It was all like a dream. I closed my eyes for a moment, opened them, and looked around for the second time. "Could it be real?", I
asked myself. This was December 24th, and we were celebrating Christmas eve in one of Europe's larger cathedrals, the Church of the Holy
Trinity, on Avenue 23rd and George V, in Paris.
The rays of the late afternoon sun streamed through the stained glass windows behind the altar, slanted across the choir pews, and flooded the chancel with a rosy glow. Draped high above the gothic arches on both sides of the great nave were 24 colorful flags
of many countries. From my pew near the front of the church, I looked up and was thrilled to see our American flag displayed directly above me, the second on the left.
To add to my enjoyment, three small granddaughters dressed in red velvet, eyes shining,
and faces radiant with the expectation of the celebration, sat behind the chancel rail ready to participate in the ceremony. The soft music of the organ reverbrated from
the ribbed vaulting of the ceiling, and drifted through the galleries to fill the air with
strains of the Messiah. Two grandsons, dressed in the robes of their
office as altar boys, marched in the solemn procession to the altar, which was resplendent in its seasonal vestments.
Yes, it was Christmas eve, one of the most sacred and memorable nights of the year.
After the service, as we drove to their home in the western suburbs during a heavy snow-storm, I cuddled my youngest granddaughter, Michelle, in my arms and reflected on the Christmas of my childhood.
How different! Simple but beautiful, was the holiday I experienced as a little girl living 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in the heart of rural America. Instead of traveling up the Champs Elysees, around the Arc de Triomphe, through the Bois de Boulogne, across the river Seine, and out to the western suburbs of Paris, I was back in my native country.
Mentally ruffling through the pages of time, I saw myself as a small child, held close to Mamma's breast, wrapped in her black woolen shawl to keep out the cold of a winter's night. Sister Naomi was safely tucked in at the foot of the dashboard, warmed by the heat of the soapstone, and covered with the buffalo robe. Papa firmly grasped the reins and guided the horse as he pulled the sleigh over the ice
It was a simple setting; a small country church surrounded by a cluster of homes, in a tiny village among seven hills. The bell in the steeple chimed out, inviting all to worship on that sacred
occasion, the birthday of our Saviour. As we left the church, voices of our friends called out, "Goodnight Merry Christmas."
The night was clear and cold and the moon was full. It glided in and out between the clouds, changing the mirrored glaze on the crust of frozen snow to shadows of blue and gold. Soon we were lulled to sleep by the tinkle of sleighbells as old Dave trotted along the narrow country road,
down a steep slope, and across the wooden bridge over the Bark river.
We circled through open fields to cut around roads closed by deep drifts, and crossed stone fences buried under the snow. Slender curlicues of smoke rose from the chimneys of farmhouses along the roadway. Our dog Shep barked a welcome when we turned up the lane to our
farm home built on the crest of a hill. Tomorrow we would experience the thrill of findimg Santa's gifts and the Christmas tree.
Mamma's wisdom and ability to create a beautiful Christmas, using her talents and a few
simple materials available, is something I shall always remember. With Papa to help carry
out the fantasy of Santa Claus, select the tree, cut and drag it from the woods, they made a
great team, and succeeded in keeping us keyed up for the event right up to the time we stepped from the sleigh after returning from Christmas eve services.
Our first exposure to Santa Claus came when the rural mail carrier delivered the Sears & Roebuck mail order catalogue. We watched for him every day and when he finally brought the "wishing book", as it was called, we crouched down on the kitchen floor, thumbed through the toy section and made out our order. Mamma checked the list and gave us a gentle lecture about Santa's limited finances, his busy work schedule, and the needs of orphans, children
in larger families, and the poor. We too were poor, but sheltered and loved by our devoted parents, we felt we were rich.
We never saw the inside of a department store, but knew Christmas was coming when the country storekeeper filled his bins and barrels with almonds, peanuts, Brazil nuts. and pecans. His candy counter displayed the most tempting varieties of candy. Wavy ribbon candy, red and yellow cherries joined together in pairs by short wires, striped peppermint canes, and a great supply of round sucking candies with colorful edges and dainty designs in their centers made our mouths water. Naomi and I pressed our noses up to the glass case to view the tantalizing display, hoping the storekeeper would put one or two pieces in the bag he usuually sent home in Mamma's egg case filled with her weekly purchase of groceries.
If our parents were acting strange before the event of Christmas, we never noticed it.
When Papa carried the lantern to the tool shed after evening chores, we assumed he was sharpening his axe and chisels for cutting stove wood the next day.
Mamma' s sewing machine hummed away at a steady speed after we were put to bed. She explained she was making something for us to give to our teacher as a Christmas gift, or sewing pillow cases for the church bazzaar. Somehow we never connected her secret sewing sessions at night with the coming of Christmas..
It was years before we realized, that with his clever hands. Papa designed and constructed the doll furniture and simple t6ys we believed
were presents from Santa. Or that Mamma, using bits and pieces of scraps and
leftover materials from her sewing basket, dressed our dolls in hand-made wardrobes fit for a princess. In later years, aware of our parents conspiracy, we merely settled back and enjoyed all their efforts to keep Santa alive.
The air was filled with secret activities
weeks before Christmas. After supper Mamma and Papa sat up to the kitchen table and cracked nuts. There were hickory nuts, black walnuts and hazelnuts, all harvested from trees and shrubs on our farm. It had been such fun in Autumn to romp through the woods and along fence rows to gather nuts, shuck them, and spread them out on the front porch to dry. We knew they would some day become a part of the
tasty cakes, cookies and candies prepared by Mamma.
When the nuts were cracked she put them in fruit jars and stored them on the top shelf of the pantry, out of reach of hungry children. At Christmas time when she reached up on the shelf, by some miraculous method, at least so we concluded, the nut meats had been made into fondant, sea foam, taffy and fudge. We credited Santa with being a good cook along with his many other talents.
Our country school teacher, along with teaching eight grades, doing the janitor work and walking two miles to school morning and night,
took the time to train the children for plays to be presented at a Christmas program for their parents. Her artistic drawning done on the blackboards in colored chalk, depicted Santa on a rooftop ready to climb down a chimney, or riding in a sleigh with a huge bags of toys. Arms and legs of dolls, drums, horns and Teddy bears were sticking out of the top of the bags, reminding us of the things we
neglected to include on our Christmas list.
The school program was presented a week before Christmas. In addition to a play, there were songs and recitations. At the end of the program everyone joined in singing Jingle Bells. Suddenly there was a sharp jangling of sleigh bells and we knew Santa was outside the door. Frightened at the alarm, we ran to the protecting arms of our parents.
A member of the school board played the part of Santa. What a hideous looking character he was! His costume was a long shabby red coat, a red stocking cap and a horrible false face
mask with a stringy cotton batten beard attached. What a disappoint-
ment after seeing him pictured in books as a jolly, roly-poly man dressed in a red velvet suit, trimmed with white fur, and his snow-white hair and whiskers curled
around a smiling face. We actually cringed when Santa called our names to come forward to receive our gifts and often refused to accept them. It was years later when my own children visited Santa in the large department stores, or viewed the annual Christmas parade, that I actually saw the "real Santa Claus."
The weeks before Christmas were filled with plans and excitement. A rehersal for the church Christmas program was held on a Saturday afternoon. It consisted of a pageant, songs and recitations. Dressed in costumes improvised from old bed sheets, we became angels; in old bath robes we played the parts of shepherds, wise men, and even evolved as Joseph and Mary. A large doll, representing the infant Jesus, was wrapped in white flannel
diapers and rested on a manger bed made by using two sawbucks and an armful of straw. It was all so beautiful in the eyes of a child.
At times the setting and characters seemed so real, we thought we actually were in Bethlehem on that holy night.
As we stepped inside the church on Christmas eve, we felt we were in another world. The kerosene lamps, set in brackets on the sides of the church, were turned down low, casting a soft glow of light toward the beautiful stained glass windows. A tall fir tree, brought from the woods nearby, stood on one side of the altar, its branches decked with strings of tinsel, a few glit glittering ornaments, some sticks of peppermint candy tied with red ribbon, and pairs of red and yellow candy cherries. White tallow candles set in metal holders were clamped to the tree. A star-shaped ornament placed at the top, looked as if it had fallen from Heaven and became attached by itself.
Two wood burning stoves, one on each side of
the church, had been stoked early in the afternoon. Their warmth wafted the spicy odor of the fir tree throughout the room, and our flesh,
hair and clothing absorbed the scent of the woods, candle wax, and oil from the flickering lamps.
The service began. We had practiced religiously
and memorized everyone's part as well as our own. When our turn came to go to the front of the church to recite "our piece," we looked out over the ocean of faces in the congregation, nervously tugged and twisted on the bows on our new Christmas dresses - and forgot the words. After being prompted, we stuttered through the whole thing, forgetting Mamma's admonition not to swing and sway, or speak
in a sing-song voice.
After a short prayer, parents and children all joined in singing Silent Night, Holy Night
to the music of the old hand-pumped organ up in the balcony. Meanwhile four ushers, using long lighted tapers, marched up the center isle to light the
candles on the tree. It was a dangerous as well as a dramatic procedure, and a hushed silence fell over all. The candles sputtered as they burned low, and concerned parents gave a sigh of relief when the last one was snuffed out.
Suddenly there was a stomping of feet on the
church porch. A jingle of sleigh bells outside the door announced Santa' s arrival. Everyone turned to glance back at the door, and we squirmed while waiting for his magic appearance. The ushers ran to the entry, but somehow Santa never did appear, however, he dropped off several gunny sacks filled with presents. His absence was excused because he would be
"remembering the children all over the world."
The ushers carried the bags to the front of the church and called the names in alphabetical order. We waited patiently until our name was called. Each child was given a brown paper bag tied at the
top with a piece of red yarn. The bags were filled with nuts and sucking
candy, all mixed together, an apple or an orange, and a candy cane stuck out of
the top of the bag.
After all the gifts were distributed Mamma bundled us up in our warm clothing while Papa brought up the horse and sleigh. The night
was clear and still, and there were millions of stars sparkling in the sky. We gazed upward as Mamma pointed out the Christmas star, the three sisters and the big and little dippers. To the music of snow squeaking under the rudders of the sleigh, Naomi and I fellasleep, clutching the brown paper bags tightly in our chubby hands.
Old Dave knew the way home along the drifted
country roads and pulled the sleigh up to the kitchen door. Mamma gently awakened us; Papa carried us into the house, stabled the horse, and hurried back to start playing the role of Santa Claus. We were urged to get undressed, hang up our stockings, and get to bed before Santa started making his rounds.
Ours was not one of those lovely houses having
a fireplace where we could hang up our stockings, or a wide chimney for Santa to make his entrance. The house was kept cozy and warm with three stoves, a kitchen range and two Round Oak Stoves, one in the parlour, which was closed and used only on special occasions, and the other in the large dining room which also served as our sitting sitting room.
It didn't take us long to slip
into our nighties and hang our into the top of the wainscoating behind the
stove. We scrounged around in the mending basket and found one of Papa's socks to hang up too, hoping Santa would put something other than an apple or a potato in it this year.
Mystified as to how Santa would squeeze through the round stove-pipe which connected the hot stove to the brick chimney, we begged Mamma not to add another chunk of wood to the fire. She assured us it would soon die down and cool off. She lighted a candle, parted the lace curtains and set it on the window sill. Santa certainly would have no problem
finding our house tonight.
After saying our prayers, we were tucked into bed with the admonition not to get out of bed, not even for a drink of water. Papa, playing the Santa Claus game, called out in a clear strong voice, "Don't forget to open the
damper in the chimney Clara, so Santa can slide through." Puzzled by our parents mysterious actions; the opening and closing of doors; the rattle of paper and the low murmuring and whispering, we crept under the covers wishing it were
We were awake long before daylight, but Mamma
ordered us to stay in bed until Papa finished the morning chores. In a short time we heard the kitchen door slam and Mamma called out, "ready girls." We bounded out of bed helter-skelter and ran out to find the parlour door wide open. Papa with his arms circling Mamma's waist, led us into the parlour which had been
locked since Thanksgiving day.
What a fairyland! We were spellbound. There stood the Christmas tree, selected and tagged on an
early Autumn day, and recently cut from our own woods. Its top almost
touched the ceiling and the lower branches spread out gracefully about a foot above the floor. It was decorated with garlands of shining tinsel and a few of Mamma's precious, fragile ornaments. A beautiful, heavenly angel, robed in snow-white garments looked down approvingly from the top of the tree. The spiral shaped,
colored wax candles were placed near the ends of the branches in metal holders clamped tightly to the tree, and spaced to avoid contact with the trimmings. Because there were so few ornaments, star shaped frosted ginger cookies, strings of popcorn, cranberries, and bits of ribbon salvaged from Mamma's sewing basket had
been added to the decorations.
Propped up at the base of the tree were some new dolls - at least
we thought they were new until we looked closely and recognized our old
doll with a china head and black hair. She was dressed in a new costume of red and white gingham, and sitting beside her, looking very prim and pretty, sat our old doll with the blonde hair wearing a new gown of blue and white dotted swiss. Why they looked just like new dolls! All the stuffing and sawdust had been replaced
in their wounded arms and legs, with only a few scars to remind us of their tragic past.
Of course there were always books. The Sunbonnet Baby series, a copy of Swiss Family Robinson, a book of Bible stories, and a second-hand copy of the Chatterbox were stacked under the tree, ready to supply many hours of enjoyable reading.
And there in the freshly painted
doll buggy, sitting like a queen riding in a chariot, was our old Topsy, the dilapidated rag doll, all togged out in a new outfit.
Our eyes opened wide when we saw Mamma's shallow blue and white granite pan under the tree, filled with frosted and decorated animal cutout cookies, springerle, and lebkuchen, all smelling of mace, anise and fragrant vanilla.
Each year a china bowl (Made in Nippon), edged in cobalt blue, and decorated with a small blue and white oriental design, was filled with mixed nuts. A nut cracker and several picks stuck up in the center of the bowl. While we stared at the tree, too dazed to speak or move, Papa sat down in the willow rocker beside the center table and cracked nuts. Mamma stood by to enjoy the glow of happiness which shone in our eyes.
There was so much to see and do that we forgot
to look in our stockings. We rushed behind the stove and pulled out the trinkets one by one, marveling how Santa filled all the requests on our Christmas lists, or nearly all of them. And then we turned to Papa's sock hanging limp and empty. Oh no - there was a bulge at the toe. A turnip? How could Santa neglect our wonderful Papa who was so loving, kind and thoughtful of everyone? Oh well - Papa was back in the parlour enjoying the nuts, while he rocked back and forth contentedly, with an
ear cocked to hear our conversation.
After breakfast Mamma baked spicy mincemeat
pies, stuffed the goose, sewed it up with store string and pushed it into the oven, for Grandpa, Grandma, and the uncles, aunties and cousins were coming for Christmas dinner.
Aunt Lizzie played Christmas
carols as we all gathered around the piano after supper for a sing-a-long. I can still hear Papa's deep bass voice booming out clear and strong as we sang
At twilight time we begged our parents to light the candles on the
tree. We were seated a safe distance away and cautioned not to make a move. Papa used stick matches to light the candles one by one. Mamma stood a few paces to the right with a bucket of water in case of a fire.
The starched, green and white lace curtains on the parlour
windows made a perfect background for the lighted tree with its sparkling candles and
gleaming ornaments. We sat quietly in our chairs, eyes glued to the tree, unable to utter a single sound. I can still picture the beautiful extravaganza today. After a short time Mamma and Papa dampened their fingers and snuffed the candles to save enough of their length for a second and final lighting on New Year's Eve.
Again we had missed seeing Santa, but we were certain that he lived, for we were enjoying the evidence of his kindness and generousity.
Perhaps we would see him next year.
The little red, eight passenger Volkswagen bus made a sharp turn off the periphery, at La Celle, St. Cloud, a suburb of Paris, and stopped at Domaine de Bouregard. The sudden jolt, and the children shouting for joy,
aroused me from my reverie of "Those Days" of my childhood.
With eager anticipation our grandchildren scampered out of the little bus and into their home to discover St. Nicholas and the Christmas
tree. Presents wrapped in patterned paper and tied
with colorful ribbons were piled high under the lower branches of the tree. Instead of
a granite pan, enameled canisters were filled with frosted and decorated cut-out cookies, and a variety of candies, all made by their mother, following her grandmother's recipes.
The tree gleamed with lights
powered by electricity in place of spiral shaped wax candles. Their stockings, bulging with gifts, were hanging at a real fireplace, but there was one difference. Their father discovered a transistor radio in his stocking instead of a turnip.
We had crossed the ocean to recapture the
spirit of Christmas in the lives of our grandchildren, and discovered that Christmas is the same all over the world. Saddened to be separated from those dear to us at home, we called on our wealth of memories to relive the days of the past.
The pattern of love and devotion, so tenderly
woven into life by our parents, is repeated in
the fabric of our children's lives. They, in
turn, have passed it down to our grandchildren
and great-grandchildren. I am grateful that
they too know Christmas as a season of great
joy; a time to celebrate "The Birthday Of a
"For unto you is born, this day, in the
city of David,
a Saviour, which is Christ
the Lord." Luke 2:11
"And The Angels Sing"
Copyright © 2000 Bruce DeBoer
Used with permission of the composer