A Time of Gifts is an after-the-fact account of the author's journey from Holland to Constantanople on foot in 1933. The author went on to become a rather fascinating commando in WW2, and the book itself was written in 1977 with the benefit of hindsight, but based on the lengthy diaries that the author wrote as he wandered across Europe.
It's beautifully written, and takes place at that delicate point at which the first warning signs of the second world war were making themselves known. The Great War and chewed up a generation of European manhood, but it had left most of the great cities of Europe unscathed. Yet many of the cities which the nineteen-year-old Fermor wandered through were largely levelled in the second world war. And already as he walks across Germany the red flag with its black swastika is flying. Some Germans are marching to volk events in uniform, while others despite the short man with the tasteless mustache.
The following paragraph (from which the title is derived), about Christmas, 1933, struck me, and so I include it:
The only customer, I unslung my rucksack in a little Gastof. Standing on chairs, the innkeeper's pretty daughters, who were aged from five to fifteen, were helping their father decorate a Christmas tree; hanging witch-balls, looping tinsel, fixing candles to the branches, and crowning the tip with a wonderful star. They asked me to help and when it was almost done, their father, a tall, thoughtful-looking man, uncorked a slim bottle from the Rudesheim vineyard just over the river. We drank it together and had nearly finished a second by the time the last touches to the tree were complete. Then the family assembled round it and sang. The candles were the only light and the solemn and charming ceremony was made memorable by the candle-lit faces of the girls -- and by their beautiful and clear voices. I was rather surprised that they didn't sing Stille Nacht: it had been much in the air the last few days; but it is a Lutheran hymn and I think this bank of the Rhine is mostly Catholic. Two of the carols they sang have stuck in my memory: O Du Heilige and Es ist ein Reis entsprungen: both were entracing and especially the second, which, they told me, was very old. In the end I went to church with them and stayed the night. When all the inhabitants of Bingen were exchanging greetings with each other outside the church in the small hours, a few flakes began falling. Next morning the household embraced each other, shook hands again, and wished everyone a happy Christmas. The smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper. I wished I'd had something to hand her, neatly done up in holly-patterned ribbon -- I thought later of my aluminum pencil-case containing a new Venus or Royal Sovereign [pencil] wound in tissue paper, but too late. The time of gifts.