• gmontcombroux

Christmas isn’t always just December 25 - Childhood Memoirs

Women at the soup kitchen

Last Christmas I was walking through my local mall and came upon a group of young children staring , wide-eyed, at a rotund Santa handing out candy canes, while a photographer snapped pictures.

“And what would you like Santa to bring you?” he asked.

Each in turn stated what they wanted, so many things I lost track. Oh, the innocence of those privileged kids, sheltered from the harsh reality of the real world! I mentally wondered how long before they found out that other children, some living only a few streets away and others in distant parts of the world beset by war and civil strife, were also making wishes.

But theirs were for a handful of food, a safe place to sleep and the chance to go to school. Those children had long since shed every scrap of innocence. If I had a magic wand, for them I’d make every day a Christmas Day, because Christmas doesn’t have to be only on December 25.

When I was a small child, World War 2 raged around me. For me, Christmas was something I read about in books. Yet, I considered myself well off because I owned a battered trunk filled with equally battered books, which I’d begun reading at the tender age of three. At home, when our shoes were worn through, I helped my grandmother sew scraps of canvas to make sandals using woven raffia for the soles. My task was to braid the raffia into tight coils. The work suited my small but nimble fingers, as did the kitchen work of sifting the beans and lentils for small stones and other debris. I helped in other ways, too, such as aiding grandmother unpick old clothes to make me a dress or coat. I was good at unravelling an old sweater while grandfather wound the yarn into a ball for reknitting into socks.

During those dark days of war, my grandfather would get up early to line up at the bakery in the hope of being able to buy, with his ration coupons, a loaf of gray, heavy bread. There was never enough to go round. Sometimes I would accompany him, for he limped badly and was becoming blind. “Souvenirs of the First War” he would say stoically. The lapel of his threadbare jacket carried the faded ribbon bar of that first senseless conflict.

None of this stark really was reflected in the books in my trunk. When I went with grandmother to buy milk I would see women with tired, sad faces, trudging from store in the quest, often in vain, to buy enough food to feed their families for that day. And the weather was bitterly cold. At the first snowfall, we kids thought it fun, the cold a mere inconvenience. But the deep chill lasted and life became grimmer. I took refuge in my beloved books.

Sometimes, men, total strangers, would stay at the house for a day or two. I would accompany my grandfather and we escorted these silent men to some destination, where they would suddenly leave us. No explanation was ever give and I knew better than to ask. Sometimes, we were frightened to go out, for a good reason too. A couple of our neighbors on their way home were caught in a Gestapo sweep. We never saw them again.

Almost every night the air-raid sirens would sound their blood-curdling wail. When that happened we calmly went down to the dark basement and waited while Allied bombs pummeled the city around us.

On August 25, 1944, all this abruptly changed. Laughter rang through the house. Excited neighbors flooded into the street, shouting, “The Germans have gone! The Allied forces have entered Paris!” I remember walking the ten kilometers to where my great-uncle owned a café-tabac, one of those typically French bistros, where we used to go whenever my great-uncle announced he had food to share.

A crowd filled the street in front of the café. Uniformed soldiers stood around – were they American, Canadian, British? I didn’t know. All I knew was they were not German. Uncle was busy opening bottles of Champagne, the Champagne he’d cunningly hidden in his cellar, away from the grasping enemy. Complete strangers were singing and dancing together. Before that day I’d never seen anyone laugh, let alone dance.

I plastered a silly smile on my little girl’s face and naively asked, “Is it Christmas?” People stopped and looked at me. A soldier stepped forward and handed me a shiny red apple. “Yeah, it sure is Christmas!” He spoke French with a funny accent. Another soldier handed me a stick wrapped in foil and green paper. The label read Wrigley Spearmint Gum. I cradled my unexpected gifts as though they were pieces of delicate Limoges china. Someone in the crowd yelled “Joyeaux Noël!” and “Merry Christmas!” A soldier began to sing Silent Night in a fine baritone voice, accompanied by an improvised chorus of mingled English and French voices. To my young ears this was the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard. The melody was unknown to me but it was deeply moving in its simplicity.

The war was not over and food was still scarce. Overhead there was the almost constant drone of heavy bombers, but now their bombs were not for us.

I ate the apple but the chewing gum I kept well into my teenage years, until, unfortunately, it was lost in a move.