It had been two long years since it had been possible for the Alte Försterei to host 1. FC Union’s traditional Christmas service, the fabled and famous “Weinachtssingen.” Two years of silence on the night before Christmas eve, of the loneliness and emptiness that took the place of the warmth and love that this evening has always brought to the Unioner, ever since its curious inception two decades ago.
But last night it came back.
However, first, the story of the night itself is worth remembering, for it sums up so much about Union and their relationship to their fans. It had begun - as is often the way of these things when looking at the club's history - with the Unioner enduring a torturous season, watching loss after loss, and sitting in the relegation places of the 2. Liga at Christmas.
A few fans (including Torsten Eisenbeiser who would organise the event for many years after, and the sadly missed TeeCee) decided that they should shrug all this off, they had been so down with the state of the game that they hadn’t even said happy Christmas as they’d last left. So they broke into the stadium, almost a hundred of them, and they sung and they had a drink, and they remembered that supporting a football club is about family as much as it was ever about your position in the table.
So they came back the next year, and a few more joined. And then the year after that, and a few more joined. And Union’s Weinachtssingen went on and on, inexorably growing and puffing out its chest to the point where tens of thousands were coming along every year and this peculiar family Christmas celebration had stretched out of all possible scale to its humble origins.
What was important though was that the spirit remained, at least until its forced cancellation two years ago.
So last night, there were few dry eyes left in the house as all of that love came flooding back to a football stadium in the Wuhlheide forest in the southeast of Berlin, and as the voices of almost 30,000 people – both Unioner and not – swelled as one with those of the Emmy-Noether-Gymnasium choir.
And as the sound of church bells rang out around the stadium and the floodlights' lights were suddenly killed, all that remained was the flickering of thousands of candles in the darkness and the sound of the beginning of Nina Hagen’s own hymn to the club, it summed up this curious mixture of football and festivity. They sung as one of “Osten und Westen, unser Berlin” as they would then segue almost seamlessly into the traditional opener, “Guten Abend, Schön Abend”.
They chanted “Eisern… Union”, a call and response, as is done between the Waldseite and Gegengerade on matchdays, with a vigour that belied the personal and convivial atmosphere, before moving into “Oh Tannenbaum” without skipping so much as a beat.
Of course they sung that, they’d sung “Oh Tannenbaum” ever since that first ever time twenty years ago. There’s a story, recounted in Kit Holden’s book about the club “Scheisse! We’re going up”, that conjours up the irreverent, yet joyous nature of that first evening. They’d reached the line about “Wie grün sind deine Blätter”, when a voice piped up.
“Leaves? Leaves? Christmas trees have got needles, not leaves”.
Tears of laughter, tears of joy.
And as the Unioner have their founding stories, reverend Ulrich Kastner read that of the story of Christmas, for Eisenbeiser described the Weinachtssingen in that book as “the biggest church service in Germany not held in a church.”
There were the tones of the Eiserner Bläser brass band and the Mahlsdorf mens chorus, and a beautiful moment when stadium announcer Christian Arbeit on trumpet was joined by his mum and dad, on clarinet and trombone respectively, as the three played a gorgeous, moving “Oh come all ye faithful”.
Because what was this about if it wasn’t about about family, after all?
It mattered little that it rained, or that it started later than planned, because the Unioner hugged and they said “happy Christmas,” and as they made their ways home through the forest unconsciously re-enacting the trip of TeeCee and Torsten and all their friends all those years ago, it made the two year wait almost – almost - worthwhile.
A big thank you has to go to all the hard-working volunteers without whom this would not have been possible, as well as the official partners DKB and Mercedes-Benz Nutzfahrzeug-Zentrum Berlin-Brandenburg. M1 Med Beauty Berlin, KÖTTER Services, WG Systems, OGuM Gebäudemanagement GmbH, Smartdeal GmbH, Spielbank Berlin and 4initia GmbH supported the event as official sponsors.