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The Last Christmas of the Cold War

“The Santa assignment is the best-paid student work.”

Is it fiction or non-fiction? I was asked. It’s based on a true story. He and I tell each other stories all the time. He’s been living in Berlin for more than thirty years, but we’re both from America and speak our native language to each other. The historical context is all real. Names were changed. It isn’t journalism, but a reconstruction of the days running up to Christmas in West Berlin in 1988, the last Christmas of the Cold War.

1. Studentenwerk

At Wittenbergplatz he changes to the U-2. He rides the U-2 to the Freie Universität—named the Free University at the start of the Cold War—where he will spend the afternoon training in the auditorium.

This is the year that he is going to be Santa, traveling from house to house to distribute gifts on Christmas Eve. The employment agency at Studentenwerk has sent him to moving jobs, to light bulb factories, to chocolate factories where the cocoa dust rises in clouds and settles into everything. He had never considered being Santa before.

His Christmases in West Berlin have always been quiet: a day spent reading or running his route next to the Wall alongside the graffiti-splashed barriers blocking the other side’s no man’s land. He dealt with less traffic that way. Tourists photographed him there, called attention to him as he made his way to and from the residence hall, laughed at how normal he appeared sprinting in his sweatshirt and shorts beside the bricked-up border and other side’s guard towers.

The residence hall is filled with foreigners like him, except for a few Germans like Petra—Petra from Spandau, the Berlin neighborhood that embarrasses her with its lace curtains and meals of sausage and potatoes.

The Santa assignment, he learned in the pub, is the best-paid student work: three hundred marks for one night’s work. And that’s not including tips from the families he’ll visit.

A group of them will do it. The other Santas will also be foreign, because the German students will be hitchhiking to Swabia and Bavaria, stuck in family-filled homes with roast goose and schnapps toasts until late into the evening, faking interest in long walks along snow-packed roads and fingering the rolling papers and plastic bags in their pockets.

Petra isn’t going home this year. They will all stay in the hall. They’ve painted the walls bright blue. Petra found them an old sofa and they now spend evenings together in the common space and sometimes cook one another meals. There are jalapeños growing in pots on the windowsill. There’s lentil dal that one of the students was taught to make before leaving India for Germany.

He’ll get a route in Spandau, the sad edge of West Berlin. Petra will help him plan it.

Outside of Thielplatz Station—a shingle-roofed ticket hall that looks like a cottage plucked from a fairy tale—protesters line the streets, their spray-painted banners announcing the formation of a liberated uni. A lecturer is delivering a class to hundreds of students assembled on the plaza. Clouds of mist rise from the students’ mouths. There’s a newsprint pad on an easel covered with equations. On the edge of the crowd, a woman in an anorak and kefiyah explains to a TV reporter that the university’s facilities are underfunded and unfit for their purpose.

The Santa training is in the Henry Ford Building, a pale stone-and-glass rectangle raised in the decade after the Second World War ended. When he steps inside, his glasses mist up. He takes them off to wipe them, puts them on again, and sees hundreds of students in Santa suits.

A Santa sitting at a table ticks his name off a list, reminds him about the fee for the costume, and hands him a burlap sack. He takes the sack and pulls out a fur-trimmed jacket, a white wig and long white beard.

He puts on the costume in the overheated lecture hall, loops on the elastic behind the fake beard and looks around. They all do—smiling, twinkling—the foreign Santas. Finally part of a crowd, in this city where it is always possible to be outside, always possible to be removed if you are not from here, they are all now visible and invisible, a part of the scenery approved of by everyone.

2. The Route

“The most important thing is the route. Unless you plan your route carefully, you will never get to all the houses, you will never deliver all your gifts.”

They are still wearing their red fur-trimmed jackets; they have taken their hats off.

The families will hide the presents in a bush, or behind the basement door, or underneath the building staircase, they are told. And they will put them into their burlap sacks, ring the doorbell, and distribute the gifts to the children.

“The children will ask where you are from,” a big-bellied man in jeans and a Santa jacket advises. “Please do not answer Nigeria. You are Santa. You tell them . . . ”

The Santas look at their cheat sheets and read:

From out the woods I now appear
To tell you Christmas is now here!

“This is the best job you will ever have,” the instructor reminds them. “You’ll make more than three hundred marks for a night’s work. You’ll get to give away presents all night and you don’t even have to buy them.”

He gestures for them to start again, and they read the whole first stanza of the poem—about fir trees and lights and heaven and the Christ child. They are advised to memorize it. They are advised to read Luke 2 if they are not familiar with the Christmas story. They are advised that, if a family asks to have a white Santa, the family will be informed that their request is not acceptable. This is an equal opportunity Santa employer; families that insist upon a white Santa will not be visited by Santa.

“Santa is offered schnapps,” says the instructor. “Almost every family will insist; you must not take it. If you accept the schnapps, you will not be able to complete the route.”

He imagines the navigation; the trip from house to house. He will cover spiessig Spandau with its squat sand-colored apartment buildings. The first time he hears this word, spiessig, he is told it means square, smug, stuffy.  A neighborhood that ends at the Wall; a neighborhood re-assembled after the War.

Petra is from there. She will help plan the route. She’ll leave a bike chained up for him waiting by the first house. She fishes abandoned bikes out of skips and repairs them.

His West Berlin map shows the U-bahn and bus lines in a tangle of color up to the city limits. Beyond that, all territory is marked in beige, irrelevant. The East German version of this map shows GDR transport links and street grids in detail, and in it West Berlin appears as a white splotch, an island of nothing.

3. Bahnhof Zoo

In Bahnhof Zoo, he begins his journey. He has the red fur-trimmed jacket on to keep warm. The long white wig and fake beard are in his burlap bag. He has the list of houses.

On Jebenstrasse, next to the station, rent boys stand waiting, wild-eyed smack users stand waiting, and the kids who left home because they couldn’t stay stand waiting.

Bahnhof Zoo smells like piss and cigarette smoke, and on Christmas Eve—in the fluorescent light of station that tinges everything yellow—the rough sleepers slump against the wall staring into space. Pen and ink signs nearby ask people to be kind, and every now and then a coin drops down with a clink and someone calls out: Thank you!

He takes the U-1 past Ernst-Reuter-Platz, Bismarckstraße, Kaiserdamm, and gets out at Ruhleben, where he boards the bus that will bring him deeper into Spandau. On the upper deck, old ladies in woollen coats sit with their packages; children peek over the seats at him and giggle. Tiny white lights on trees eek out festivity in the gray afternoon. And then they cross the canal and reach Götelstraße.

He gets out with the others. He is watched by the others. He turns down a street, and then another, and he looks into the clutch of bushes, and he finds it: the bicycle that Petra has left for him.

The key to the lock is in his trouser pocket. He unchains the bike, leans it against the shrub. Then, he takes the rest of his costume out of the sack. He shakes out the wig and fits it over his short brown hair.

During his first years in Germany he had a beard; he had hair past his shoulders. One day, walking home with friends who looked like him, an old man in an overcoat saw them and spat something at him.

“Did you hear that?” his friend said.  

He hadn’t; he was still learning German.

“He said Hitler would have gassed us.”

He puts on the beard and he climbs on the bike. Just then a boy walks by, so small that he must hold his mother’s hand. The boy’s mouth opens, his eyes grow wide.  

“See,” his mother says. “I told you he was real.”

Cycling to the first house, he is heckled. A group of men standing outside a bar shout after him: “Someone steal your sleigh? Where’s your reindeer, Santa?  Come back here, Santa!”

He keeps cycling as fast as he can. And then he reaches the first building. It’s a low-slung old building, an altbau. Through the window facing the front he can see an enormous tree covered with lights, an old man filling everyone’s glasses, a boy climbing onto the back of a sofa.

He rings the bell very briefly, just a touch. The old man, reeking of schnapps and cigarettes, opens the door to the building and gestures for him to enter. A wave of music and laughter escapes from the apartment, the sound of a small child’s shouts. The old man points to a bag under the stairs, winks, and slips back into the apartment. The entrance hall is silent now.

He stuffs the gifts into his burlap sack and looks at the list that shows who will be here.  There are so many names—perhaps these are two or three families together. Then he rereads the rhyme he is supposed to recite and bangs on the door.

The old man opens the door, this time wide. “Look!”

The smell of roasting goose wafts over, and the always jarring scent of a pine tree indoors clouded by a fug of cigarette smoke.

The children—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine of them—run over. They are shouting, “Santa!” They squeal impatiently, stand before him reciting a rhyme to welcome him, shouting over one another. One of the women in the family—a mother?—tells them to shush.

He tells them he’s come out of the woods. He recites the poem. Then he reaches into his bag and begins to pull out gifts, reading the names on the packages. The children take them, calling out, “Thank you, Santa! Thank you!”

They rip off the wrapping paper, roar their approval.

There’s a tap on his arm. A glass of schnapps appears, offered earnestly. He refuses, explains that he has other houses to go to.

Then he is handed a little bottle of sparkling wine, walnuts, oranges. He puts the stash into his burlap bag. He takes an envelope from them: his tip. The envelope goes into his pocket.

The children are absorbed by their gifts: a Simba Bear, a pink plastic horse, an Albedo model car. He wishes them a good Christmas, and shakes hands with the adults. And, as he slips out, he hears the children calling after him, “Bye, Santa!”

4. Spandau

Spandau is street after street of mass-produced housing, apartment blocks assembled quickly after the war, their smooth fronts and boxy balconies repeating again and again.  He has to keep looking at his list of addresses to find the building number. The sack, used to deliver gifts, has now filled up with things he has been given: lebkuchen and tangerines, little bottles of schnapps and wine, oranges and walnuts. The sky is dark and starless now, his fingers cold as he grips the burlap sack.

This will be his last house for the night and he starts to sweat as he gets closer. When he phoned the parents to arrange his visit, they had explained all the things that the children had done wrong: They had broken things, had disobeyed their parents, and had spoken back rudely. The parents asked him to tell their children they had not been good this year.  And when he did not respond, they repeated it all again until finally he confirmed that he understood them.

He reads the number on the glass door—one more neubau, a new building identical to the others—and, behind a shrub next to the building, finds the plastic bag filled with gifts. He takes the wrapped boxes out, puts them into his burlap sack. He is buzzed into the building and walks up the stairs with his sack on his shoulder. Just like Santa.

He can hear the door unlocking upstairs and some shift in the air that means the door must be open. There is no music coming from the house, no squeals from the children.

At the landing a man in a white shirt and black trousers stands looking out of the doorway.  There is a woman beside him with straight blonde hair wearing a dress and a cardigan.  Their smiles are stiff, wary. The couple is no older than he is, but he has the impression of being greeted by contemporaries of his parents, people to watch yourself around. He is beckoned inside by the father.

The apartment is perfectly neat, still and showcase-ready. The tree has been uniformly decorated with matching decorations. There is lace on the armrests of the sofa. There are prints of flower bouquets on the wall. This is not how a house should look if there are children in it.

But there are children: a boy and a girl. They are young, must have just started school, and they look at him wide-eyed. Then they recite the rhyme:

Dear, good Santa Claus, don’t look at me that way.
I’ll always be good from now on. Put your cane away.

It is the same poem that all the children say. But—he cannot help it—he has to swallow. He turns to his burlap sack and takes out a gift. He answers:

From out the woods I now appear
To tell you Christmas is now here!

The parents take a step toward him, then a step back, like soldiers on reconnaissance. He is supposed to admonish the children now. Instead, he hands the girl her gift. And then he finds another gift in his bag. And another.

The children thank him, and they go to the coffee table and unwrap their gifts, and they thank him again. The parents stare at him, waiting.

He says he has to go, wishes them a happy new year. The parents tell the children to throw away their wrapping paper. And, hesitantly, they hand him his tip in an envelope.

Then he is out again in the night. The bike he has used to ride from house to house is locked up, hidden in the bushes to collect later. He walks down the silent streets, and as he passes the houses, he can see into the apartments—the people laughing and drinking in a golden glow. He reaches the bus shelter, where he is the only one waiting, and leans against the wall there.

He has visited thirteen families. He has given out dozens of gifts, and winked at the older children to get them to play along and pretend he is really Santa. He has been plied with schnapps, and cake, and shaken hands over and over.

A group of teenagers pass, laughing and singing, a cloud of cannabis rising as they pass.  One calls out, “Hi, Santa! Happy Christmas!”

He smiles wearily and waves at them. And then the bus arrives, a cylinder of light gliding down the street, coming to take him back to the centre of the city. It stops and its doors open with a sigh, and he steps inside. The driver waves his money away when he tries to pay his fare, and calls out:

Dear, good Santa Claus, don’t look at me that way.
I’ll always be good from now on. Put your cane away.

He nods and says thank you and happy Christmas, and walks down the aisle of the almost empty bus. Sunk into his seat, his sack by his side, he takes off the wig and beard.

The streets are vacant: the shops all closed, the traffic gone. Lights are strung across the streets, taped up onto tower block windows, drooping of off balconies where they blink slowly and sadly.  


5. The U-9 Platform

At Bahnhof Zoo he walks through the cold, filthy station to get to the U-Bahn platform.  There is hardly anyone there now. A slumped-over man and his dog sleep against a wall on one side. A teenage girl in a down coat looks crestfallen, then sees him and smiles. He realizes he is still dressed as Santa.

But the night of being Santa has exhausted him—the children running to him with expectation, the treacly music and the cigarette smoke, the snippets of family life, either sad or sodden with forced merriment.

“Happy Christmas, Santa!” someone calls to him. On the U-9 platform three men sit together on a bench, passing a bottle of Blauer Würger back and forth, cheap vodka from the East German Intershops. They have torn plastic bags and bedrolls by their sides, are bundled in pullovers and filthy jackets.

He wishes them a happy Christmas back, feels the weight of the burlap sack in his hands, and opens it. He pulls out oranges, cakes, clementines, lebkuchen, bags of walnuts: the gifts he has been given. The rough sleepers take the gifts, laughing, “Thank you, Santa!”  A swollen-faced man offers him the Blauer Würger, which he declines. He does not offer them the little bottles of wine he has been given, the miniatures of schnapps.

The man with the swollen face asks him, “Have you had a long night?”

“Of course,” he answers.

They clear a space for him on the bench. He puts the sack on his lap and takes another clementine out. The rough sleepers want to know about the elves; they want to know about the North Pole, and whether living conditions are all right there.

Every time a train pulls in, a spurt of travelers trickles out and he, like the rough sleepers, is ignored, or smiled at benevolently, or admonished for sitting with them. Once, a group of middle-aged couples arrives dressed in their Christmas best suits and dresses, and shoot him a look of consternation—as if he is besmirching the reputation of Santa.

Each of the rough sleepers has a story—how something terrible happened to them, how they were wronged, how an injustice led to them being here, on the train platform, at Christmas—until, finally, he announces that he has more houses to go to that night. And he boards the next train to Hansaplatz.

The residence hall is completely still when he arrives. Every door is shut. In his room, he empties his pockets and counts the cash—357 marks—which he places in an envelope and slides into a desk drawer with a lock on it. He takes off his boots and socks and puts on his Birkenstocks. Then he picks up his guitar and takes the lift down to the pub in the cellar.

They are all there: Petra, Youssef, Aziz. And the other Santas. Rashid takes the guitar and asks if he can play it. Petra asks him what kind of drink he wants. Ali is behind the bar and fills a glass with Köpi.

In this city surrounded by a wall, at the checkpoints, there are West Germans rushing back from visits to family in the East, returning home before their visas expire at midnight.  There are British, French, and American military at gatherings they are obliged to attend with other officials in their sectors.  There are bored bureaucrats stamping passports.

Youssef and Rashid begin the music: a hypnotic oud and darbouka, but the oud has been replaced with an electric guitar. The Santas lift their glasses.

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction, most recently This Way to Departures, a collection of stories about people who have left the places they consider home. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.