Empress Sisi’s Christmas for the poor

December 24, 2012

Nowhere was Christmas celebrated with so much fervor as at the Austrian court…. Christmas Eve was a double feast, as it also was Elizabeth’s birthday….

There always were two Christmas trees, one on the 23rd of December, which the little Archduchess decorated with her own hands for a hundred poor children selected from among her especial protégés, and one on the 24th for the imperial family. The great fir trees, glittering with gold and silver nuts, rosy-cheeked apples, and with myriads of little lights to illuminate the thousands of beautiful toys, were indeed things to admire.

At four o’clock in the afternoon of the 23rd the poor children’s tree was lighted up in the Rittersaal, a splendid gallery-like room, with a lofty, arched ceiling, where stained-glass windows, Flemish tapestries of untold value, draperies of tawny velvets, and great escutcheons of preciously enameled metals half-covered the finely carved and inlaid wainscoting. Every frame and mirror, every one of the double row of grim damascened sets of armor which stand on each side of the long “’Saal,” was garlanded with mistletoe and holly. Clusters of Christmas-roses and banks of snow-drops peeped forth from trailing wreaths of ivy gracefully disposed in every available corner. In the gigantic porphyry hearth a fire of aromatic logs burned, adding its soft glow to the dazzling little flames of the candles on the Christmas tree.

When the court lackeys, in their state liveries, had opened the doors and drawn back the heavy portieres, the troop of enraptured children thus admitted to delights worthy of Paradise bowed reverently, but without shyness—for they knew that they were loved there, and heartily welcome, too—and then ranged themselves, the boys on the right and the girls on the left. Archduchess Valérie was a picture to see as she advanced towards them, a joyful smile on her young lips, and her small hands filled with beribboned parcels, like some good little fairy about to distribute her lavish gifts. Each child received warm clothes, boots, caps, handkerchiefs, woolen underwear, fur-lined gloves, and toys, to say nothing of “goodies,” as “Mutzerl” called bonbons of all kinds.  The happy youngsters gave expression to their ecstasy by jumps and bounds, and shouts of merry laughter, just as unrestrained as if they were in their own homes, instead of within the walls of the imperial palace. When the noise had somewhat subsided, the Archduchess invariably asked as her reward to hear them sing the “Kaiser’s Hymn.” For a minute all was still, then the grand melody would roll out under the high emblazoned ceilings, the fresh young voices going upward, like the carol of a hundred larks, intoxicated by the mere joy of living. When these glad tones had once more dropped into silence, the doors at the lower end of the Rittersaal were thrown open, revealing a large hall where a substantial feast had been prepared.

Oh! How all those youthful eyes would widen with surprise at the sight of the long tables loaded with huge sides of cold roast beef, haunches of venison, great plump, truffled turkeys, and enormous piles of daintily cut sandwiches. Wonderful cakes studded with candied fruit, showers of bonbons in capacious silver shells, pyramids of grapes, and peaches, pears, oranges, and pineapples, completed this gargantuesque tout ensemble, above which floated the delicate aromas of tea, coffee, bouillon, and chocolate.

Later on, when the overjoyed children had been dismissed, their little stomachs well filled and their tiny hands burdened with presents, Valérie was entrusted with another duty, equally delightful to her. The Mayor of Vienna, when Christmas was spent in the Austrian metropolis instead of at Gödöllö, as often was the case, was summoned to the Hofburg, and received at her hands a small portfolio containing the Christmas offering of the imperial couple to the city hospitals, ten thousand florins, and an order for hot-house fruit, cigars, illustrated papers, and magazines, as well as quantities of flowers….

 

Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen, The Martyrdom of an Empress (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1902), pp. 86-88.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 241

 

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