per ornament, that is some tree. Bloggers and Youtube-posters report the twinkle costs one million Swiss Francs (the amount cannot be found on the Swarovski website).

It begs the questions about whether this is Christmas. My knee-jerk reaction is that it is not.

It is far removed from the first Christmas when a teenage gal inhaled the aroma of manure as she gave birth to her illegitimate son, after suffering the sting of rejection from the town’s innkeepers (who probably would have found a room for her had she been a centurion’s wife). If you’ve ever been turfed out of an emergency room while in massive pain, you might have an idea of how rough a night it was for Mary and Joseph.

But that illegitimate baby’s message, as anyone who has read the Gospels will know, is that neither poverty, stink, politics, or oppression matter so much. While his followers hoped for an overthrow of Roman rule, Jesus discarded the topic, pointing out that his kingdom was not mired in such earthly trivialities.

His point, if I read it right, is that these outward things need not affect one’s inner life or value. It is the heart that matters, not the hearth. As far we know, he never waged a petition campaign to force innkeepers to take in labouring mothers, although through the centuries that came after, his followers built hospitals in the spirit of his message. Doubt me? From where do you think the word “Saint” in front of so many hospitals came from?

But this is not to diss Swarovski who to their credit subscribe to a historically correct moniker for their display. They call the tree what it is: A Christmas tree. Not a holiday homage, festive festooning or anything silly like that.

As a writer steeped in the conviction that everything means something, I could say the shine of the crystals points to heaven, a place not yet found on any map, but which another writer called “the enduring myth.” How can you explain it when so many people sense its presence?

The crystals are one thing, but it is the tree that catches my eye, a creation harvested not from a factory, but a forest. It points to another creator, who is the subject of great debate, especially at this time of year. From whatever side you argue this, the tree is brilliant workmanship.

So here’s to Swarovski for the shiny bits, and here’s to God for the tree, Christmas and all that it means.

*Click on this link to see tree locations across the globe.

Wandering puppies


We’ve been reduced to wandering the streets like lost puppies.

Our Swiss town shuts down on Sundays, so after a morning of lazing around doing nothing (reading books, surfing the internet in a brainless manner, organizing our single clothing armoire), we headed out to check the town’s movie theatres for listings.

We could just look them up on the web, but roaming the streets without some sort of purpose feels weird to we who are accustomed to striding hurriedly to our next destination, so we seized upon our task, pointless as it may have been.

All the theatres in our town seem to be owned by the same company, so each one’s front door is pasted in white pages that list its own movies, as well as all the other movie-houses’ showings.  There’s no need to check every individual theatre’s listings, but that’s what we do anyway.

If anyone had a bird’s-eye view of our Sunday morning roamings, they would assume we are idiots, going from theatre-to-theatre, checking the identical postings as though it mattered that we’re at the Lido, the Apollo, the Rex or the Beluga (its real name, don’t ask us to explain, we don’t know the answer).

If anyone could eavesdrop on us at every stop, they would hear us re-enact the exact same conversation at each one, puzzling over whether the movies are in English, German, Italian or French, or what manner of subtitle they have. I tell Dave every single time that “Alleman” means German, not “all-languages.”

That we can repeat the same conversation without breaking into hives is evidence of marital fog, a condition that allows us to forget what was said one to another only minutes earlier. This amnesic state preserves marital stability and social order. We would get checked for early signs of Alzheimers, but to this day, neither of us has thought to bring it up during doctor visits.

What was I saying?

Oh yes, we were wandering like panhandlers, minus the begging, when we happened upon two churches in a neighbourhood of old apartments fronted by wrought-iron fences and elaborate tiny gardens with unreliable-looking wood patio chairs. As we stood outside one church debating whether it was English, French or German and I reminded Dave again that “Alleman” does not mean “all-languages,” a couple emerged from the church, smiled at us and let loose a stream of what I can only assume was German.

“See, that’s ‘Alleman,'” I said, never missing a beat on my campaign to achieve ultimate know-it-allness.

As it happens, I was correct, but now we were on the street chatting with people who didn’t really speak our language and neither did we speak theirs. It could have been socially awkward, but we relaxed, comfortable in the knowledge we would forget about the exchange in a few minutes anyway.

That did not happen. Within seconds they retrieved a fluent English-speaking man from within, who invited us in for coffee and sweets. His name is Daniel, a multi-lingual Swiss missionary. Mercifully he did not introduce us to the 100 or so smiling German-Swiss inside, because it would be pretty tiring to explain repeatedly that we didn’t have a clue what they were saying and that we just hoped this wasn’t some kind of cult that would club us senseless before drugging us into shaving our heads, wearing robes and loitering about airports.

We left a little later, emails and phone numbers exchanged, along with a few plans for expanding our small little English enclave.

One could suppose that with a paucity of homeless people in Switzerland, churches have taken to combing the streets for foreigners, but in truth we had happened upon a particular hybrid – Swiss Christians – two very friendly groups mixed into one. It was inevitable that we would be drawn inside, caffeinated, fed with appropriate doses of sugary/buttery goods and then dusted off and returned to the wild. These are the people who brought the Red Cross to the world, so why not rescue a few Canadians?

The poor you will always have with you

Jesus’s words about the ever-present poor hover about wherever we go, although each country seems to have its own particular type of impoverished.

This panhandler near the Georges V hotel in Paris remained motionless with her hand and cup outstretched. Completely cloaked, we couldn't be certain of her age, if she was conscious, or even a she. The still prostrate posture was common among Parisian beggars.

In Madrid, we saw them lean, their ragged clothes drifting over their hollow rib-cages, camped in low-lying creek valleys and ditches, living in makeshift box and sheet-metal ghettos invisible to the eye until the passerby almost stumbles in to them.

In Atlanta, a woman and her eight-year old son lingered at a downtown parkade’s exit, looking for some change. Dave drove them to a Burger King. On the way, he offered the child a piece of gum. Instead of chewing it, the boy gobbled it down – a sobering vision of hunger in America.

In Victoria, B.C., the poor lack the hollowed-out visage common to the poor of other countries. On Douglas Street at a poverty protest, a group of “homeless” panhandlers assured me that they had food aplenty. What they really wanted were cigarettes.

And in Paris the poor sometimes lay prostrate on the pavement only a few feet from where people lined up outside designer stores where women’s summer pumps sell for $1,500.

The most well-fed beggar we saw had a corner on the Royal Pereire Cafe near the metro entrance. You can even catch a glimpse of him on Google Maps here.  (the link will not take you directly to him, but if you check the pavement in front of the cafe, you can see him – he’s obviously a fixture).  Locals stopped to chat with him, and except for the upturned cap on the pavement, his calm demeanor would have been just about right had he been seated a few feet away at a cafe table.

Security manages the line at the Louis Vuitton store on Paris's Champs Elysees - the couple at the front stood patiently, their faces befuddled and frustrated while he let other customers walk right in ahead of them. Nevertheless, when he waved them in they were all smiles. I think they're called "marks."

Many beggars in Paris were women dressed in burqas. We don’t know what to make of that. We didn’t see any of the drug-induced lurching and mentally ill erratic manifestations of Victoria’s street population.

Nevertheless, in Paris’s underground, there were signs of possibly drug-related poverty: On the metro, a man appeared in one of the cars, mumbling, his head swaying rhythmically while passengers studiously looked the other way. When he turned to leave, his shoulder blades jutted in sharp profile against his beige sweater that was tucked into loose slacks, revealing his skeletal form.

Out on the broad promenade at the Champs Elysees, people were practically begging to get into the exclusive designer house stores. At Louis Vuitton, two security guards kept the line-up roped in a New York club-style. The line inched slowly along while the occasional “well-heeled” customer walked right up to the security guard and was let in without even so much as a glance at the waiting masses, much to the disgruntled expressions of those  in the queue. It was a statement of class, money and power.

I made my own statement by not trying to get into the store, although I doubt that Louis and his cohorts missed me much.

Those familiar with the title of this post as coming from the New Testament, the seventh verse of the 14th chapter of the Book of Mark might know what comes after – that Jesus goes on to say we  “can help them (the poor) anytime you like.” We can. We’re just not sure how.

Here are more images of Paris’s down-and-out population – and for something a little more upbeat – here’s my not-very-good vid of a Paris busker who was fabulous. His singing starts at the 39-second mark.

A man sleeping the doorway of a commerce building facing the Seine River.

A panhandling woman looks around, seemingly bored with her line of work.

Not technically a beggar, but a street-performer. It was the worst show on earth - for a coin or two, she would nod, then go back to this position. Nevertheless, as a hot-flash-enduring middle-aged woman who cannot keep make-up on my face, I want to know her secret. It was scorching outside, yet her gold patina was flawless.

Another beggar, keeping her face down, kneeling motionless and silent on the Champs Elysees.

One panhandler was nowhere to be seen - must have run off for a cafe' au lait, although he still left his post open for donations.

Amazing that he was comfortable leaving his stuff unattended on Paris streets while nervous tourists clutch onto their bags in fear of robbery (quite rightly).

Sleeping on the job., but with the cup still in full view.