Snow crunched underfoot as we walked through the village. Conversation would have broken the spell, so we walked in silence. Hand in hand, following the tracks. Small footprints either side of narrow, tramlines. Heidi tugged on my hand.
"Just look," she whispered. Her face was turned towards the night sky.
A duvet of clouds had kept the thermometer hovering above zero for the last few days. Now a higher power had seen fit to sweep it back. The temperature had plummeted and the simple act of breathing had become exhilarating. The skin of my face tingled as I followed her gaze. The brighter stars that were visible to those city dwellers who actually bothered to look upwards were lost here among countless others that never showed their faces in the glare of sodium pollution. It was a fitting backdrop for the evening.
"Come on," I said.
Soon the tracks we were following merged with others as we neared the centre of the village. The buzz of voices, amplified by the clear air, reached us. We were no longer alone. Others had joined the procession.
"Grüezi." "Guten Abig". "Schönen Abig, gäll?" Friends and strangers alike greeted each other with the ritualised expressions, so typical of Switzerland.
As we rounded the school, we saw the gathering that had drawn the community together. In the local dialect they call it Christbaumverbrennung. The burning of Christmas trees that traditionally marks the end of the festive period. You would think it predestined to be a solemn occasion, but on the contrary. Children were laughing and throwing branches on the fire. Adults were chatting away, fortified by Glühwein, the local mulled wine. The scent of cinnamon and cloves mingled with the scent of burning pine. Many people were grilling sausages. Cervelats and Bratwürste skewered on long sticks and held close to the fire, adding to the heady incense.
"There they are," said Heidi.
The kids were at the edge of the circle struggling to untie our tree from the sledge they had been pulling.
"Here, I'll give you a hand," I said.
"No! We want to do it," said John.
"OK, but keep an eye on Jan. I'm going to buy your mama a Glühwein. Do you want anything?"
"Can we have a sausage?"
"Sure. What kind?"
"Cervelat," said Jan.
"Kalbsbratwurst," said John.
I left them to it and joined the queue at the small stand run by the Landfrauenverein. Literally translated as the society for country women, they were a rural Swiss version of the Women's Institute selling homemade produce at every communal event. 13 francs and a brief report to Frau Suter on how we had spent Christmas paid for supper and I returned with my pockets stuffed with sausage and a steaming mug in each hand. Heidi was standing in the circle talking to Frau Wernli. She took the Glühwein in two hands and sipped at it. I followed her example, enjoying the bitter-sweetness that warmed from within.
By this time the kids had managed to wrestle the tree free of the sledge and were in the process of lugging it to the fire with unaccustomed teamwork. John held the stump end and could probably have managed by himself, but he allowed his younger brother to take the prickly end in his small embrace. Under the watchful eye of Herr Burger, they were allowed to throw it onto the fire.
"After three," said John.
"One, ...." The tree swung between them in a low arc.
"Two,..." It picked up momentum on the second swing and I could already see Jan’s much shorter arms struggling to match his brother's enthusiasm.
"Three." The tree flew towards the fire. Jan flew onto his backside.
There was a sound like a hiss and a shower of sparks swarmed up. Tinder dry needles curled, blackened and crackled. Branches flamed in a final burst of colour. The spectacular opening to the show was over surprisingly quickly. The heartwood of the tree now added to the fuel that would cook supper. John turned to search for us with a smile that almost outshone the flames. It was only then that he saw what had happened to Jan. He couldn’t help but laugh and that added fuel to a very different fire. I quickly reached Jan and helped him up, brushing slush and mud from his bottom. He wasn’t very happy. Tears were welling in his eyes and he was glaring at John.
“He did it on purpose,” said Jan.
“I didn’t push him Papa, honest,” said John.
“I know son, it was just an accident. Why don’t you see if you can find some sticks for the sausages.”
“Did you see it, Mama?” he shouted as he ran off.
Heidi had arrived and took Jan by the shoulders. “Hey Jan, well done,” she said, “you managed all on your own.”
He did his best to sulk a bit longer, but all of this attention and especially praise from mama was irresistible. The reluctant smile turned into a grin as John came back with two long sticks and held one out to him.
“Komm Jan, gömme brötle,” he said.
Grilling sausages on an open fire was ingrained into Swiss culture and having grown up here, they switched naturally to Swiss German when talking about it.
“Papa?” He said.
I took the sausages from my pocket.
John took the Cervelat.
“Did you bring a knife, papa?”
“Here you are. Just be careful,” I said.
He cut a deep cross into each end of the sausage, Swiss style. It would open out like flower petals as it cooked allowing the points to crisp deliciously. He gave it to Jan who, with a great deal of concentration pierced it with his stick. This was serious business for a small boy. John then stuck his Bratwurst onto his stick and they walked up to the fire to find a good place to cook. We looked on as John’s arm slipped unconsciously around his brother’s shoulder.
A gloved hand slipped into mine again. Nobody had pushed her in the snow, but I could see Heidi was also close to tears. I bent to kiss lips that still retained the warmth and scent of Glühwein. It was a taste that I knew would always remind me of family.