Recently, I asked my father, “What was Christmas like when you were a kid, during the war?” This was a good time to ask, because, I had to get my mind off the constant drum of Macy’s “magic.”
Seems a current American Christmas is galaxies away from the Decembers of World War II occupied France. What I learned ….
Of all the small French villages one could call home in the 1940s, my father’s family lived in an unsettling bull’s eye. Who would guess this? They were, after all, dwelling in the picturesque Champagne region near the medieval city of Troyes. Creney, France was and still is a charming town dotted with reddish tile rooftops, surrounding farms and a solid old gothic church with stained glass windows and a courtyard of weathered tombstones.
But, this sweet village had one thing that delivered the war directly to my father’s young life — the largest power transformation station in Europe. The one that employed my grandfather, and which, as my father said, “gave juice to Paris.”
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I had visited this town many times. My grandfather and extended family still lived there, and it really hadn’t changed much since my father was a child. We would walk along the crunchy gravel roads. My dad would show us bullet holes in some buildings, and a monument dedicated to 53 local civilians who were massacred by the Gestapo on two terrible days. Two of many terrible days my father will never forget.
I’ve pictured some of his retold memories, but not quite through a December prism.
So, just a few weeks ago, after seeing way too many “doorbuster” ads, I posed the holiday-tinged question to my dad about his war-torn childhood. “What was Christmas like?”
He first answered, “It was not too great because we had rationing. Usually we had oranges for Christmas, but during the war we couldn’t get any.”
The lack of oranges was the first thing he uttered. This would seem strange to us, today, in the land of flat screens and pixels.
Oranges. He didn’t have oranges.
He went on, “In 1939, there were many French soldiers around because they had anti-aircraft guns and patrols to protect the power station. That Christmas, we invited a few soldiers to our house. There was champagne, food and singing. This was a contrast to 1940, the first Christmas we were occupied by the Germans.” That year he turned 11.
From 1940 to 1944, each Christmas got darker, both literally and emotionally. All windows had to be blacked out. There were no street lights. There was hardly any fuel, but even if a car was in use, he said, “We had to put blue paint on the headlights and leave just a little crack.”
Today, we watch commercials of Michael Bolton singing in fake snowfall at a fake Honda dealership. No painted headlights there. Happy Honda Days.
Worse, celebrations were compromised. My dad was an altar boy. The church was too battered so masses relocated to, of all places, a stable near the priest’s residence. It was transformed by carpenters.
My dad said people withdrew from normalcy. Folks were busy surviving. They had to boil milk and eat the rabbits they raised. “People did not get together. Everyone was for himself as the war went on.” For him, there were many close calls. Air raid shelters were real. He felt bombs shake the earth. He choked for air. Once, underground, a frightened neighbor’s fingernails dug deeply into his skinny arms.
Today, kids use fingernails to unwrap video games.
But even though five Decembers of his young life were dark, my father said this: “At night, you could see the stars like crazy. It was beautiful … a dome with millions of stars. I’ve never seen it here like that.”
Sorry, Best Buy. Can your pixels match what he describes?
I’m glad to know, that even in a war, my father was able to see beauty around him.
What a gift.