Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Legend of the Tailor's Needle

On my visit to Kreis Saarburg this autumn, I couldn't resist exploring the book and pamphlet collection of my vacation apartment.  As I expected, there were stacks of brochures about the attractions of the area and discarded paperback books left behind by former tenants.  But there was an unexpected treasure trove.

Frau Hedwig Hoffmann, owner with her husband of the vacation apartment, was born in Saarburg and during a part of her working life, was a bookseller in a book and stationery shop on the most scenic street in the city.  A few of her own books, loaned to my apartment's bookshelves, showed it.  I found some wonderfully eclectic titles including a collection of “new old fairy tales.”  The author modeled her tales on fables and stories from various places around Germany and created a more timely and charming book for children - and I couldn't resist the title or the idea that I would be able to read it without constant searches of my German dictionary.

Vacation apartment table

One tale, of a Trier tailor and his needle, delighted me and also seemed so appropriate for a blog post at Christmas time.  When I finished reading it, I sat at the dining room table in "my" apartment, set up my Netbook computer, and typed a summary of the timeless story with its simple wisdom; then saved it to be reread, reworked and posted in December.  


There was a master tailor in Trier, Schneidermeister Krautscheid,  who lived at the end of the 18th century.  He had inherited a sewing needle from his father who in turn had inherited it from his father – a family tradition that perhaps went back to 1356 in Trier when the first record about a Tailors' Guild of 46 men is documented.

Tailor in the 1800s
Schnidermeister Krautscheid lived at a time when conditions for most tailors were not good.  They often suffered times of poverty.  Even though they had journeymen and apprentices, they had a hard time making ends meet.  In summer, with longer days, they often worked 13 hours at their jobs, but this was not possible when winter came and the days were very short.  Darkness came early and candles were expensive.  In Trier there were 61 Master Tailors in the Guilds. To have enough work for all of those men and their helpers was rare.  Many were in debt and unhappy with their conditions and the hand that the society of the time dealt them.

It was also at this time that the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille were taking place.  In Trier, some of that indignation was felt; and the tailor, though a small man, felt the need to challenge the authorities.  He went out banging his drum as workers and Masters from all the guilds began a revolution of their own.  The authorities made promises; and the men of Trier, not really revolutionaries at heart, went back to their work, including Herr Krautscheid, our master tailor. 

Christmas was coming, and he had only a few days left to finish some jerkins, a contract he was glad to have.  By Christmas Eve, his workers said he had the eyes of an owl to go on working when it was dark and the Christmas celebration was about to begin.  They left their Master, as was allowed by the Guild. 

 One of the young apprentices, as he was leaving, felt sorry for his master.  The tailor's wife had died and his children had gone off on their own.  He gently told the old man it would be such a good thing if he would take in a cat or a dog for company, especially during this holiday.  "I'm not alone" growled the old man, "I have my needle" – and indeed it was like a third hand to him.  As he sewed with it, he and the needle shared memories of past work, as one does with a friend.  

The old tailor had a jerkin for the Burgermeister to make, a job that had to be finished in time for the mayor to wear it to the Silvester (New Year's Eve) Dance.  One should not disappoint a man of importance if he knows what is good for him.

Mother and Child
Each night, the tailor stuck his precious needle in a piece of silk cloth and laid it on his pillow.  But when he awoke on Christmas morning, the needle was not there.  The tailor searched the bedclothes piece by piece, carefully examined every bit of the floor, but the needle was nowhere to be found.  Without it, he was desperate.  He believed it would be impossible to finish the jerkin on time without his needle and then he would no long receive the contracts which kept him in his business. 

He hurried to the Christmas Matins service where he stared for a long time at the Christmas nativity scene.  The mother of Jesus held her baby in her arms.  Both she and the child were protected by a large blanket secured in place by a sewing needle.  The longer the tailor looked at the scene, the more sure he was that this was his own precious needle which somehow had come to Mary and now was the only thing that was holding the blanket around the pair and thereby keeping the mother and babe warm. 

At first he wanted to have his friend, the needle, back with him.  But the more he looked, the more he realized that the needle had a more important purpose; it protected a mother and child from suffering in the cold.  His heart grew happy, and he softly whispered to Mary and her baby, the Savior of the world, that he gave his needle willingly and freely with a loving heart.  He knelt from early to late before the nativity scene all that Christmas day.

The next morning, he went to his workshop to try to finish the Mayor's jerkin before the deadline, but it lay there finished with beautifully sewn stitches.  His needle was in the collar of the jerkin, glowing at him. 

For it is true what is said, "he who gives freely, gets even more in return."

Neue Märchen aus Stadt und Land by Annette Craemer 
The Christmas needle legend is adapted from the chapter called "Das Trierer Schneiderhandwerk" in Trierisches Handwerk von der Vorzeit bis heute by Richard Laufner


  1. Sorry I've only just come to read this very affecting tale. I had not heard of it before although there is quite a collection of German legends and fairy tales on my shelves.

    The old country is full of such 'improving' and homely stories, I love them all, no matter how sentimental or kitsch. They are part of my 'Heimat' and growing-up there.

  2. I have recently discovered that my own 3rd great-grandfather was a master tailor in a small village in Oberfranken in the 1700's. How nice to find such a heart-warming story to help me form a picture in my mind of what his life may have been. Thank you.