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Better than reindeer

I don't know which was more memorable about my homecoming Christmas in Bethlehem - the lasagna or the cows. After living in Korea for several years, where we'd celebrated our Noels with rice-stuffed cabbages and jade trees trimmed with dried black mushrooms, I was looking forward to a storybook New England Christmas. Our cousins had moved to an old farmhouse in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and I couldn't think of a more perfect spot to spend the holidays. As I packed my footlocker and listened to Bing Crosby sing about sleighbells and winter wonderlands on the Armed Forces Radio network, I envisioned enormous fireplaces and mantels hung with bulging stockings. We'd deck the halls with mistletoe and watch the snow fall on Christmas Eve, the night I was due to arrive.

Our plane left Korea on a blustery December afternoon and touched down briefly in Hawaii's welcoming sunshine the following morning. At the airport, Santas in sandals, with frangipani blossoms stuck in their beards, swarmed around last-minute shoppers to herald the joys of coconut oil tanning lotions and coral-colored muumuus. It wasn't the traditional Christmas greeting I'd had in mind, but it was exuberantly American.

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Hartford was less dramatic than Honolulu from the air, but just as hurried on the ground: everyone was coming home or going home for Christmas. Although I'd traveled halfway around the world and arrived on time, my family was nowhere in sight - stalled, no doubt, in holiday traffic. So I found a seat beside a Scrooge of a security guard and started counting the twelve days of Christmas, chorus by chorus. I'd just gotten to ten lords a-leaping when my mother and assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins bolted into view, jumping over suitcases and dancing past the baggage carousel.

On the drive home through the city I drank in billboard after billboard of tinseled, wreathed, and hollied Christmas greetings. At the outskirts of town, red-nosed reindeer and waving wisemen took over, flashing cheery hellos from suburban rooftops.

By the time we reached the starlit, rolling hills of Bethlehem I felt warmly welcomed, and so was hardly prepared for the surprise that was still to come. For months I'd dreamed of roast turkey and chestnut stuffing, buttered squash and mincemeat pies. But what was that wafting from the kitchen? Could it be sweet sausages? Baked lasagna, fettuccine, eggplant parmigiana, and chicken cacciatore? In place of traditional Christmas fare, they'd fixed my favorite dishes - real American food after all those years of ethnic rice and soup.

New flurries were already dusting the two-foot base of snow, and with an hour to spare before dinner I rounded up my youngest cousin for a quick toboggan run by moonlight. We climbed to the crest of the hill behind the farm and pushed off on the crusty snow, not knowing what waited below.

Picking up speed as we plunged downhill, we careened through stands of white birch, eyes shut, screaming all the way, until we came to an abrupt, sled-spilling stop at the edge of what must have been a bare patch of ground. I looked around for my cousin and saw him lying on his side several yards back, laughing helplessly, apparently at me.

Then I looked up - into the eyes of the sweetest crowd of cows I'd ever seen. We'd tobogganed into their pasture, and several brown and white beauties were circling for a close, admiring look.

It was a moment straight out of Currier and Ives, or maybe Grandma Moses. What could be more American, more welcoming home, than a Christmas cow?

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