an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Christmas in America – A Special Gift Called Christmas

When I, as an adult, reflect back on my Christmases as a child, in my home in America, I touch on some of the dearest memories of a child in the USA – or, in any case, this one, and certainly many others! The innocence of the child’s soul, touched by the season’s special music and moods, magical Christmas lights and decorations in the shops and homes, the joyous atmosphere “when all seems [much more than] right with the world”, the anticipation of Christmas day, the food, the love and family, the gatherings with friends....It would only be later as an adult that I would learn from friends, that in their parts of America they had sometimes celebrated Christmas in slightly differing ways. But here is how it happened in our part of the country...

Thoughts, preparations and decorations for Christmas were mostly reserved until after Thanksgiving. And after the family’s huge Thanksgiving meal for the “four-day weekend” (two Thanksgiving holidays: Thursday and Friday, plus the weekend: Saturday and Sunday) – much of which in recent decades were occupied with numerous hours of watching American football games on TV – Christmas was coming, in a decreasing number of days. And as the number of days till Christmas decreased, the excitement and anticipation of the child increased – “I just can’t wait till Christmas!”

As a young child typically “believing in Santa Claus” (as it was said), the month consisted of waxingly buoyant school-days in a decorated classroom, a certain growing joyousness and playfulness, amidst the students, so that even school lessons were less tedious and boring. Choosing and buying small gifts for friends and classmates (and teacher!) at the local stores, with their windows and shelves laden with temptations, preparing for the class Christmas party...

While father worked, mother would buy and mostly decorate the beautiful tree – while also secretly buying Christmas gifts “from Santa Claus” for us children.

December was “cold” where we lived – or so we thought: sometimes around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celcius). “Snow” was mostly cotton balls on the classroom walls and Christmas decoration scenes here and there – in addition to the Christmas cards families sent to each other! Icicles consisted most often not of frozen water, but of a reflective foil which we hung on the trees. (As it reflected the colored (electric) lights on the tree, it made a wonderful, colorful effect.) During the month of Christmas, the blanket beneath the seven-foot tree (ca. 2 and 1/4 meters) would gradually disappear beneath the gaily wrapped presents left from time to time by friends and family. Realistically speaking, if there was even a sprinkling of snow on the ground, it was considered miraculous by all. I recall that one winter the entire school system in our town of 150,000 was “closed” for two days, after it had snowed about an inch of snow. It was so extraordinary, that it was spontaneously declared by city officials a city holiday! And we kids always loved unexpected days out of school to play – and even in real snow!

The nights were probably the most wondrous. The homes in most of the new, post-War suburbs’ neighborhoods would often be decorated with “Christmas lights” – strings of colored lights which were often hung not only on the Christmas tree visible through the living-room's windows, but also often along the outside door frames and posts of the houses. The doors would have a wreath of holly, and invariably some mistletoe over the door – which the young children ignored and the teenagers seemed to especially like, as an excuse for their first innocent kisses! The lights were like a revelation of the more joyful moods and feelings that people often had. And as Andy Williams, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and others sang sentimental Christmas songs permanently into our souls and memories, we counted the days till Christmas.

One part of the town, one neighborhood, had somehow gotten into a special tradition of decorating all of their houses elaborately. There would be life-size, painted and illuminated figures of Santa Claus and his reindeer and sleigh on some roofs; all of the houses had colorful lights, and often on the front lawn there would be special constructions of Biblical or Christmas scenes. Families from all over town would climb into the big family car, and drive to that part of town, to join hundreds of other cars, all slowing driving along the street looking at its decorations. As one exited the neighborhood, the last scene would often be of a “live” Bethlehem manger scene, with a real live Mary and Joseph – and a seldom-convincing doll in the crib: “baby Jesus”. Inside of the manger with its hay, there would even sometimes be real sheep! – though the cows were most often just wooden constructions. And, of course, there were the “Three Wise Men from the East” who had come following the prophetic, bright star which was somehow strung high over the whole manger scene, while Christmas music filled the street...

When it finally really was the night before Christmas, it was a wonder that I and my younger brothers and sister slept at all, the excitement and anticipation being usually so intense. The house on Christmas eve was full of music, good smells and tastes; the blanket beneath the beautiful tree was invisible – covered now with gifts, and the next day...Christmas!!!

Merry Christmas!

The evening TV news reports on December 24th had some special weather reports. The weatherman indicated that on radar a strange flying object was seen coming from the north – as all we kids, knew Santa Claus lived at the North Pole with his elves working on gifts most of the year. We children, of course, knew that this “UFO” was Santa Claus on his sleigh coming south to our home. All it took for our parents to get us to go into our rooms (though not therefore to sleep) was to say that Santa Claus couldn’t come into the house when the children were not in their beds asleep. How he came down the chimney and avoided the fire, were problems that for us children, a man with a flying sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, didn’t really have. He just did it somehow...magically! So, after preparing a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for the very busy Santa Claus (so many houses to visit!), we kids went off to our rooms “to sleep”. But before that would eventually happen, we would secretly peek out of our windows looking for him, and listen intently for the sounds of reindeer hooves on the roof – which the wind and the trees often provided for our eager imaginations. The lights were off, we could perhaps see little in the dark; and when we fell to sleep, we were all ears!

In later years, I heard, with lingering moral indignation, that some “bad” children in other homes, had actually awoken sometimes early in the morning, with the parents still asleep, and quietly sneaked into the room where the presents were, and were already familiar with the gifts that Santa Claus had brought, by the time their parents came looking for them. “Hi Mom. Hi Dad! Look what Santa brought us!” But in my family, all of us children were dutiful and obedient. Our mother would come to wake us up, and the immediate excitement would thrill us out of our usual morning drowsiness. All gathered together – in our pajamas, robes and house shoes – we processed to the room where the surprises we had dreamed of for a month were awaiting us.

Santa Claus was most often very smart. He generally knew which toys we had told our mom and dad over and again that we wanted for Christmas. In our home, each child had their own chair, where Santa had specially placed the gifts for each of us. “Walkie-Talkies” (small, cheap, short-range radio-telephones) were great gifts for us kids, as we immediately went to different parts of the house to talk to each other playing spies, army, or (electronic) cowboys. That morning was glorious for us kids. As the music played – “I’m dre-e-e-aming of a whi-i-i-i-i-te Christmas, just like the o-o-o-ne I used to kno-o-o-o-w....” – the family would gather together and would open the wrapped gifts to each other. Thus passed the morning with excitement and surprises, play and toys, wonderful sentimental music, candies and fun. Christmas morning!

As if preparing for all of this by our mother, and dad, had not been enough for them to do, there was Christmas dinner – basically Thanksgiving Dinner Two. At the dining-room table – in the room which we only used three or four times a year for special meals and events! – there was the huge turkey, and all of the delicious vegetables and dishes which our grandmother had learned as a child in the countryside. We ate, and ate, and ate. (And would only finish it all a few days later.) An afternoon nap. And then we went back to our toys, almost like waking up on Christmas day again.

Afternoons of Christmas days were usually filled by the visits of friends and neighbors, children and adults. “Me-e-r-r-r-r-y-y Christmas”, everyone would call out to each other with good-naturedly. Santa had naturally eaten his cookies and drunk his milk in the night. The gifts to the milkman, the garbage man, and the postman had all been placed where they would find them. All was right with the world!

It was a week of joy for us children, with almost two weeks of holidays (including New Year’s holidays), before school would begin in January. The weather cool, but not cold, we ate and played, and ate and played – but seldom in real snow.

Many children in America, then and now, did not have such a special, magical Christmas. Some families were poor, some troubled; some few others did not celebrate this holiday at all. But for those children and families that did, a special feeling was often laid into the heart and soul of the child, which, however forgotten and buried by the later adult burdens of life, still lies deep somewhere in the soul, like a special gift called Christmas. Even being 44 years of age, as I prepared this piece, I could still feel such distant dear moods and feelings deep in my soul – with thanks.

First published in the magazine English, #47, December 1996, p. 13.