In 1966, at the age of eleven, I spent Christmas in Berlin. My mother purposely planned this as a powerful lesson about freedom and democracy. Germany was still divided and occupied by Allied Forces following WWII. Access to the former capital, Berlin, was controlled by the Soviet government. My mother said, “Kristi, this will be a different kind of Christmas, and it will change your life forever.” That year we left the Santa Claus Christmas behind with all the decorations, the carols, and the warmly lighted tree in our living room.
Our Christmas journey began with an evening train departure from a West German station. We traveled through the night, crossing into East Germany under cover of darkness, a stipulation of the communist government. We woke to a leaden mist swirling outside the window. Not three feet away was a double row of twelve-foot chain link fences topped with razor wire. The space between the fences allowed uniformed guards to patrol, armed with rifles and accompanied by guard dogs. On the opposite side of the train another set of fences and guards completed the security system. We had traveled through the night, a method that kept surrounding Communist-controlled land from perusal by those wishing to enter Berlin during the Cold War years.
Our visit to West Berlin included a trip to a museum dedicated to those whose ingenuity and courage had allowed them to escape the Communist-controlled country. It was heart wrenching to see the deprivation.
We heard stories of many who had tried to escape but had been gunned down or imprisoned. We saw the series of fences, the guard towers, the check points. On a tour into East Berlin we felt the intimidation of the guards who walked the aisles of our bus to check under and between seats for any who might be hiding. We watched as they checked under the buses with mirrors looking for those who may have strapped themselves to the undercarriage, hoping to gain their freedom.
The damp cold of a northern European December could not compare to the chill that permeated our hearts. You see, the citizens of this country were not allowed to celebrate Christmas. The citizens of West Berlin, occupied by French, British and American forces after WWII, would do what they could for those on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall.
Our Christmas tree that year was perched atop the Berlin wall, stabilized amidst the broken glass cemented along the top edge, one more diabolical means to keep souls from scaling its barrier in an attempt for freedom. The tree, one of many situated at intervals along the wall, was placed so those on the Soviet side would have a reminder of Christ’s birth, a truth they were not allowed to celebrate or acknowledge. Christmas carols played from loudspeakers in hope the citizens in the Soviet part of the city could hear them. News flashed from the top of the highest building, telling of happenings in the free world. It was a cold, gray existence, and we saw no one smile.
I had understood that Christmas was more than Santa Claus, presents under the tree, and special holiday delicacies. I had known it was more than the warmth of family and friends sharing time together. But I had never experienced a Christmas surrounded by those with no joy, by those whose job it was to constantly monitor your actions and conversation.
My mother was right, that Christmas changed my life forever. I would never again take freedom for granted. But there was more.
That year I realized there had to be something extremely significant about the birth of Christ, about who He was and why He came, that the government of an entire nation would go to such lengths to stifle the truth of His existence. They had tried to keep Him out, but they could not.
Built in 1961, the Berlin Wall stood until 1989, the year President Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” It had stood as a physical roadblock to freedom for many people, but Christ’s message had not been kept out—it was hidden in the hearts of many, including President Gorbachev himself. In March, 2008, he admitted his closeted faith, the faith that God used to bring Soviet communism to an end.
Christmas, and the Christ Child Himself, had made a long-awaited appearance.
And so, this Christmas season gives much to rejoice over.
Freedom, and those who protect it
The joy of corporate worship
Family rejoicing together
The celebration of the One born to set us truly free
The freshening that comes with the promise of a New Year: clean, perfect, and anticipated