The next morning, Hans burrowed into his thin blanket, blowing on his fingers to warm them. The snowstorm, now in its second day, continued unabated, and the dull grey sky matched his mood as he crawled out of bed. To prepare himself for the day ahead, Hans put on three layers of clothes and a cap that had once belonged to his father. His too small boots, stuffed with newspaper, cramped his toes, but they were still sturdy enough to keep out the dampness. He pulled on the mittens his mother had knitted and rushed from his family’s small, weather-beaten house to start his day.
The old city was awakening, just as it had since the middle ages. Even before Lüneburg became an important center for trade, the Langobards, a German tribe, had built a settlement here as a hideaway. Hans imagined their soldiers camping near the Ilmenau river that ran through the city’s center. During the summer, he and his friends loved to roam the woods, Lüneburg’s parks, or the hill overlooking the city. Building forts and staging pretend battles occupied them for hours. But the best place to play was still in Herr Less’ warehouse. Here young boys could be magically transformed into spies. Traitors lurked in dungeons, and brave soldiers always discovered the enemy hideouts.
Even though the sun had barely risen, Saturday’s market day was already in progress. Wagons lumbered along, piled with the goods from nearby farms. Drivers yelled angrily at the horses and oxen pulling carts filled with root vegetables, grain, and hay stored from the fall harvest. Chickens, geese, and a few pigs were penned in makeshift cages, ready to be dropped off at the butcher. Stalls were set up in the square. The holidays were coming, and, even though times were hard, the residents of Lüneburg wanted to make certain they would have the best Christmas possible. Hans darted through the streets carrying a dilapidated wooden shovel, stopping now and then to help push a wagon out of a snowdrift, hoping the favor might get him a few pfennigs. But while the farmers appreciated his efforts, money was too scarce to part with.
The best he could hope for would be a slab of bread or a piece of cheese that would count as his breakfast. He hurried towards Bäckerstraße, knowing that the best way to earn some money was to shovel the sidewalks and entrances to the stores that would soon be open for the rush of weekend shoppers.
He walked past the local tavern, its sign carved with a white boar, Lüneburg’s symbol. When he was little, Hans loved hearing how hunters followed a wild boar with a rare white pelt and discovered a salt spring, the “white gold” that made Lüneburg prosper for centuries. Sometimes, Hans would act out the old story with his younger brothers and sisters. He always made certain there was a battle scene where he was, of course, the hero!
Hans usually shoveled out Less’ department store last so he could spend more time digging the widest path for their customers. As he began, he saw a farmer and his wife make their way to the delivery entrance, carrying a crate with three noisy geese. The farmer knocked persistently on the side door until Herr Less finally opened it to greet them. Hans could not hear the conversation, but it was clear the farmer was trying to sell Herr Less his geese. Hans smiled. Geese in a department store! Where would they be displayed? Next to the ladies’ dresses? He saw Herr Less shake his head several times. The couple slowly retreated to their wagon.
Surprisingly, Herr Less called them back and ushered them inside. The warehouse door closed, leaving Hans to wonder what was going on. Looking through the front window a few minutes later, he saw the couple inside the store choosing several blankets and two heavy jackets from the dry goods section. Herr Less politely escorted them out the main door. Then, impulsively, he grabbed a beautiful, red woolen scarf from the front window display and wound it around the woman’s neck. She looked up at him.
“You have already been so generous, sir. We cannot afford this.”
As she began to take it off, Herr Less stopped her. “It is a gift,” he replied gently. “Merry Christmas!”
“We will never forget your kindness, sir,” she whispered softly. “Thank you! God bless you.”
As the couple left, Hans approached Walter’s father. The geese continued to squawk as Hans gave Herr Less a mischievous grin.
“Now, I just have to convince Frau Less that this was a good trade. One goose might have been acceptable, but three? …” Herr Less shrugged helplessly and rolled his eyes, trying not to smile back.
Hans knew from his cousin Ilse, who worked as Frau Less’ housekeeper, that the mistress did not take kindly to her husband’s willingness to barter with the local farmers instead of taking money. In fact, there was a long list of people who had bought on credit over the years and not returned payments. Frau Less said it was bad business; Herr Less said it was being a good neighbor.
Hans finally finished his shoveling and made his way towards the center of the city. Snow continued to fall as crowds of shoppers jostled each other on the cobbled streets looking for everyday items and holiday gifts. The thought of gifts reminded Hans again of Walter’s birthday. He’d never been to a real party, not like the one Walter described.
He shook his head and started to walk home. It wasn’t fair. His father was right, who was he to…?
The next thing he knew Hans was flat on his back in a pile of dirty snow. “Watch where you’re going!” an angry voice barked. Hans looked up at a tall, heavyset gentleman bundled up in a fur hat and coat, a muffler covering his nose and mouth. His arms were stacked high with parcels.
“Entschuldigung! Excuse me! I’m terribly sorry, sir!” Hans jumped up. “I didn’t see you,” he stammered.
“That was obvious! Dummkopf! Now, move aside and let me pass!”
Clearly annoyed, the burgher continued on his way, slipping and sliding down the sidewalk, muttering to himself. As Hans bent to brush the snow off his pants, he saw a leather wallet half buried in the snow. When he picked it up, his breath quickened. It was bulging with money, more than he had ever seen in his life!
The street sounds seemed to fade as Hans silently marveled at his good luck. He inspected the wallet, noting there was no identification, nothing that could trace it back to anyone. He removed the paper bills and counted them over and over, imagining how many ways he could spend this many Reichsmarks!
Of course, he could turn it all over to his father, the way he always did with his earnings, but then what about Christmas presents –maybe something special for his mother, his brothers and sisters? Maybe even something for himself? He thought longingly of the set of wooden soldiers in the toy store window of F.C. Meyer down the street: brightly painted foot soldiers, officers, cavalry, and miniature cannons. They could be his! Then, suddenly, he had an idea. He could go to the party after all! He could use some of the money to buy Walter a present!
The wallet’s owner was now three blocks away. Hans saw him go around a corner. Soon, he’d be gone. The man had been so rude. He didn’t deserve to have his money returned! And anyway, he looked so rich he probably wouldn’t even miss it! No one would know.
Hans thought for a moment then decided what he had to do. He took a deep breath and jogged quickly down the street, breaking into a run.
There, far ahead, he saw the fur hat bobbing amid a group of shoppers. Hans pushed his way through the crowd, calling out, “Sir, sir, wait!” He ignored the disapproving glances sent his way as he rushed across the city square.
He heard the city hall bells ringing a Christmas carol from the lofty tower. A shivering beggar huddled in a doorway sang along loudly, off-key, his gaunt hands outstretched to passers-by. Hans kept shouting over the noise of the bells as he approached the Rathaus, Lüneburg’s city hall.
Hans watched the burgher climb the steps and then hesitated. This was obviously a man of importance, probably a city official. A nine-year-old boy certainly wouldn’t be allowed in there, the place where all the city’s important business occurred. Hans looked up at the multicolored stained glass windows, then down at the wallet in his hand. He raised his voice and tried one more time.
“Sir, sir, wait!” He thought again about leaving, but this time the man stopped.
“You again! Get away from me, you little beggar, or I’ll call a policeman!” the man snapped.
Hans grabbed his arm. “You, you dropped your wallet, sir,” he panted, and shoved it into the man’s gloved hand. Surprise was written on the man’s face as he looked from his wallet to Hans and back again. Then he quickly opened it and carefully counted the money several times.
“It’s all here! Well, what do you know,” he shook his head in disbelief. “Vielen Dank! Many thanks, boy,” he said grudgingly. “Here’s something for you. Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!”
Hans scrambled around in the snow to collect the money the man had tossed at him and sat down on a stoop to think. He knew he should turn it all over to his family. Except now he could buy Walter a present. He’d get that first, and then give his father the rest.
“So, what will it be?” he asked himself. “Walter’s got so many toys, even a set of toy soldiers. He’s got a stamp collection, too, but I don’t know what kind of stamps to get him. I want this present to be really special, something no one else would think of, something he’ll never forget…”
As he gazed across the street, he saw something displayed prominently in a store window.
“That’s it!” he exclaimed. “No one I know has ever had one. They cost too much money, especially in December. It’s perfect!”