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Essay: A mountain town Christmas

“It’s Christmas. Build community and invite your guests to be part of it. Be real. Hold on to your culture. Don’t be afraid to let your spiritual values shine through. Celebrate the mountains for the joy and comfort they give. Protect the forests and the streams. Nurture your children and give them hope.”

“Kohlmaisbahn” in Saalbach-Hinterglemm (Austria), background:The village and the Schattberg and Zwoelferkogel, the dominant ski peaks in the valley. Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons, Share-Alike attribution.

By Bob Berwyn

Christmas and skiing have been inextricably linked for me ever since I was an “army brat” growing up in Frankfurt, Germany. The classroom Christmas party on the last day of school (yes, we called it that back on the pre-politically correct days) wasn’t nearly as exciting as the thought that we’d soon be on starting our annual two-week ski vacation to Austria.

Sometimes there was snow on the ground; slushy, dirty city snow that splattered as the cars passed by. But more often than not, it was just gray and dreary, and my heart always skipped a beat when that finned, white 1960 Chevy Impala rolled up. Everything fit in the trunk of our classic American car, even our two-meter-plus skis, so there was plenty of room for my brother and I to sprawl in the back seat. No fast food stops for us — there was no McDonalds or Burger King along the way, so we ate well; cold schnitzels  my mom had made earlier that day, or open-faced sausage sandwiches with tangy pickles, carrot sticks and wedges of green bell peppers.

Sometimes we dozed, but more often than not, we were still awake when we slowed to a stop at the border, where customs officials in long, thick wool coats decorated with epaulets scanned our green U.S. passports, then waved us through with a friendly smile and a “Merry Christmas.”

The mountainous frontier south of Munich was the gateway to snow country.  By the glow of the headlights, we gauged the depth of the berm alongside the road to get an idea of how the skiing would be. Here the road narrowed and twisted through a river-carved canyon, mysterious and new each time we made the trip. Our destination was Saalbach, then a small, up and coming ski village that has since succumbed to the same development pressures that have afflicted so many mountain communities during the past few decades.

The town crest.

Our car barely was able to pass through the narrow alleys that led to the courtyard of our lodge, the Pension Eder, a warren of pine-paneled guest rooms connected by steep, creaky stairs and narrow hallways, all tucked above a slaughterhouse and butcher shop.

We tumbled into bed exhausted, buried ourselves under the billowy eiderdown comforters and fell asleep to the sound of the Salzach River burbling past outside. Morning brought a rush to the window. Across the brook was the Bernkogel, the closest of several ski hills within walking distance of the lodge. With a quick glance, we knew if the slopes were icy, or if we were in for an early season powder treat. The hill was served by a creaky single-seater, chairs painted alternately in bright hues of green, red, yellow and blue, with a plastic-covered clip chain serving as a safety bar of sorts.

Just across from our window was an old hay barn, still in use, since the slopes served as a summer pasture for cattle. On warm days, when the snow was soft, we could faintly smell manure. Every now and then, we’d see local farmers moving a load of hay on big wooden sleds.

The story we were told was that the first lifts in Saalbach were built from U.S. forces “surplus” parts; scavenged steel and cables that remained behind as the occupying army left the Alpine republic to heal from the scars of National Socialism. My early favorite was the Kohlmais area, served by a T-Bar so long that my legs were tired when I got off the lift, before ever starting down the slope.

The springs on that T-Bar pulley were stiff. As long as I was riding up with a partner, we had enough weight to extend the cable to the snow. But on occasion, riding solo, or if my brother fell of before we reached the top, the bar would pull me off the surface. I can remember dangling a few feet in the air, twirling around and enjoying the 360-degree view, but determined to ride to the top.

Some days (but not on Christmas!) our innkeeper would let us watch as he unloaded a truckload of pigs, slaughtered them, and processed the meat in steaming vats, feeding us the fresh sausage for dinner a few hours later. For an eight-year-old it was fascinating, but I think the memory definitely helped push me toward vegetarianism later in my life.

On Christmas Eve, the lifts stopped running two hours early, at 2 p.m. The great bells in the onion-domed church steeple rang out, pealing for 30 minutes. Velvet blue shadows slipped down the slopes, and dozens of Christmas trees twinkled with bright white lights. The shops and restaurants closed as the villagers put on their Sunday best — lederhosen and dirndls, felt hats and loden coats, and headed for Mass.

At our inn, we gathered around a tree decorated with small apples, straw stars, gold-painted walnuts and real candles and celebrated the coming of the Christkindl. We had stayed there often enough and long enough so that the owners considered us family of sorts, along with the other guests. After the presents were passed out, the butcher and his family invited us all into their private quarters to sing carols.

My primary memory of this big-boned man is watching him cut meat in a white, blood-stained apron. But on this holy evening, he too seemed as gentle as a newborn babe, leading us through the verses of “Silent Night” in a quavering falsetto.

At the time, I took all this for granted. It was just the way it was — a real town with real people living real lives. But the memory grows more cherished each time this season rolls around. I’ve lived in mountain resort towns around the West for the past 25 years. I’ve watched — sometimes in despair — as an increasingly corporate, cynical, commercial and plasticized atmosphere seems to pervade into every corner of the world.

It’s Christmas. Build community and invite your guests to be part of it. That involves more than just trying to figure out ways to squeeze every last penny out their wallets. Be real. Hold on to your culture. Don’t be afraid to let your spiritual values shine through. Celebrate the mountains for the joy and comfort they give. Protect the forests and the streams. Nurture your children and give them hope.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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4 Responses

  1. [...] Posts Essay: A mountain town ChristmasLocal photographer to aid Himalayan medical causesAboutAvalanche cycle in Summit, close call on [...]

  2. [...] the meantime, we wrote about a building community with a mountain town Christmas and about a road trip to Taos during an epic [...]

  3. Great writing Bob, this takes me back to my childhood times. Although not as exotic as Austria, the suburbs of Pittsburgh and digging tunnels in the snow makes me smile!

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