(debutantes galore….gift-wrapped for the occasion…and a hard lesson learned)

At the risk of being totally politically incorrect, indulge me for a bit,  as I  reminisce about times long past, in old St. Louis, when even the still bloody rumbles of World War Two, couldn’t get in the way of Christmas partying. In fact, in this case, Christmas 1944, came at the climax of that war in Europe, with some of the bloodiest fighting yet to come.

But, the insouciance of youth, and socially privileged youth at that, was not about to let a little old war dampen its Christmas festivities which, traditionally, was one continuous round of balls, parties, eggnog and brandied bashes, and feasting, of one kind or another. For the last ten days of the year, Christmas through New Year, everyone literally lived in their party clothes (tuxedos and gowns) for most of that time. 

Of course, winter snows could get in the way sometimes, but, boots, fur hats, coats, scarves and warm gloves and mittens, ensured no one caught cold. Besides, helping  ”blossoming” debutantes out of such gear, to reveal lusciously bear shoulders and artfully arranged cleavage, barely held in by low-cut ball gowns, made it an even greater delight for their hormonal teenage escorts. It was truly debutantes galore….all gift-wrapped for the occasion.

St. Louis “society” in those days was not just affluent it was filthy rich, from mostly so- called “old money”…which wartime industry profits simply made grander.  In its day it was the jet-set, with private railcars, ocean liners, and the occasional airplane, instead of private jets.  But, wealth was not the critical measure of social status there. Family lineage and connections (the more ancient French-related the better) determined how one was allowed to be part of it. So, tradition and ceremonial social rituals were of great importance. And part of that was the cardinal rule of – noblesse oblige – the class obligation which required doing good things for the less fortunate of the community.

So while Christmas was the occasion for much merrymaking and conspicuous consumption (not to mention as much fun and games with the opposite sex as could be had), it still involved certain civic activities, such as fund raising for various charitable city programs.

One of the ways funds were raised in that season was with –carolers – In each and every neighborhood groups of a dozen, or more, were organized and licensed to go door to door in their designated area to –carol- for donations. Each group carried a red painted specially capped, sealed, and numbered, water bucket, in which donations received were inserted through a slot in the cover. At the end of the caroling, these buckets were then turned in to the city’s collection centers set up for that purpose.

Thus, there was great competition to put together as large and as well-voiced a group as possible, for those who undertook that duty. The larger and better costumed and sounding groups of carolers always got more and bigger donations. It was a fine way to support charitable programs and social services.

Our gilded youth, naturally, engaged in some serious maneuvering and campaigning to get the best possible group together. Of course, ulterior motives were also in play. Everyone vied for getting paired up with some of the “hottest” bimbettes, and “hunkiest” stud muffins available. To be frank, we “hunks” never really had any control over the situation. The “hotties” were the real deciders about who was going to be with whom. And most of the time, being hormonal teenagers, we stud-muffins didn’t really care what they decided for us. Just being part of such a mob, and having a shot at some fantasied moments of bliss to be….was good enough.

The system worked like this: Right after Thanksgiving, the grand dames and chaperons of society would begin making calls to gather these packs of civic minded youth. Eventually, formal invitation cards would arrive, giving the selectees their assigned group number, and where the first get-together for practice and rehearsal would be. This was usually at someone’s mansion house either on mansion row facing Forest Park, or, at one of St. Louis’ peculiar gated-block enclaves (a number of which still remain in what is now known as the West End).

These gatherings were somewhat informal, but food and drink spreads were the norm, and rehearsals tended to degenerate into some serious partying. Still, things were never allowed to go beyond certain limits. Fun and hi-jinks were okay, but we were there to work up some good routines, so, somehow, this was usually achieved at an acceptable level of quality despite all that.

 Somewhere around the middle of December, the holiday balls and cotillions began, intermixed with private parties and other gatherings. For the better part of two weeks it was round after social round, leaving of an evening,  only returning in the wee hours of morning. Sleep…became an unknown luxury.

The big day arrived on Christmas Eve. Dressed in our finest costumes, we gathered at the designated house. There we had a light buffet spread, and other goodies to help keep us warm, were handed our donation bucket (now decked out with a few decorations), and off we’d go….caroling around our assigned area, collecting donations, and otherwise having a grand old time of it. One of the main reasons for that being many of the folks who opened their doors to our caterwauling, besides their donations, would also insist on providing us with eggnog, toddies, hot rum punch, and so on. By the end of our caroling time, our condition was “wobbly” to say the least.


So we would troop back to where we had started, to warm and otherwise revive ourselves. This required close huddling (and cuddling) by the nearest fireplace available, as we told and re-told some of the zanier aspects of our caroling efforts.  Then, it was time for the main event of Christmas Eve. It was a long standing tradition, and everyone in St. Louis, regardless of denomination, did their best to be there for midnight mass at the Cathedral.

The St. Louis Cathedral is a full scale replica of the Byzantine St. Sophia, in Istanbul. Its domed spaces are stupendous, easily containing thousands of people. Its mosaics rival the grandest in the world, covering every nook and cranny from floor to top of its domes. And when it is all lit up for that occasion, the setting is truly awe inspiring. Thus the combination of that mass’s rituals, the live nativity scenes, the massive organ, and the choirs, culminating with everyone there joining their voices with these for a truly impressive rendition of Handel’s Messiah, made that Midnight Mass event the one place in the city where everyone tried to be. It was a grand community tradition.

And on that Christmas Eve, 1944, everyone there was especially moved. Thankful for the possible end of the war in Europe, and desperately hoping it would soon be over in the Pacific. It was a spiritually and otherwise heartfelt moment.

Even so, though somewhat sobered by it all, we trooped back afterwards for the traditional post-mass feast, this time at the mansion of another designated host for the occasion. Snow was falling, and someone in the group had arranged for a half dozen sleighs to carry us all to it. Our destination was only some six or seven blocks away, but it was a truly –Jingle Bells – moment. By the time we arrived there we were all in a strong party mood again.

I don’t recall much about that party, beyond it being one of the plushest and festive ones yet. The mansion had a huge ball room, with a hot jazz band which soon had everyone cavorting in complete abandon. Its main dining room had a most opulent buffet spread, laid out on one of the biggest and most massive conference tables I’d ever seen, covered with several damask spreads that almost reached to the floor. Ice sculptures, and other decorations, made it a feast for the eyes, not just our mouths.  And the sideboards held an array of eggnog, brandy and rum punches, which uniformed servants kept refilling as fast as their contents disappeared.  It was enough to make Lucullus jealous.

Well, at some point in the festivities, I eventually found myself on the floor, under that table, happily sandwiched between two luscious debutantes who had apparently joined me there…all three of us dead to the world, closely cuddled together under several fur coats tumbled  over us. Neither of the young ladies stirred, as I came to, tried to stretch, staring at the underside of that table and wondering what sort of secret magical cave I had stumbled into.  Slowly, I began extricating myself from between these two lovelies, still gift-wrapped in their fancy gowns, still dead to the world, softly purring away,  with the residual of their perfumes, and their warmth, making me sorely tempted to just stay put…and enjoy the situation even longer.

But I sensed it was coming on to dawn, and I had to get home to meet my obligations there. Christmas morning was not a time to be late or absent from my grandmother’s traditional planned gathering for it. So, giving each of my ladies a chaste peck on the cheek, and an impish pat on their rumps, I managed to worm myself from between them, and out from under that table. 

Standing up and stretching, I looked about the room. All around me were others curled up or otherwise laid out, still in their party clothes, and all dead to the world too. The festivities must have really ended with a crash.

Straightening out my tux, which was a wrinkled and spotted mess, I wobbled out towards the entry hall of that mansion where I somehow managed to find my coat, hat, muffler, and gloves, quietly opened the front door, and then stepped outside.

It was still dark, but a faint glimmer of dawn was beginning to show.  Snow was ankle deep. The cold air hit my face like a thousand tiny needles.  Though not far away, only six blocks or so, it was going to be a hard slog, so I started trotting, my footfalls muffled by the snow. All the while I kept happily humming to myself. It had been one hell of a Christmas Eve celebration. My only unhappiness about it was that I had absolutely no idea who those lovely girls under the table with me were (and to this day I’ve never found out. C’est la vie).

About a block away from my grandmother’s place, I slowed to a walk. The house near the corner was a familiar one, but I knew very little about those neighbors. In fact few of us knew anything about them, and, unlike most of the other houses on that block, this one seemed strangely dark and undecorated.  But, as I passed the walkway leading up to their front porch, I noticed something.  One of the windows had two small Christmas lights feebly casting a glow on something hanging between them. For some reason I needed to see what it was. 

I had barely taken two steps towards that window, when I realized what it was. It was the little banner families hung in their windows, with a blue star, to show one of theirs was serving the country. But this one was different, because it had not one but two….gold stars. 

The realization of what that meant came as a shock. While I had been partying all night,  these folks only had that little banner with two gold stars to hang up in their window, with just two small lights for decoration. I ran as fast as I could the rest of the way home, too shamed to do anything else but crawl into bed as soon as I got there, praying I would never forget what sacrifices those two gold stars signified, so that the rest of us could celebrate the joy of Christmas as we did.

 It was a hard lesson learned.