Good lessons to be learned from simple Texas Christmas
just got up on Christmas morning … and we’d usually have an apple and orange in our stockings. That was about the only time we ever had oranges. I can smell an orange to this day, and it always makes me think of Christmas. We didn’t get many toys. We got necessities.”
This was a Christmas memory of Zulieka O’Daniel, who was born in 1911 and was raised on a farm southwest of Hart in the Texas Panhandle. Zulieka’s Christmas mornings were much the same for many other Texas children in the early 1900s. While the settings were simple and the gifts limited, Christmas inspired the same anticipation and excitement that it does for children today.
Elora Riddle, who lived on a farm west of the Panhandle town of Kress recalled that her older siblings traveled into town by buggy to purchase surprise Christmas gifts one year for the younger children in the family: “Lucindy and Elbert went to town and it snowed and they couldn’t get back on Christmas Eve. We hung our stockings on Christmas Eve and Papa and Mama put an orange and an apple, nuts and candy in, so we had that for Christmas and we thought that was all we were going to get.” The morning after Christmas, Elora went to the breakfast table to find a “celluloid doll” at her place at the table. “We were so happy that Santa came back,” she said.
In 1920, a third-grader named Mill Boyd of Dumas, also in the Panhandle, attended a community Christmas celebration at her schoolhouse. Instead of individual Christmas celebrations at home, the entire community would gather at the schoolhouse, and Santa would visit all of Dumas’ children at once. Mill left that year’s gathering in delight, carting home with her a “wicker doll buggy and a Schoenhut doll.” According to Mill, the Schoenhut dolls were handcarved, German-made dolls who were “jointed and had real hair.” In addition to the doll and buggy, Mill also received two boxes of chocolates from her “little boyfriend” that year. Her mother was not pleased and told Mill she was too young to receive the chocolates and would have to return them. Mill’s father, however, interjected, “Leave her alone now. I’m gonna eat that candy.”
An even earlier Christmas recollection in 1863 by the daughter of former Texas Gov. E.M. Pease, Julia, included a description of the family Christmas tree: “Not tall and stately as the German Tannenbaum, but just a common cedar.” Julia recalled that the ladies of the household spent the weeks leading up to Christmas preparing the trimmings for the tree, including stringing popcorn. Julia noted that because of the Civil War, goods had been blockaded from the North and all food and clothing that year had to be made at home.
In the 1890s, Mrs. W.H. Thaxton of Onion Creek told the Austin AmericanStatesman that “real” eggnog was served in “liberal portions” among her family and the neighbors at Christmas. She also noted that “all laws, short of murder and arson, were suspended for the time, and many were the mutual misunderstandings that were settled at Christmastime.” At the end of Christmas day, “dancing was engaged in, and the nights were enlivened by the merry strains of the fiddle (not violin), and the calls of the prompter as merrily the dance went on far into the night.”
Today, as many of us find ourselves caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, there is something to be said about the simplicity of Christmas past in Texas. May we all take the time to enjoy the small things, the time together with family and friends, and the real meaning of the season. From my family to yours: Merry Christmas, happy holidays and best wishes for a safe and prosperous New Year. Cornyn represents Texas in the U.S. Senate. He serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Armed Services and Budget Committees.
Texas’ pioneering families didn’t have cherry pickers to decorate a 40-foot-tall tree. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2009