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Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf: 'Der Weinachtsbaum' — Memories linger of small tree

Gift overcomes post-WWII hopelessness and despair

The Weihnachtsbaum, as we call the Christmas tree in Germany, has been a special part of our family celebration as long as I can remember.

Finding the right tree has been a tradition for President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet. This is a tree from the early years of their marriage.
Finding the right tree has been a tradition for President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet. This is a tree from the early years of their marriage. Photo: Photo courtesy of Harriet Uchtdorf

My parents often told me the stories about the evergreen Christmas tree and the certain magic surrounding it. When all other trees turned brown and lost their leaves, the evergreen stayed strong and visibly alive. It was like a symbol of life and hope, a message from nature that spring and summer would certainly return after a long winter season. Additionally, the flickering of real wax candle lights seemed like stars twinkling in the winter sky.

After I was married and had my own family, my husband and I would choose a perfect winter day, with cold crisp air and no clouds in the sky, to take our two children into a nearby forest to select our Christmas tree.

It was always a process of selecting the most special tree, which would feel just right for us. It had to have character. And that is exactly how it turned out to be almost every Christmas season. We selected and cut down a tree with an imperfect but special appearance, fitting nicely into our family. Oh, how we loved the fresh pine fragrance the tree brought into our home. Shortly before Christmas Eve, or sometimes exactly on this day, all of us got together and decorated the Christmas tree. We used glass balls, sweets and a huge variety of homemade straw stars as ornaments.

In post-war Germany, Sister Harriet Reich Uchtdorf's mother made a Christmas ornament out of tin foil; in the center was a piece of caramelized sugar.
In post-war Germany, Sister Harriet Reich Uchtdorf's mother made a Christmas ornament out of tin foil; in the center was a piece of caramelized sugar. Photo: Photo courtesy of Harriet Uchtdorf

On Christmas Eve, after it was dark, all the candles were lit on the tree. We could see the reflection of the candlelight in our eyes as we quietly admired the beautiful tree.

Songs were sung, our children played Christmas carols on their block flutes, my husband read the Christmas story from Luke in the New Testament, and finally our presents were opened. We enjoyed the gifts and the time together until late into the night. The next day, we adults slept in and our children enjoyed playing with their new toys. The rest of the day was family time, including perhaps a nice walk through the quiet neighborhood. It was a reverent, magical, happy and festive time of year, filled with thankfulness for the Savior, one another and the blessings of life.

In my early childhood however, times were different. World War II had just ended, and hopelessness and despair filled many lives in war-ravaged Germany. Economic hardship and poverty were ever present. My birthday was coming up just a few weeks before Christmas. In the face of scarcity and shortage all around, I did not expect any Christmas or birthday presents, knowing quite well, even as a young girl, that our parents were struggling to meet our very basic needs. In our big city hunger was always present. It was a sad and dark time of our lives.

On the day of my birthday, to my surprise and delight, a wonderful present — just for me — was placed on the kitchen table. It was the most beautiful present I could have imagined: a tiny little Weihnachtsbaum, just one foot tall, covered with delicate handmade ornaments of tinfoil. The tinfoil reflected the light of our living room in an enchanting way. As I inspected the tinfoil ornaments I realized with amazement that they were filled with small pieces of caramelized sugar. It was like a miracle. Where did my mother get the tiny evergreen tree, the tinfoil and the rarity of sugar?

Stars made of straw are treasured ornaments President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, have brought from their home in Germany.
Stars made of straw are treasured ornaments President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, have brought from their home in Germany. Photo: Photo by Gerry Avant

To this day, I do not know how she made this little miracle happen at a time when none of these precious things was available. It remains in my heart as a symbol of my parents' deep love for me; as a symbol of hope, love and the true meaning of Christmas. It reminds me of one of my favorite Christmas carols:

"O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,

Your boughs can teach a lesson:

That constant faith and hope sublime

Lend strength and comfort through all time.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,

Your boughs can teach a lesson."

We still have in our home during the Christmas season a Christmas tree, now decorated with electrical lights and ornaments of every variety. When we are together with our children and grandchildren, the beauty of the tree and the sparkling lights warm my heart and bring back sweet memories of a happy family moment that came from a tiny tree with shiny tinfoil ornaments.

Regardless of size, type or decoration, for me a Weihnachtsbaum or Christmas tree will always be a symbol of comfort, hope and love, and a reflection of the divine light the Savior brings to all of good will.

The Church News invited Sister Harriet Reich Uchtdorf to share some of her memories of Christmas in Germany. She is the wife of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency.

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