“Well, it doesn’t sound as if anyone’s killing each other down there, so I vote we leave them to it for the time being and enjoy the peace and quiet whilst we can,” Madge Russell observed. “Of course,” she added with a wicked grin at her younger sister, “the place is considerably quieter now that you’re not living here any more; but it’s still amazing how much noise the small folk manage to make when they’re all in the house together, and when it’s as cold as it is today they really can’t go out for very long. Still, they seem to be quite happy at the moment.”
“It was an inspired idea of mine about the decorating, even if I do say so myself,” Jo remarked, with such a complete lack of modesty that Madge had to laugh. “They’ll be quiet for hours yet, with any luck!”
It had been a good idea of Jo’s, to be fair. It hadn’t been easy for the adults of the family to decide what to do about celebrating Christmas that year. The traumas of the last months in Tyrol and the difficult journey across half of Europe from Austria to Guernsey had had a profound effect on all the children, and even now it wasn’t unusual for the whole household to be awakened in the night by the sound of terrified screams as all that they’d been through came back to one or other of them in their sleep. And then, only months after they’d reached the Channel Islands and safety, the fragile health of Jem Russell’s sister Margot had given out, leaving her two young daughters orphaned and the entire family struggling to come to terms with their shattering loss.
Under the circumstances, Madge and Jo had wondered whether it mightn’t be as well to make Christmas 1938 a quiet affair, but Jem had felt strongly that Margot wouldn’t have wanted the young ones’ enjoyment of the season to be spoilt on her account. Anyway, he’d added, it would be good for all of them to have something merry and cheerful to look forward to; an opinion with which Jack Maynard, who might not have had to deal with frightened children in the night but knew all too well the looks on the faces of both Jo and Robin which meant that the events of that terrible day in Spartz were looming large in their minds, had fully concurred. The two ladies, once they’d ascertained by gentle questioning that neither Daisy nor Primula would find a full-scale celebration too distressing so soon after their mother’s death – “Mummy wouldn’t want us to be miserable,” Daisy, her younger sister clutching her hand, had said quietly - had come to agree, and so preparations for the seasonal festivities were now in full swing.
The residents of the Bonne Maison nursery had all clamoured to be involved in decorating the house, and squabbles as to who was going to be responsible for what had broken out even before Andreas Monier had carried into the house the splendid fir tree which now had pride of place in the sitting room. Then Jo, inspired by a re-read of What Katy Did At School, had suggested dividing the younger members of the family into two groups, each to be responsible for different rooms of the ground floor of the house; and each group had been furnished with a basket of decorations, with packages of sweets hidden in amongst the other items and a ready supply of small treats from Marie Monier’s kitchen to sustain them whilst they worked. The idea was working well: they were getting on far more quickly and peacefully than they’d have been had they all been trying to work in the same few square yards at once.
The tree itself was to be left until last, with everyone being involved in its dressing. Jem had undertaken to supervise that part of the proceedings when he returned home from work, but for the time being Rosa Pfeifen was in charge of one group and Robin the other – with Rix and Sybil, ever the first two to quarrel, kept apart – and Madge had retired to the nursery to attend to the needs of baby Josette, her sister accompanying her.
“Let’s hope so,” Madge said, smiling. “They’ve got plenty to go at, at any rate. And when they’ve finished what they’re doing – by which time hopefully they’ll be too worn out for any wildeness or bickering! – Rosa’s going to set each of them to making a new decoration for the tree. So peace and quiet will reign for the rest of the day, if we’re lucky … Jo, what on earth is it?” All of a sudden, Jo’s face had suddenly clouded over, and all the merriment which had been in her eyes a few moments earlier had gone.
“They’re all going to have to be new this year,” Jo said flatly. “The decorations for the tree. They’re all going to have to be new. And I know they’re only baubles and trinkets, but … oh Madge, who would have thought, this time last year…?”
She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to, not for Madge who knew what the words would have been without them needing to be spoken. Who would ever have thought, when they’d joyously celebrated the previous year’s Christmas, that twelve months later Margot would be in her grave and the rest of them would be living thousands of miles from their beloved home in Tyrol, the Chalet School closed and their friends scattered far and wide? Who would ever have thought that 1938 would see Jo, Robin, Daisy and a group of their friends would have witnessed an attack on a helpless old man by a group of Nazi thugs in the middle of Spartz, the Gestapo coming knocking on Die Rosen’s door and all of them forced to flee in fear of their lives?
And they might be safe in Guernsey now, but even so neither her mind nor Madge’s could ever be completely at ease, not knowing what might be happening to the many dear friends they’d left behind. Nothing had been heard of Friedel von Gluck, brother-in-law of Marie von und zu Wertheim, for several months now; nor did they have any news of the whereabouts of Herr Marani, who’d always been so good to them and whom she knew as “Onkel Florian”; and Bruno von Ahlen, who’d worked with Jem and Jack at the San and whom she’d expected to ask Frieda Mensch to be his bride, was also missing.
Madge squeezed her sister’s hand. “I know. I do know, Joey Baba. And I think about Friedel and Bruno and Herr Marani every day, and pray that they might be safe, and that all our other friends in Austria and Germany might be safe too. It’s all we can do. But, in the meantime, we have to carry on, as best we can. We all do. We must.
“And remember, Joey, that this year has brought us great joy as well as great sorrow.” She smiled. “If anyone had told me at the beginning of the year that by the end of it you’d be Mrs Jack Maynard, I’d’ve thought they’d taken leave of their senses!” She laughed. “Not that I didn’t have my suspicions about how Jack felt, of course!”
“Well, I didn’t,” Jo admitted, blushing. “And if anyone had told me at the beginning of the year that Jack and I’d be married by the end of it I’d definitely have thought they’d taken leave of their senses! But … here we are.”
She bent over to touch one of the tiny hands of her youngest niece, who’d drifted off to sleep in Madge’s arms. “And here Josette is too.”
Madge’s eyes filled with tears. “She is indeed … and I can’t quite believe it sometimes. When David was born I … well, well I had a difficult time, as you know. And then Sybil came six weeks early, and she was so tiny at first. When I found out that Jem and I were going to have another child, I was so anxious that this time everything should go perfectly, and I meant to take as much rest as I could, and I know that Jem meant to try to ensure that I wasn’t worried about anything … how could we have known how things were going to turn out? And I know it’s irrational, and Jem kept telling me that I was being irrational, but up until she was born and I saw that she was healthy I was so afraid that everything that happened might have harmed her somehow. But … but look at her, Jo! Just look at her!”
“She’s absolutely perfect,” Jo said softly. “May I hold her for a few minutes? It’s all right: won’t wake her, I promise. There, Josette, my precious. Come here. Come to Auntie Jo.”
She took the baby in her arms and rocked her gently, looking down at the small pink and white face already framed with a fluff of dark hair. “You know, Madge, for years I thought that I didn’t want any of this,” she said quietly. “For myself, I mean. I’d see you with David and Sybil, and Dick and Mollie with their kids, and Gisela and Wanda and Bernie and Bette and everyone else, and I’d see how happy you all were but … well, I just didn’t think that it was something I wanted. I just couldn’t imagine it, ever: I just couldn’t see myself with babies of my own. But now …” She looked down at the sleeping baby. “Now …” she murmured.
“Jo?” Madge managed to keep her voice low, but her eyes were burning with questions. “Jo … are you trying to tell me something?”
“What? Oh!” Jo went bright red as she realised the misunderstanding. “Oh … no! Not that. No: I’d’ve told you at once if … well, if there’d been anything along those lines to tell. But Jack and I do hope that … well, some time soon, there might be.”
She paused for a moment. “Is it wrong for us to hope for it, Madge? Last Christmas, maybe I was just naïve but everything seemed so certain and I thought that the life we had in Tyrol’d go on for ever. But now … oh, the Prime Minister can wave his pieces of paper around, and talk about “Peace for our time”, but after everything that happened in Tyrol we, at least, know how unlikely that is to be true for long. I mean, Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and love, but after everything that’s happened this year it’s very hard even to imagine a world filled with peace and love. Hitler isn’t going to stop at Austria and the Sudetenland, is he? And there’ll come a time when we’ll have to stand up and say no to him. And then … well, we can only guess at what might happen then. And sometimes I think that it’s wrong to bring children into such an uncertain world, but then …” She looked at baby Josette, who was beginning to stir. “But then, I think – how can it be?”
“It can’t be wrong, Jo,” Madge said quietly. “We have to keep going. For everyone’s sakes. Yes, we’ve lost the old School and the old San and everything we’d built up in Tyrol, but we’ve got a new San now, and soon we’ll have a new School too. And, most importantly of all, we’ve all still got each other. And remember, Joey, that we might like to think of Christmas as a time of happiness and innocence, but the first Christmas wasn’t very much like that, was it? The world of the first Christmas was the world of the slaughter of the innocents, but the people of that time kept on going and we will too. Whatever there might be to come, we’ll just have to face up to it, stick together, and trust to God to keep us all safe.”
She stood up, walking around the room as she tried to articulate her thoughts. “And in the meantime, at this time of year, for the sake of the children – in fact, for all our sakes, because neither Margot nor Friedel nor Bruno nor Herr Marani nor the Goldmanns would want us all to be sad, Jo – we have to try to put the bad things aside and make it a happy time. Make it a time of peace and joy, and – oh!”
“What?” So startled was Jo at her sister’s sudden exclamation that she almost jumped out of her chair, baby in her arms or no. “What’s going on?” For Madge had paused by the window, and was gazing through it as if mesmerised.
“It’s snowing!” Madge started to laugh. “I don’t believe it! It’s not just a few flakes: it’s absolutely dancing down! Well, I never thought I’d see this in Guernsey! Especially after that lovely weather we had all through November. It’s almost like being back in Tyrol! Here, Jo, I’ll take Josette – you go over to the window now, and have a look. And I think we’d better ring the San and tell Jack to call for you and Rob in the car when he’s ready to go home, because you certainly can’t walk all that way in this. Look at it!”
“The garden’s practically covered already,” Jo exclaimed as she gave the baby to her sister and went over to the window to see the wondrous sight for herself. “So’s the path. Everything’s just … white. Snow-white.”
She turned to look at Madge. “Madge … it’s as if, just for Christmas, everything’s been made pure and white and new. I know it hasn’t really, but it just feels like a sign of hope. And that’s one of the main lessons of Christmas. We may not always have peace, and we may not always have joy, but we must always, always try to have hope.”
It snowed heavily across the British Isles during December 1938, creating a real“White Christmas” and giving people here the opportunity to enjoy all the fun in the snow to which the Chalet School people had grown accustomed in Tyrol. It was to be the last peacetime Christmas for seven years, but nature made it a very special one.