Susie and Jean and Clémence lit the Christmas tree lights (click-flash!), because the Essingers, like good Germans, used real bees wax candles. A bucket of water stood under the tree, with a wet towel draped over the side. It always seemed to Dana a kind of craziness, to light dozens of little fires in the middle of a pine tree in the middle of your living room, but it also made her feel like her own family traditions, such as they were, grew out of shallow soil. When they were finished, Susie turned the lights off. The fire was burning brightly now, and the tree itself cast an immensely complex and strangely moving glow, made up of overlapping shadows and arcs of light, faint halos of unclarity around the candles themselves, slight movements, as the branches shifted under the changing weight of the melting wax.
Liesel in every room of the house had certain chairs she always sat in, and which were always ceded to her, whenever she walked in. In the living room, she occupied the bentwood rocker and fidgeted it around to face the tree. Ben liked to look at the fire; he sat on a stool in front of it. Susie and the rest of the kids squeezed together on the sofa. Julie wanted to sit next to May, who lay on Susie’s lap, and Willy and Margot piled around them. Jean, in her spangled dress, sat up straight and uncomfortably on the fauteuil armchair, which Bill had bought in a market in Berlin and shipped over. Some of the spangles were a little loose—she didn’t want the kids to jump on her.
“Should we sing?” Liesel asked, and Susie said, “Let’s start with the Hanukkah songs.” For Bill’s sake, in the spirit of raising a glass to absent friends.
By this point, even the in-laws knew many of the words, though not always what they meant. They sang Mi Y’malel and Maoz Tzur and for the kids I Have a Little Dredel and Hanukkah oh Hanukkah. Dana actually had the best voice among them. She had spent five years in the choir at Sidwell Friends (the uniform was a surprisingly short brown sleeveless dress; the girls felt safety in numbers but also enjoyed the attention) and Paul was reminded listening to her that there always seemed to be something impersonal about her talents, and even her looks. Singing was just another thing she could do well, with expression and range—but you couldn’t tell whether she liked it or not. Even at parties, as soon as they entered a roomful of people, he sensed her … not distraction exactly, but a kind of glaze would cover the surface of her face, so that he felt a little removed from her, or rather, just like any of the other guys at the party, trying to catch her eye. But he liked watching her sing.
David also joined in loudly … Who can retell the things that befell us, who—can—count—them? … in his slightly comic church-hall baritone. Every year in the village he grew up in the Christmas concert at St Nicholas was the big-ticket cultural event. His mother, at the age of seventy-nine, still sang for the Brockenhurst Choir, which was practically semi-professional. They went on tours and their conductor was Royal College-trained and, in civilian life, the Director of Music at King Edward’s. One of the many ways he had disappointed his parents, he liked to say, was dropping out of the school choir. But the truth is, he enjoyed singing, and the Jewish songs moved him. Partly because of … various things, including the fact that both of his parents struck him as garden-variety anti-Semites, the kind of people who believe that Jews talk only about money, and to see his own children humming along to the Maoz Tzur … he put an arm around his wife.
After Hanukkah oh Hanukkah, Susie suggested Auf dem Berge da wehet der Wind (shrugging him off very slightly) and the singing shifted without any pause or transition into the Christmas songs of Liesel’s German childhood: Schneh Flöckchen, weiss Röckchen and even the famous Franz Gruber … The wind blows on the mountain … little snowflake in the little white frock … silent night … while the candles flickered and grew still, and Liesel, listening, thought of her brother and his cold apartment, coming home after Midnight Mass. While I am surrounded, she told herself and remembered something her mother once said, shortly before she died, when everyone came to visit her, that you should make as many people as you can, who love you. But then the kids started opening their presents and Liesel had towards the whole business the reaction she usually had but which somehow always managed to surprise her. Such excess, such wastefulness, her mother would have thought. And the way they just take it for granted … It also annoyed her that Dana kept taking pictures.
Excerpted from Christmas in Austin by Benjamin Markovits. Published with permission from Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Markovits.