By Bob Pellaton

[Editor’s Note: Be sure to check the bottom of the page for classmate comments, which are most welcome. And you can add one, as well!]

My wife had spotted the first signs of trouble before she and the boys left to meet me in Austria. “How will Santa know where we are?” they wanted to know. Ryrie, age 4, had an inquiring and logical mind to which his younger brother, Randy, age 3, generally deferred. Lynn sought to reassure them by packing the Christmas stockings under their watchful gaze.

The snow that greeted the family’s arrival in Vienna was fluffy and white, not like the slush to which we were accustomed in D.C. I knew the boys would be thrilled. The airport, though modern, still had a mechanical signboard for arrivals and departures that would erupt in a cascading clatter of panels each time it changed. This intrigued Ry even more than the virgin snow. As the “go to” guy in our family on questions about how things worked, I was ready for him. This will be a great visit, I said to myself.

Vienna in the 1960s was a city that had worn her age well, with elegance and dignity, despite a few wrinkles here and there. Facades and social customs could be as dated as the drapes seen behind many of her windows. The same could be said of the Pension Neuer Markt where I had been lodging while on extended assignment. Located centrally near iconic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, it provided easy access to everything one could desire – even in the mounting snow.

Approaching the pension, I pulled out the antique keys provided me and showed the boys how they worked, just like modern ones. Once inside I had scarcely brushed the snow off when I noticed the boys standing there slack-jawed. It was the intricacy of the ornamental metalwork on the elevator enclosure and its surrounding stair that had inspired such awe. Ry pressed the call button and they both staggered back as with clanks and whirs an equally elaborate birdcage of an elevator descended from above.

“First you open the outside gate,” I explained, “then the inner one. After everyone and their baggage gets in, you slide closed the outer gate, then the inner one… and only then do you press the ivory button with a “3” on it to get to our floor.” My detailed instruction anticipated each boy wanting the honor of operating this antique wonder on all future occasions.

Once we had been welcomed and served hot chocolate by Frau Wehner, “mit schlag” (whipped cream), she showed us to our rooms. The boys’ room overlooked the snow-covered Neuer Markt Platz. It had flocked wallpaper and French doors that opened onto a small balcony. I pointed to the flat radiators high on the wall and explained how they served the same purpose as our finned radiators at home. Ry looked around, backtracked to our adjoining room, and anxiously asked, “Where’s the fireplace, Daddy? Where can we hang our stockings?… And how will Santa get in?”

That’s when I knew I was in trouble.

After the boys went to bed, Lynn and I met in executive session. We had presents for them: hers brought from home and hidden in her suitcase; mine from Milan and hidden in our new closet. Christmas was still two days away. But as the “go to” guy on how things work, I had obviously forgotten how Santa works. We decided on the parental plan of last resort: division of labor, diversion, and deception.

“Good morning, boys!” I said cheerily as we gathered the next day for Frau Lehner’s hot chocolate mit schlag and crusty fresh-baked Kaiser rolls with butter and jam. “I think today’s a good day to buy our Christmas tree.” Their jam-fringed mouths smiled broadly. “Mom has some errands to do, but you can come with me to pick one out.” And so we ‘men’ walked to the Danube riverbank where Frau L. had told me the tree sellers would be.

Our main difficulty wasn’t selecting a tree, but convincing the seller not to destroy the temporary wood stand. My German was as makeshift as his stand, but he and I finally came to a meeting of the minds, and we three headed back to the pension. Ry took the lead and held the tip of the tree, while I grasped the lower end with one arm and carried Randy in the other. Passers-by gave us knowing looks and big smiles, as our triumphal procession wound through the Vienna streets. So far, so good, I thought.

Meanwhile, Lynn had run into other problems. Fragile tree ornaments and lights were not conducive to packing in a suitcase and too expensive for one-time use.. But she did find the push-pins, tape, comics, cardboard and crepe paper that were part of our plan. Frau L. was willing to lend us a plain wood bookcase. With one more day to go, Lynn and I were feeling confident. But the boys, still nervous, kept asking questions. “Does Santa have a key?” Ry asked. “…and does he know how to operate the elevator?” Randy added. Ryrie then wondered, “Why does Santa go by different names in different places?” I answered that Santa had special powers and could go anywhere, but he preferred to follow local custom, so he went by different names. Their looks told me that their acceptance of this answer was tentative, at best.

Day Two dawned, and with it Phase Two. Lynn took the boys sightseeing. They boarded a multi-car tram that ran down the center of the Ringstrasse, the broad boulevard that circles the city. At their stop the doors opened and Lynn lowered Ry to the ground, then turned around to pick up Randy – only to hear the motorman in the front car ring his bell and start to close the doors. Instinctively, she jumped, child in arms, landing on her bottom in a pile of snow just as the tram took off. What mother, panicked by the thought of her 4 year-old standing alone in the midst of snow and traffic, wouldn’t do the same? The boys, of course, thought this was great fun.

Meanwhile, I had been to an embroidery shop, one of several that served the many institutions of international diplomacy in postwar Vienna. That afternoon it was my turn to take the boys ice skating at an outdoor rink. There, out of sync with the Viennese waltz (and all the other skaters), I did a series of pratfalls to rival Lynn’s one. This amused the boys even more. Our sore bottoms were a small price to pay for such a cause.

This being Christmas Eve, we decided to take the boys out for dinner. At a highly recommended restaurant near the cathedral, the maitre d’ seated us at a remote table. Apparently, Viennese never dine out with children so young. Our boys, acting against type, were perfectly behaved – save for the ordering process. After countless German to English translations of the menu by the waiter there was still no agreement. Lynn, somewhat exasperated, excused herself to use the “Ladies” and tasked me with closing the deal. In desperation, I finally blurted, “I hear Santa likes to eat Wiener schnitzel when he comes to Vienna.” That celebrity endorsement did the trick. They both ordered it.

Score one for Dad. But when Lynn returned I was chastised for ordering two portions instead of one to share. That’s how I learned another thing the Viennese never do – ask for a doggy bag to take home.

Bedtime at the pension was finally at hand. With our credibility on the line and the Santa issue still in doubt, the boys had some last-minute negotiating to do. That’s when we noticed that Randy, the more tactile one, had de-flocked a small area of wallpaper near the bed in his anxiety. Ry, the lead negotiator, put it to us straight: could we please leave Santa a note saying, “Dear Santa, Ryrie and Randy are HERE!”

Agreed. I even taped the note to the French doors, while explaining that despite Santa’s superpowers, he would probably enter this way because it was easier than coming down a chimney. “But the doors are locked!” was the retort. Lynn and I looked at one another. It was snowing again. Ry plaintively pushed us to our breaking point. “Please Mommy and Daddy, leave the doors open!” Would the children fall asleep before they froze? Too tired to argue against superior logic, we caved. With snow blowing in, we threw open the French doors, transferred the note to the outside trim, and retreated to our room with its still naked tree and borrowed bookcase.

Christmas morning we were awakened by two jubilant sons. Lynn had finally made it to bed while I had fallen asleep in an easy chair. Santa had devised a faux fireplace out of cardboard, brick-patterned crepe paper and the bookcase while we slept. The boys’ stockings, filled with candies, fruits, and chocolates, hung from push pins stuck firmly into the top shelf. Their gifts wrapped in the color comics section of the Sunday paper were placed under the tree.

But it was the tree itself that most captivated them. From its branches hung small flags of all the nations of the world, in brilliant embroidered silk colors. Not even the antique elevator had commanded such awe. Hardly noticed to one side were a knife, a fork, and a plate with a few crumbs on it.

Returning to their room the boys noticed a new note on the inside of the now-locked French doors. I read it to them: “Dear Ryrie and Randy, MERRY CHRISTMAS! Love, Santa. P.S. Thank you for the Wiener schnitzel. It was delicious!” Exhausted though we were, my wife and I marveled at how creative Santa could be, once all his infrastructure and culinary needs were met.

Improvised celebrations can be the best remembered and most beloved of them all.


  • Victor Dial

    What a nice story. A Christmas I hope they’ve never forgotten

  • Don Watson

    Love the detail in the story telling

Comment here