It was the kind of Christmas young children dream of. As if by magic, snow had started falling on Christmas Eve and had covered the scars of the half-demolished buildings that marked the end of the Second World War. Even so, what had once been elegant buildings were reduced to sharp, dark patches of mortar poking through the clean whiteness.
My town was in the Coventry area of England, which had received the most destructive bombing. The Precinct, which had been the main shopping center for hundreds of years, had almost been obliterated by incendiary bombs. Heart-wrenchingly, the magnificent cathedral with its three spires had been reduced to a pile of ashes. The townspeople were trying to pick up the threads of their lives while still reduced to food rationing. There were no toys available, no Christmas trees, real or artificial, anywhere to be found. No turkeys or plum puddings. None of the wonderful memory makers children long for. England was crawling back from the edge of economic bankruptcy, and everything was unstable and unpredictable.I had suspected for some time that I was the "apple of my father's eye," and, like all children, I could not resist basking in his affection while making outrageous demands. I dearly wanted a real Christmas tree with pretty decorations, like the ones I had seen in picture books, and a baby doll and some games.
There was no point in explaining to me that my mother was working 10 hours a day, six days a week, in a little general store to pay the bills, or that my father was doing grueling work in a factory terribly depleted from the war effort. I was much too young to understand or sympathize.
Unbelievably, my mother had obtained some wool and was knitting every spare minute. I was curious. "What is it? Is it for me?" She would smile and give me an all-knowing look. "Remember, you can't expect too much for Christmas this year."
I stared in disbelief. "I don't want much, just a tree, a doll and some games." She shook her head sadly and continued with her handwork.
I heard the door bang, signaling my father was home. He looked exhausted and his clothes were damp, but I knew that no matter what his condition, he would have an affectionate if somewhat exasperated smile just for me.
That evening he did not stop, but went straight into the kitchen to see my mother. I stood in the doorway watching and listening. "Things are really tough this Christmas. Some of the men down at the factory are trading their food coupons for. . . ." He glanced uncomfortably in my direction, "T-O-Y-S."
I tried to look suitably disinterested and wondered, not for the first time, why grown-ups insisted on spelling everything they didn't want their children to know. Anyway, I shrugged it off; I considered myself one of the lucky ones. Both of my parents were still alive, and I had never been deprived of food and warmth, as some of my little friends had. I knew, deep in my heart, that my parents would rather go without themselves than see me suffer. It was a knowledge that would last my whole life.
I skipped over to the kitchen table, scrambling into my father's lap. "When can we put up the Christmas tree?"
His brow wrinkled, and he looked thoughtful. "I don't know sweetheart. It will have to be a surprise." I was impatient as only a young, carefree child can be. I had not noticed a tree anywhere in the house, but of course, he could have hidden it.
The snow was falling like a light mist when I noticed my dad in the yard, up to his knees in a drift, pulling dead branches from old trees and stuffing them into a brown paper sack. My nose pressed up against the icy window, I watched him carry the branches into the kitchen and try to force the pathetically frail twigs into a flower pot he had covered with silver paper.
Sitting down beside me, he pulled out an old children's coloring book and proceeded to cut out shapes of little animals, houses and birds. Bright eyed, I sat at his feet watching; something wonderful was about to happen, there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Putting the paper animals to one side, he went out to the potting shed and brought back the end of an old roll of almost nondescript, brown, ugly linoleum, which he rolled out flat on the floor.
Placing the little animals on top, he carefully traced around them and cut them out until he had an impressive collection of linoleum creatures. I gazed at him in awe as he rolled his sleeves up and started to paint the little objects with what I later learned were odds and ends of paints he had begged from neighbors. I had strict instructions to "blow on them until they dry," and I blew with all my childish enthusiasm. Using a needle and thread, he formed the loops and handed the little cut-outs to me to hang on the bare branches.
Standing back, I was filled with wonder. My father's little masterpieces had transformed the ugly, dead branches into a beautiful Christmas tree.
Christmas morning, I discovered the dolls my mother had knitted for me. One white, one black, with little coats and caps. I marveled at the empty thread bobbins my father had painted and which could be formed into a building block set. The broomstick had been transformed into a hobby horse, complete with bridle and eyelashes, and my parents had decorated the walls of the living room with scented pine cones and painted leaves.
I was speechless. In some miraculous manner, they had fulfilled my every wish. They were looking over at me with soft expressions that I later named their "Just as long as it makes you happy, it's worth all the effort" looks.
The light from the coal fire and the shimmering candles on the little tree made a glowing arc of iridescence in the darkened room. A draft of warm air made the little ornaments dance and gave me an indescribable feeling of peace and well-being.
I have attempted, every Christmas since to duplicate the spirit that was in our home that year. I would like my own children to experience the contentment and peace I enjoyed so long ago.
Try as I may, with expensive presents, elegant trees, packages decked in bright wrapping paper and large fancy bows, I have not been able to capture that special spirit again.
I kept the little linoleum parrot for years. It represented a sincere expression of love and devotion in a sometimes frighteningly insincere, adult world.
This Christmas I am determined to try again to recapture that special spirit, but I realize also that a truly magical Christmas may come only once in a lifetime.
About the author
A graduate in English from London University is today's author of "Christmas I Remember Best," the annual Deseret News writing contest.
"My father died a few years ago," Carole Western writes, "and I consider my association with such a loving, sensitive man one of the greatest experiences in my life. I wanted to pay tribute to a father who went the extra mile and made my childhood memorable."
Mrs. Western is presently the secretary of the Crafthouse Chapter of the Utah League of Writers. She is married to Ray Western and the couple has five children.