Christmas Around the World has been part of my Christmas tradition for the past 50 years. I have very special memories of this event from my childhood as my dance friends and their parents gathered at the Museum on Thanksgiving morning to decorate the British tree. In those days we would put our one or two “token” ornaments on the tree and be off to explore the Museum leaving our parents to do the rest of the work. It was amazing to have the entire Museum to ourselves. “Must see” exhibits at that time included the Whispering Gallery in the Hall of Communications, the multiplication light bulbs in the Calculating to Computing area, the farm, the Home of the Future, the chicks, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, and of course the ever popular larger than life washing machine! We would occasionally appear back at the tree to check in and see how much time we had left for exploration before regrouping with the adults to head down to the cafeteria for our first Thanksgiving meal of the day (they said it was turkey). We would go through the cafeteria line in the Columbian Room and eat together as a group before heading out to have Thanksgiving dinner with our families. I have a fairly strong memory of one of the “lunch ladies”. Though somewhat gruff in her demeanor we could always count on her being there wearing her large holed hair net, and undoubtedly telling us (kids) that we couldn’t take extra dessert!
At that time the ethnic performances were held every night of the week and the Columbian Room would serve a different ethnic meal each night in honor of the country performing. As I recall, they served roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for Great Britain. Our group would gather before the performance to eat together in the Officers Dining Room, usually with the British Consul General and other museum dignitaries.
New Year’s morning we would gather to dismantle the tree, eat lunch together and head our separate ways in time to catch the last of the parades and of course the football games. Originally we took home the boxes of ornaments, then for quite a long period of time the museum stored the boxes and would have them waiting for us when we arrived. This has come full circle as we are now taking the boxes of ornaments home again. We had a four foot “Father Christmas” that was made out of paper mache, and the tree topper was an “angel” made by one of the dance dads out of one of the dancer’s dolls. (We still have her today, though she has undergone several hair, outfit and halo transformations over the years)
When I started to teach in the early 80’s, I encouraged the dancers and their parents to get involved with CATW, thus staring another generation on the tradition. My parents and many of the original friends continued to decorate the tree and my mother served as emcee for the program for well over 25 years when she “retired” and turned the program and the tree over to the dance group. My mother, Pat LeNoble, made famous the rather untraditional Christmas song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and continued to delight the audience and dancers alike each year. That tradition continued until
December 2009 just one month short of her 87h birthday! We honor her memory each year by encouraging the audience to sing along with us.
Early on, the programs took place in the auditorium, a wonderful setting with dressing rooms, lighting, backdrops, sound system, closed circuit taping, comfortable chairs and curtains. Those were the days when the programs were truly “productions”.
Over the years we developed strong relationships with the Museum staff, many of which have carried on, long after they left or retired from the Museum. I know that I always looked forward to seeing Mike Kwiatkowski, the chief engineer for the auditorium. He was so welcoming of our group (and I’m sure the others as well) and seemed to really enjoy watching us grow up before his eyes. I think we were all his “kids”. Being that there was only one performance a night, we were treated to ice cream cups with wooden spoons following the performance and took our time visiting with those who attended in the area leading to backstage. As a child, I was mortified when my mother would sing the “hippo song”, but as I grew up I came to realize what a special gift she had that she was sharing with the audiences both then and now. Several generations grew up looking forward to hearing Pat sing the “hippo song” each year!
CATW has undergone many changes in my lifetime, and during one regime at the Museum almost became extinct! The trees have been in multiple locations, including the anti-room to the auditorium that could only be accessed by passing through the “garbage” (Waste Management) exhibit. I remember one year there was a magnificent display of “toys” down in that area as well. Despite the remote location of the auditorium, there always seemed to be a good crowd in attendance at the performances.
There have been several different trees over the years, some shorter and some much taller as I recall. Each country supplied their own lights, as many strands as they wanted of whatever type, which resulted in a more diverse look to the trees. That being said, one of the best things to happen recently is having the museum staff put the lights on the trees. Now the toughest choice is what color bulbs we want and if we want them strung vertically or horizontally!
Though it was heartbreaking to move out of the auditorium, it was wonderful to be in the main area of the museum where the crowds would just wander in to catch a few minutes of the show. I seem to recall that after being out in the main area, we moved back to the auditorium and the crowd was much smaller. We tried enticing people back to the auditorium by having our piper play his bagpipes, but the crowds just weren’t there.
While it was difficult to make the transition at the time, I’m sure it has greatly increased the attendance at the performances which is better than having curtains that close, and closed circuit TV.
I think it was about fifteen years ago when “Great Britain” became “Scotland” and the other countries of the British Isles had their own identities with trees and performances. The Thistle & Heather Highland Dancers Parents Association has worked hard over the years to renew and replenish the ornaments on the tree, selecting items that represent Scotland – tartan, thistle, heather, dance shoes, crackers, Scottish terriers, etc. In 2007 we displayed a beautiful new tartan tree skirt with dancer silhouettes, with a matching outfit for the angel made by Eve McCloud, grandmother of Kristen and Melanie Williams.
Though we now decorate and take down the tree on “random” Sunday afternoons in November and January, the current group of dancers look forward to the ritual of decorating and taking down the tree, and participating in the performance as part of their family Christmas tradition!