Christmas I Remember Best: Pardon me, Papa Noel

By Jeanne Rutishauser

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 8:34 p.m. MST

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This is the final of seven winners in the Deseret News' annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best."

Growing up in France during the '30s was not what one would call a thrilling experience, especially if one was unfortunate enough to belong to the laboring class, which I did.

The general idea that the world had of France being a glamorous and romantic place was true only for the middle and upper-middle classes. The working class had to struggle day in and day out with poverty, high taxes and just plain surviving in squalid surroundings. The future seemed rather bleak for us children. The only two things that made my life bearable were the love of my family and the exciting world of books. Books made me forget the poor neighborhood I lived in and my ugly clothes.

My clothes were hand-me-downs from my big sisters, and the only new thing I was allowed to have was one toy a year at Christmas. Only one. As an adult, I now realize what sacrifices my parents had to have made to provide for that one toy for each of their four girls, but at the time, I was much too young and too self-centered to be aware of their hardships.

Christmas 1935, just before my eighth birthday, stands out in my mind as the time I became a con artist. When poverty stares you in the face on a daily basis, you learn young to work your way around it.

On Christmas Eve, as tradition warrants, I polished my shoes to a mirror finish and placed them before the fireplace for Papa Noel to admire. Papa Noel is very partial to polished shoes, I was told, and might find it in his heart to have a special toy for you, if you're good. Well, lately I had been very good, so my chances were great. It's uncanny how children's behavior improves with the approach of Christmas.

Sleep eluded me that night. I was too excited at the prospect of that toy I had waited for all year. One year for a child is of course double eternity, and that eternity was about to end in just a few hours. This was too overwhelming for the little person I was.

At last daybreak came. I ran barefoot on the cold tiles to the fireplace, my heart beating like a drum. A tiny table and a tea set were waiting for my eager arms. How could anything so exquisite be mine? "Louisette, Mireille, wake up! Papa Noel has come. Come and see what he gave me."

I was so thrilled with my new gift that I did not want to take time to remove my night clothes or even stop to eat lunch. All day long I played and imagined fancy ladies having tea with me. I smiled and bowed gracefully and was the perfect hostess to my imaginary guests.

And then night came, alas too soon. Why couldn't we have Christmas more often like, let's say, everyday? If I placed my shoes in front of the fireplace tonight, could I fool Papa Noel into thinking that it was Christmas Eve all over again?

After all, the man was getting awfully old and bent and, like many old people, had probably become forgetful. It was worth the try, and I certainly had nothing to lose.

Once more I placed the spit-polished shoes on the tiled floor and went to bed with visions of toys and treasures piled high in front of the fireplace. Not too surprisingly, sleep fled from me. I laid in bed staring at the darkness in the room and listening for every creaking noise. A long, long endless night.

The sounds of morning brought me running to the hearth before anyone else was up. My little shoes were overflowing with candles, nougats and chocolates. I exploded with joy. I had won! I had succeeded in fooling Papa Noel. Oh what a clever child I was. I had found an endless source of free goodies.

That night, I repeated the same procedure. As I set down my shoes, I realized how small they were, and the little imp on my left shoulder whispered to me to go to the closet and fetch my father's boots. It made sense that the bigger the shoe, the bigger the loot. My devious young mind was already working overtime. How fast one learns.

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