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 Historical Christmas Carol

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Abe F. March
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Number of posts : 10620
Registration date : 2008-01-26
Age : 79
Location : Germany

PostSubject: Historical Christmas Carol   Thu Nov 30, 2017 1:29 am

I wrote the following some years ago.  The comment at the bottom was made by Carol Trostler.  I don't recall if I had previously posted this or if I had sent it to her prompting her remarks.



Historical Fiction
 
Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht  (Silent Night, Holy Night)
A Christmas Eve that made history
By Abe F. March
 
PROLOGUE
 
The year was 1818 and it was Christmas Eve in the Austrian Alps.  The picturesque village of Oberndorf was snowed-in.  Paths and roadways made passable with wooden shovels and horse-drawn logs were no longer visible.  Above the village, the parish church of St. Nikolaus appeared as a silhouette enshrined in snow.  In his parish home, the pastor, Joseph Mohr, was planning something special for the Christmas Eve service.
 
As a young priest assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, (near Salzburg) Austria, in 1816, Joseph Mohr wrote a poem. He first read it at a Christmas Eve service to the enjoyment of the congregation.  He continued worked on the poem with small revisions and added a few verses.  His desire to supplement the poem with music had not yet been realized. Due to poor health, he was sent to Salzburg for hospitalization in the summer of 1817.  While on convalescence, he was assigned to the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf.  It was believed that Oberndorf, untouched by spreading Tuberculosis, would help with his recovery.  In Oberndorf he met Franz Gruber who wrote the music for his poem, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
 
 
****
 
Johann Feuerstein sat with his family at the küchenecke[url=#_ftn1][1][/url] in the small kitchen for their evening meal. The table was near the large woodstove, the sole source of heat for his home.  On top of the stove the teakettle whistled with hot water.  Pans and pots hung on hooks suspended on chains from the ceiling beams.  Next to the door, the wood box was freshly filled with wood split to fit the stove.  
 
When Johann built the house, he also made the furniture. To conserve space, he built the küchenecke.  The bench afforded seating on two sides of the table – the long side extending under the window.  Lift-up lids on the bench seat gave access to stored foodstuffs. His wife, Marie made decorative cushions for the bench seat and chairs.  The small room and low ceiling helped maintain warmth and a cozy atmosphere.  The shelf running along the ceiling held some of his hand-carvings: the Crucifix, the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and other miniature representations of his handcraft. 
 
While Johann drank the tea, his thoughts were about the trek he made earlier in the day with his son, Jacob to find the Christmas tree.  The climb to the tree line through the deep snow had been difficult, but his son kept pace.  Jacob was excited to be selecting the tree this year and carried a small axe.  After careful scrutiny, they selected a tree that would fit under the low ceiling in the sitting room.  After several good chops with the axe, the tree fell.  The lower branches were cut off and a rope tied to the end.  Pulling the tree down the mountain, sliding on top of the snow, required little effort.  Keeping one’s footing required effort and they both fell often, plunging into the deep snow.  The tree now stood in the next room ready for decoration.  His daughter, Anna, interrupted his thoughts. 
 
“Papa, will we be able to go to church tonight?  The snow is so deep.”
“We will try,” said Johann.  “Jacob and I will make a path for you and your mother to follow, however it may take a bit of time to get there.  Make sure you dress warmly.”
 
“Oh I hope we can make it,” said his wife Marie. “We’ve never missed a Christmas Eve service before.  And after the service, we’ll decorate the tree.  I so look forward to it.”
 
“Oh yes, please Papa,” said Anna.  “Mother and I have made some very nice decorations for the tree.  I’m sure you will like them, but you must promise not to eat any until tomorrow.”
 
Johann chuckled and said, “Not even one?  Surely you can spare one.”
 
Anna looked at her mother who smiled and said, “You will take just one, okay?” 
 
“Make sure Jacob doesn’t eat more than one,” said Anna.  “Last Christmas I know he sneaked more  ‘cause there just weren’t many left.”
 
Jacob wiped his mouth and said, “Do you plan to stand guard by the tree all night?”
 
“Oh Jacob, please, please.  I will save some of mine for you if you promise,” said Anna.
 
“Now, now, there’s no need for that.  Your father has been blessed this year with lots of work and we made extra cookies[url=#_ftn2][2][/url] this year.  Jacob, if you must have a cookie, just ask.  Don’t take any of the decorations.”
 
Jacob liked to tease his sister but would not disobey his parents and said, “I promise.”
 
Decorating the tree was a family affair.  Maria and Anna had been busy preparing the food for their Christmas dinner and baking cookies of various shapes.  Ribbons were placed on the cookies and apples to be hung on the tree.  They were placed next to the tree along with candles, ready for decoration.  

The barn work was done before the evening meal.  Johann had two cows in the stable and one workhorse.  The milk provided them with butter and cheese that was sold in the local market.  He hoped to acquire some young heifers this year to drive to the high pastures along with the herds of other villagers.  He looked forward to the festive fall roundup, bringing the cows down from the Alps for the winter.  The sound of cowbells could be heard from a great distance announcing the arrived of the herds.  Wreathes were placed on the necks of favorite cows and special large bells hung from wide leather straps, carved with designs depicting their region and brands.  The cows were paraded through the village before entering a roped off separating area.  There the owners separated their cows from the herd and drove them into designated corrals.  When all cows were accounted for, the young people drove them home while the elders prepared for the celebration.  Good food, drink and dancing, often interrupted by speeches and amusing anecdotes, made for much merriment.  Johann was pleased to belong to this village and participated in the celebration with his family.  Outsiders often attended the “cows coming home” celebration.  Strangers and villagers alike greeted one another with, “Grüss Gott!” (God’s greetings)
 
When Johann moved to Oberndorf, he became the village carpenter.  His craftsmanship was held in high esteem, as was his wood sculpture.   Christmas orders for toys, hand baskets, cribs, sleds and chairs, had been filled as promised.  He was pleased that his son had taken a keen interest in the trade and worked with him learning the craft.  Johann worked late at night when the children were asleep to make their Christmas gifts and stored them in the loft.        
 
Johann’s apprenticeship as carpenter began in the Bregenzerwald, the Bregenz forest in the province of Vorarlberg.  He was a descendant from a line of carpenters who had worked with Barockbaumeisters, master builders of baroque-style churches.  In the 1800’s times were still tough in the back forest region with little work available.  Johann was constantly on the move doing odd jobs throughout Austria.  While he was engaged as a carpenter in Salzburg, he attended church and met Father Mohr.  Johann was invited to join the church choir and his strong soprano voice was a welcome addition.  He was running out of work and discussed his dilemma with Father Mohr. 
 
“My work will be finished at the end of next week, Father.  As there is no other work available, I must move on.  My family depends on me.”
 
“When is the last time you saw…” His question was interrupted with a bout of coughing.  Johann waited for him to continue, noting how pale and thin the Father looked.
 
“Excuse me,” Father Mohr said wiping his mouth with a handkerchief.  “When was the last time you saw your family?”


“It was about seven months ago.  I visited them in Bezau before coming here.  They are staying with my parents who are getting old and can’t do much for themselves.  The money I send helps with their support.  Do you remember the first Sunday I attended church here?”
 
“Yes, I remember.  It was as you said, about seven months ago.  I was delighted to have a new member in our congregation and we got a bonus,” he said smiling, “having you in our choir.  Do you have a destination in mind?”
 
“No.  I was hoping that you might have some suggestion, Father.”
 
“Let me think on it.  Are you working tomorrow?”
 
“No, I have the day off.”
 
“Perhaps you could join me for an excursion.  I want to visit the pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr where I first served as priest.  My grandfather lives nearby and I think he would enjoy meeting you.”
 
“I would be pleased to accompany you, Father.  You don’t look well.  Is there something I can do for you?”
 
“Thank you, no.  I am told that I have a lung disease.  It has afflicted me for some time now, but I manage.  You can include me in your prayers,” he said smiling.
 
“Of course I will.”
 
“There are many in this area suffering from the same disease.  I pray to God that you are spared.  We will leave early tomorrow morning.  I am getting a lift by a farmer delivering some goods to Mariapfarr and there is room on the wagon for you.”
 
It was a beautiful day.  The horses trotted in cadence on smooth areas and brought to a walk when the road became rough.  The wagon bounced over ruts jarring the passengers bringing their conversation to a halt until the road smoothed out again.  Upon reaching Mariapfarr, they first visited the church - a small chapel that accommodated the congregation of the village.  After saying a prayer in the chapel, Father Mohr met with the pastor delivering a message from the Rector in Salzburg. 
 
As they walked to his grandfather’s house, Father Mohr said, “I was informed last week that I am to be transferred to a parish in Oberndorf.  The village is free of the disease and it is hoped that my tenure there will assist in my recovery.”
 
“You will be leaving Salzburg?”
 
“Yes, for a short while I’m told.  I was also delighted to learn that there is a schoolmaster who is said to write music.  God willing, he may be able to add music to my poem.”
 
“I pray that he can do it, Father.  It is a wonderful poem.  I would love to sing it someday.”
 
“Thank you.   I’m sure your voice would be a complement.  If you have no prospects for work, perhaps you could go to Oberndorf and inquire about work there.  I would be pleased to write a note of recommendation for you to carry. The work you have done here is highly praised.” 
 
“Thank you Father.  It sounds like an answer to my prayers.  I will go there immediately after my work here is finished.  And God willing, I will still be there when you arrive.”
 
The landscape surrounding the village of Mariapfarr was spectacular.  The mountain peaks showed traces of snow even on this summer day.  Meadows blooming with flowers made the walk pleasant.  Johann could imagine how this setting may have influenced Father Mohr in writing his poem.  The village was peaceful once again after the devastating era of the Napoleonic wars.  A heavenly presence seemed to surround them as they walked.  They stopped occasionally when Father Mohr had a coughing spell.  He excused himself as usual. 
 
His grandfather saw them and came out to meet them.  They embraced, and then Johann was introduced as a close friend.  After lunch, they went for a walk through the meadows.
 
“I’m told that this area of Austria has the most sunshine year round,” said Father Mohr.  “I hope to return here, God willing, when my service to the church is ended.”
 
“This is certainly a good place to retire.  I think your grandfather would be pleased to know that.”
 
Johann completed his work and made preparations to leave.  He bade Father Mohr goodbye, receiving his blessing.  He started out on foot carrying his tools in a backpack, hitching a ride for short distances.  The people he met were cordial, providing information about the area.  He was always intrigued with the beauty of the Alpine region.  The numerous mountain formations, valleys, meadows and forested areas, each had their own uniqueness. 
 
As soon as he arrived in Oberndorf, he went at once to see the schoolmaster, Franz Gruber. He introduced himself and presented the note from Father Mohr.
 
“I have heard that Father Mohr will be coming soon as an assistant Pastor and look forward to meeting him.  His letter speaks highly of your work.  It so happens that we are in need of a good carpenter and the villagers will be pleased that you have come.  I suppose you don’t have a place to stay?”
 
“No.  I thought perhaps you could assist me in finding something.”
 
“Whoever offers you work will also provide you with accommodations.  You will stay with me until you find work.”
 
Johann found work at once.  There was also repair work needed on the St Nikolaus church.  The people were poor but offered what they could in payment for his services.  He donated his spare time in church restoration waiting for the arrival of Father Mohr. 
 
His efforts were rewarded when the town’s people offered him a plot of land to build a home and workshop.  He sent for his family and the village of Oberndorf became their home.  In the meanwhile, Father Mohr had arrived and assumed his position at the St. Nikolaus church.  He was happy with the work Johann had done on the church and pleased that he had a hand in bringing him to the village. 
 
Johann set to work building a home.  The house and barn was constructed as one building, common to the region.  It conserved space, was convenient and assisted in providing warmth for both the house and barn in winter.  The neighbors all helped with the various stages of building and celebrated when the roof was put on.  The villagers struggled to make a living off the land during the short summers.  Honor and respect was inherent in their daily lives, always lending a neighborly hand when needed. The cattle roamed free without fences tended by the village youths.  They milked the cows and brought it down the mountain on sleds.    
 
***
 
The entire family was normally involved with all the chores, however being Christmas Eve, Johann and Jacob did the barn work while Marie and Anna prepared the evening meal.  With the stables cleaned, livestock fed, cows milked and wood box filled, they washed up for dinner. 
 
The meal they were about to eat was meager, as were most meals, but the atmosphere was different.  More candles were lit but not flickering as usual from gusts of wind seeping through cracks around the windows and the single door.  Snow covered the windows sealing cracks and blocking the outside view.  They ate quietly, each deep in thoughts about Christmas.  Johann was determined to take his family to church this evening. The snow was too deep to use the sleigh and the climb up the hill would be difficult even on foot.  
As always, they bowed their heads in prayer thanking God for his goodness.
With the meal finished, Marie and Anna washed the dishes while Johann and Jacob were getting dressed.  It was already dark when Johann noticed that the snow had stopped and the sky was clearing.  The illumination of moon and stars would enable them to make their way to the church without the need for candlelight.
 
Johann and Jacob began clearing a path in front of the house while Maria and Anna were getting ready for church.  Getting to the church would mean tramping the snow with snowshoes Johann had made.  They had a hardwood frame with rawhide lacings and Johann had an extra large pair for deep snow.  He secured the snowshoes to his boots and set out.  Jacob followed with his own snowshoes, stepping between his father’s footprints.  After going a short distance, they backtracked to widen the path.  Before long, Maria and Anna joined them as they slowly and laboriously made their way up the hill toward the church.  The sound of snow crunching under their feet was amplified by the stillness. As they trudged up the hill their breaths appeared like puffs from a steam engine, sparkling in the frigid cold. The landscape shimmered in the moonlight.  The peaks of the Alps were visible, the moon casting shadows in the deep crevasse and highlighting the evergreens against the whiteness.  The wind had died and through the stillness, one could hear the barking of a dog and the occasional scraping of a shovel emanating from the village.
 
As they neared the church they saw light reflected on the snow from the church windows. Then they heard music.  It was rather faint at first but grew louder as they approached.  The melody was not familiar but sounded wonderful.    
 
***
 
Upon his arrival in Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr visited the schoolmaster, Franz Gruber, who lived in an apartment over the schoolhouse.  He was invited to share the evening meal, and after dinner, Father Mohr showed Franz Gruber his poem. Franz read it quietly and then read it again, his face visible with emotion. 
 
“It is wonderful, Father.”
 
“Could you put a melody to the words?”
 
“Father, I would be honored to try.  I only hope I can do it justice.”
 
“Just do your best, son.  I’m confident that a melody will come to you that fits.  I planned to read the poem on Christmas Eve, but if you can add music, we could sing it at Midnight Mass. Could you have it ready by then?”
 
“I will do my very best,” said Franz.  
 
Franz composed the music and called on Father Mohr three days before Christmas. Father Mohr hummed the melody and then played it on his guitar.  He was delighted.   
 
“Please come early to church on Christmas Eve.  I wish to hear it played on the organ and we can put our voices to the melody.  I shall invite the choir to join us.”
 
On Christmas Eve, Franz Gruber made his way to the church early to meet with Father Mohr.  They lit a fire in the small stove in the corner of the church, placing their boots and gloves next to it.  They waited for members of the choir to arrive, and as time went by, they thought that no one would show, not even a congregation.  Franz Gruber took his music and went to the organ.  He placed the music in front of him and pressed on the keys, however there was no sound.  He fumbled with the keys, pounded on the bellows with no result.  The combination of age and the cold damp weather may have caused the keys to freeze.  He examined the organ trying to find the problem even noting evidence of mice at work on the bellows. The organ would not respond. 
 
Disappointment showed on the face of Father Mohr.  He realized that a guitar was never used in a Catholic Church service, however since the organ was not working, and they were quite alone, he went next door to his room and got his guitar.  He said a blessing and then began to play the melody.  The quiet of the night and church acoustics, amplified the sound.  Franz Gruber read the words as Father Mohr played.  The melody was beautiful. 
 
As they were about to sing, the door of the church opened and the Feuerstein family walked in.  Father Mohr placed the guitar next to his seat and rose to greet them. 
 
“I am delighted that you could make it.”  To Johann’s wife and children he said, “Try to find some warmth by the fire.”  He took Johann by the arm and led him to the front of the church. 
 
“Please join us in singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.”
 
Father Mohr played the first stanza as Johann listened to the music while following the notes and reading the words.  Then they began to sing.  Johann sang soprano, Father Mohr Tenor and Franz Gruber Bass.  By the time they reached the third stanza, a few more members of the choir arrived and took their places next to them.  They joined in singing the last two lines of the remaining stanzas in four-part harmony. 
 


1. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute heilige Paar.
Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
2. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb´ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da schlägt uns die rettende Stund.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
3. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Die der Welt Heil gebracht,
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn
Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt sehn:
Jesum in Menschengestalt,
Jesum in Menschengestalt
4. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Wo sich heut alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoß
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß
Jesus die Völker der Welt,
Jesus die Völker der Welt.
5. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Lange schon uns bedacht,
Als der Herr vom Grimme befreit
In der Väter urgrauer Zeit
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß,
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß.
6. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Alleluja,
Tönt es laut bei Ferne und Nah:
Jesus der Retter ist da!
Jesus der Retter ist da!


1. Silent night, holy night,
All is calm all is bright,
'Round yon virgin Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
2. Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth;
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.
3. Silent night, holy night,
Here at last, healing light,
From the heavenly kingdom sent,
Abundant grace for our intent.
Jesus, salvation for all.
Jesus, salvation for all.
4. Silent night, holy night,
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below,
A Child from whom all blessings flow.
Jesus embraces mankind.
Jesus embraces mankind.
5. Silent night, holy night,
Mindful of mankind's plight,
The Lord in Heav'n on high decreed,
From earthly woes we would be freed.
Jesus, God's promise for peace.
Jesus, God's promise for peace.
6. Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav'nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born.
Christ the Savior is born.


 
 

Postscript
There are numerous stories surrounding the origins of Joseph Mohr and the song, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. It is believed that Joseph Mohr wrote the poem 1816, when he was a young priest assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria.  He was sent to Oberndorf in 1817 and met Franz Gruber, the schoolmaster and church organist.  Franz Gruber wrote the music to the song and it was sung for the first time in the St. Nikolaus-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on Christmas Eve in 1818 to the accompaniment of Father Mohr’s guitar.
 
The character, Johann Feuerstein in this story is fictitious; however he represents life in the region at that time.  When I did research on my family origins, I visited the Bregenzerwald numerous times.  The history of the master church builders and journeymen that went from place to place looking for work and applying their trade is non-fiction.  When they found work, they often stayed.  I visited the area on several occasions witnessing the cattle grazing in the high Alps.  I also was present on one occasion when the “cows came home.”  
 
The fame of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht spread.  It is reported that the Rainer Family sang the Christmas carol before an audience that included Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. In 1839, the Rainers performed "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" for the first time in America. 
 
Words to the song were altered over the years and the song was shortened to the popular three verses of Silent Night, Holy Night.
 
From a previously unknown pastor and a school teacher, the song, Silent Night, Holy Night has been translated into hundreds of languages providing enjoyment and comfort to people around the world.
 
Josef Franz Mohr was born in Salzburg, Austria on December 11, 1792, to an unmarried embroiderer, Anna Schoiberin.  His father was a deserter from the Salzburg army and abandoned Anna and his son. 
 
Father Mohr died in 1848 from lung disease while serving as pastor in Wagrain, Austria.
He founded a school for children and created a fund for poor children to attend school.
 
Due to danger of flooding, the old town of Oberndorf was relocated.  A new church was built in 1904 and the original church demolished in 1906. A memorial chapel dedicated to Mohr and Gruber was erected on the original location of the church in 1937. 
 
The suffering caused by the Napoleonic wars had just ended when Joseph Mohr contracted Tuberculosis.  He spent some time with his grandfather who lived in nearby Mariapfarr trying to recover from his illness.  His musical talents were recognized early in life.  A Benedictine monk assisted him in gaining admittance to the Kremsmünster School of music. 
 
As an illegitimate child he needed the Pope’s special permission to study for the priesthood.  He entered the Salzburg seminary in 1811 and was ordained a priest in 1815.  He continued to suffer from Tuberculosis and was hospitalized in Salzburg in the summer of 1817 before his assignment to St. Nikolaus church in Oberndorf – 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of Salzburg.
 
Joseph Mohr grew up in poverty and died penniless, however his work lives on.
 
Abe, That is a beautiful story. I love your descriptions. My only confusion was where the places were. Some explanation with Salzburg at the center might be helpful to give the story place. I got confused when the family was left behind  and then rejoined. How sad the leaving must have been and joyful the reuniting.

Also, the ending was a bit abrupt. What began with a guitar and a few musicians became a world renowned, much loved and translated Carol, probably the greatest of all times. You could put in something like:

“In this little church with this small group of people on Christmas Eve, lacking either an orchestra or a church organ, began the greatest Christmas Carol of all times. There were no celebrities there with awards or prizes, only those who loved Jesus and music and Christmas, a small group of people who sang the greatest Carol of all times for the heavens and snow capped mountains for the first time. History comes in small and big ways, both important, both possible.”

Today, they gave me earphones and I listened to Christmas Carols during my hour long MRI. The last Carol that played: Silent Night.”

Carol
 
 
Note:  Salzburg is near the southwest border of Germany.



[url=#_ftnref1][1][/url] Kitchen corner with table and bench.  The bench is “L” shaped, fitting in the corner of the room with a short and long side.  Chairs are placed on the non-bench sides. 
[url=#_ftnref2][2][/url] Cookies were a special treat for Christmas.  They were made with milk, flour, eggs and honey.
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PostSubject: Re: Historical Christmas Carol   Thu Nov 30, 2017 3:12 pm

Super story, Abe. Puts me in the mood for Christmas. As does this:


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PostSubject: Re: Historical Christmas Carol   Thu Nov 30, 2017 4:43 pm

Very well done ,Abe and Shelagh.
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PostSubject: Re: Historical Christmas Carol   Thu Nov 30, 2017 9:10 pm

Thanks Alice and Shelagh.  The original writing included photos of Father Mohr and Franz Gruber along with a picture of the Chapel. I'm guessing that the photos were removed for ease in transmitting.  I checked and the stand alone photos are still in my database.
I love history.  There is much that we continue to use as celebration without knowing the source.  That applies to the use of the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.
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PostSubject: Re: Historical Christmas Carol   Fri Dec 01, 2017 3:44 pm

Dear Abe, Beautiful story May I share it.  I would like to share it to my ex and his wife, who lived in Salsberg long ago.  Love, Betty
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PostSubject: Re: Historical Christmas Carol   Sat Dec 02, 2017 2:16 am

Of course, Betty.
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