LB Gschwandtner
LB Gschwandtner

A Silver Reindeer and Sleigh

My husband is from the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Lakes and what they consider low, but very old mountains. His uncle, Richard Leutner, was born, raised, and lived in the small, historic village (okay let’s be honest Austria is nothing but small historic villages) of Henndorf where he and my husband’s aunt Berta, nee Laimer, lived in a 400 year old house (below). To give a reference point, it was originally built when Rembrandt was up in Amsterdam painting masterpieces and sipping tea with Spinoza.

The house, surprisingly to an American, is not considered historic. Anything less than 1000 years old in Austria is not really old at all. In fact Normans (who were actually Vikings) rampaged through the hamlet of Henndorf in the 9th century.

This little reindeer and sleigh dates back to about 1890. As a child my husband saw it frequently as he spent much time with his aunt and uncle. He adored them and they him, especially since they had lost their only child, a son, who had been conscripted into Hitler’s war against the world. His aunt gave the little sleigh to us early in our marriage. She was a garrulous, affectionate and cheerful woman who I only knew when she was already elderly.

It’s hard for Americans to understand but Austria, being a small country, everyone (except the Viennese) thinks of everyone else as a neighbor or relative. My husband never knew the cousin who lost his life at the Russian front. He was already gone by 1942, the year my husband was born. But the exploding bombs and the air raids have stayed with my husband throughout his life. And he remembers the day he was wedged onto the handlebars of his father’s bike, the only conveyance they owned, and transported fifteen miles through the countryside up and down hills, around mountains and lakes to the great old house in Henndorf. His father thought he would be safer there from the Allied bombs dropping on Salzburg.

He slept in that house under a puffy eiderdown quilt, his tante Berta undoubtedly still grieving the loss of her son, yet doting on the skinny little boy dropped in her lap. She would have cooked all manner of wonderful foods for him and baked him Guglehupf and Salzburger Nockerln, always piled with fresh whipped cream, until his stomach bulged. With the privations at his own home far away, he would feel safe, secure, loved by his aunt and uncle.

My husband would wonder at the marvelous collections of things inside the massive house that had once belonged to a famous Austrian opera singer, a bass baritone (how sorry I am that he was not a basso profundo because I’ve always wanted to use that description (‘My dear, didn’t you know he was a basso profundo whose voice could make walls shudder?’) – a man who hobnobbed right there in tiny Henndorf with famous writers and poets of the pre WWI era when Austria was a sprawling empire encompassing much of eastern Europe.

The tiny sleigh was crafted in Germany, as were many items in the big house of my husband’s childhood. A Bosendorfer burled walnut grand piano (no one in his family played so possibly this was included in the opera singer’s estate sale), an antique wind up wall clock with chimes that sounded like rain gently falling on a glass roof.

The little reindeer and sleigh found its way to America where, every Christmas, I filled it with M&Ms and placed it in the center of our dining room table in our unremarkable subdivision house. Our three children would dip into the candy on Christmas day after a big meal. They remember it well. So bits and pieces of history live on – the house, Rembrandt’s paintings, the piano and clock, and this little reindeer pulling a silver sleigh.

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