For six weeks I had been admiring her as she sat, regally displayed, in the drugstore window. With her pink silk dress, raven curls, snapping black eyes and rosy cheeks the china doll represented everything a princess should be, and everything I wanted.
I think I must have prayed as I stood there often, dreaming and wishing she were mine. I secretly gave her a name, the most beautiful name I had ever heard. Not Karen, or Seena, or Katrina, or Inger -- common in our rural community of Scandinavians--but a lovely lilting American name I had seen in my Third Reader. The name was Lois. It was short, strong and when pronounced with two syllables, rhythmical. To this day -- now 65 years later -- I still like the name.
And so I dreamed. On my way to school each day I paused before the drugstore window to covet the brunet beauty. The days grew colder and shorter, and my mother bundled me into leggings, mittens and overshoes to keep me warm as I stood rooted before the lamp-lit window. I hardly dared to hope to own her. Other little girls were admiring her also, and most of them qualified for such a prize as much as I. Perhaps more, I reluctantly admitted. Also, I had been reminded that there were other children in our family to be considered.
A year earlier I might have thought that Santa from his bottomless bag might have been able to gratify the dearest wishes of all small children, but that time had passed. A realistic teacher had bluntly informed her class that she thought, as third graders, we were too old to believe in Santa Claus. There was no such person, she said, and we might as well know right then and there that it was our hard-working parents who provided our Christmas goodies.
Before we could ask the obvious question, she told us that inside that red suit and behind that white beard of the Santa each year at the Christmas Eve church program was none other than our rotund friend, the butcher Hans Oversen.
With enlightenment went my plans to write a letter to old Santa to plead for special consideration. It would be necessary to change my tactics. My father had held me close one day, and whispered that I was sweet. If he thought I was sweet then -- before I knew the real giver of gifts -- he now would think he had sired a saint.
Waiting would be hard; not until Christmas Eve when gifts were distributed at the church would I know if Lois were mine. The day came when she disappeared from the drugstore window, and my anxiety became acute. I busied myself with embroidering a cross-stitch sampler for my mother and rehearsing for the church program.
Because Danish Christmas traditions are so deeply ingrained, our immigrant parents were finding it difficult to compromise as their children brought home a new set of customs. No longer could Christmas Eve be the long festive family night it had been. Because of the church program in which every child had a part, family celebrations were curtailed. Parents were torn between preserving their own culture and basking in the pride of seeing their children become confident Americans.
We continued to observe the traditional feast of Christmas Eve, though we now gathered at the table in late afternoon rather than Juleaften. As I reveled in the familiar feast -- a golden goose stuffed with apples and prunes and garnished with sweet-sour red cabbage -- my tension eased. With the goose also came the comfort of knowing there would be new, goose down-filled pillows on our beds. It also meant that a new supply of goose grease was in the kitchen, to be rubbed on sore throats in the cold months ahead.
After the feast the family gathered for the tree-lighting ceremony. For some years we had clung to this pretty tradition, and it is a pleasant part of my very early memories. But as we grew older the Danish language began to leave us. Our parents smiled as we struggled with the Christmas songs, and chuckled at our accents. Also, dancing around the tree with brothers and sisters was not much fun once we had tasted the heady joy of church and school socials. Church was where the action was! There stage debuts were made, children received their presents and we joined our friends.
Our hair was curled, shoes polished and the girls' petticoats starched. This was the children's night. At exactly 7 o'clock the church bell rang. In the crisp, clear air it could be heard in every home in our small Iowa town. Doors opened, and whole families emerged to trudge through the snow to the Christmas program. As we entered the church all eyes went at once to the enormous, candle-lighted tree in the corner.
As I took my place in the front pew with the other children I searched the branches. There she was, near the top, her pink china-silk dress shimmering in the candle light, rosy cheeks and black eyes warm and glowing against the green. I could hardly bear it. What if she went to another little girl? Could I congratulate her and pretend to be glad? Maybe right then and there I should plead a pain from too much goose and ask to be taken home. But then, what if she were for me?
No, I had to stay. I was no longer a baby who believed in Santa Claus. I knew my present would be from my parents, and my papa had said I was sweet.
The rest of the evening is a blur in my memory. I recited my little "piece," sang in the children's chorus and joined the congregation in "Joy to the World!" With the sound of jingling bells and "Ho, Ho, Ho," Santa--who, of course, was really the butcher -- came down the aisle. For the moment I pretended to myself that I didn't know. It was more fun that way.
I remember popcorn and candy being given to everyone in bags marked "Compliments of Henningsen's Store." I remember other children receiving their gifts as Santa called their names, and I recall their squeals of delight as they ran to show them to parents who acted properly surprised. I suppose I must have been one of the last to receive my present -- it was high on the tree.
There, I've told you. Lois was mine.
And I still have her. Never once did I forget and leave her out in the rain, or in a place where she might fall and get broken. I loved her and so do my daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughter. She's still beautiful, and so are my memories of that night.