Stille Nacht / Silent Night

Twenty-five Years Ago, a Magical Christmas

On December 20, 1994, the four Rickmans — we were four then — celebrated our older son’s 28th birthday in a village near Berchtesgaden, Germany. The U.S. Air Force sent him to Germany for three years and the other three of us joined him for the holidays.

For dinner that night, we journeyed up the mountain to an inn ringed by high snow-covered ridges.

We stepped from the rental car into a crisp cold that carried the hint of coming snow. Bundled in our warm parkas, we made our way across the parking lot to the entryway — a solid, weathered, heavy wooden door. Inside, light and warmth welcomed us. “Guten Abend!” said the smiling maître de. Returning his smile and nodding, we repeated the phrase, ours tinged with a mix of American South and Mid-West. He led us to a booth.


A couple in their 40s, seated across the room, were heavily engrossed in conversation. They spoke rapid-fire German in a hoarse whisper. The only other occupant was a lone older gentleman clad in leather lederhosen, complete with wide suspenders, knee socks and knobbed boots. He nursed the half-litre of beer on the table in front of him.

Son number two, my fellow literati, looked around, then back at me and said, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” I nodded in recognition.

We settled into our familiar café-sitting and drinking mode — Americans on holiday, out to celebrate a birthday. What a contrast to the quiet despair of the middle-aged waiter and the old man in Papa Hemingway’s story by that name. For us this warm well-lighted place offered the height of togetherness and the pleasure it brings. We reveled in the evening — good sauerbraten, good local German beer, good companionship.


As we left the warm clean well-lighted place and approached the car, our footsteps crunched on the new fallen snow. In the frigid air, puffs of crystallized breath escaped our mouths. We talked softly, and then, almost as one, we looked up and the sight took our breath away.

Atop one of the high ridges encircling the town shone the bright white five-pointed Star of Bethlehem. A six-pointed Star of David topped the next ridge. The Star and Crescent symbol of Islam shown from the top of a third ridge.  A circle of peace in the heart of Germany on a quiet winter night — a symbol of hope.

Christmas Eve, four nights later, we were back in our son’s small apartment outside Gauangelloch near Heidelberg. He and I made our way down the hill to the German Protestant Church for the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service — a familiar ritual in our Methodist family. His father and brother stayed in the apartment drinking brandy.


We understood only three words spoken or sung that night — Mary, Joseph and Bethlehem — it was enough. The two of us — church choir stalwarts — sang Stille Nacht, quietly, in English under our breath. He took the baritone harmony. I, the alto. We gloried in the rich sound of the German voices singing around us.

On the way back up the hill at midnight, church bells peeled and voices called out Christmas greetings that echoed in the frosty darkness.

That night we learned that our younger son had met a special girl. She was back in Atlanta awaiting his return from his family Christmas in Germany. Looking back, this was our last Christmas as four because she was part of our family gathering the following Christmas. Several years later, his brother added his lady to the mix.


Eventually blessed with four grandchildren, we grew to ten and remained so through Christmas of 2018. Now grampa is gone and we are nine. Still, we are blessed.

Remembering the three lighted symbols atop those ridges in Germany, may you all have a blessed holiday — according to your personal beliefs — and a healthy and prosperous New Year.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I’ve been following you, albeit silently. It seems it has been a good year for you with your writing achievements. I’m so glad I got to meet you and be inspired by you. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy new year, and hope to hear more of you in the coming years. You are a great writer and you inspire me. Hugs, Pat

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