Tales of family Christmases from the past
Christmas is a time for memories. Every family has stories about Thanksgiving and Christmas, and ours are no different.
The first Christmas I really remember was the one where I was given my first toy train, a Marx “tinplate” passenger train which my Dad seemed to enjoy more than I did.
But it grew into a hobby (obsession?) that has provided me with thousands of hours of enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and my first job in our nation’s capitol as a special assistant to the federal railroad administrator in the Reagan administration.
The year I got the train was 1941, and for the next five years the world was at war, which had a big effect on the holiday and the gifts my brother Mike and I received.
(We learned later that one of the adults’ inside jokes was that folks who didn’t have kids liked to give toys that make noise — like drums and horns — to those who did.)
We moved to Madera from Bakersfield in 1940, which meant that each Christmas involved a long, foggy trip to Bakersfield, usually in my folks’ 1935 Ford sedan. These were the years when winter automobile trips involved bundling up in heavy clothes and, in the back seat, snuggling under a “car robe,” a heavy blanket that hung from a sort of rope that hung across the back of the front seat. (Today’s cars feature video screens and thermostat-controlled air conditioning. The one thing that hasn’t changed are the plaintive pleas of “Are we there yet?”)
Sometimes we rode the trains, which were warm, much more comfortable, and served hot food on tables with white linen.
Mojave brought us our first white Christmas, and my mother like to make snowmen out of tumbleweeds and decorate the house with desert holly, a sort of miniature version of green holly with waxen leaves and small red berries that grew in certain places in the local hills. A protected species, its Latin name is Atriplex Hymenelytra and it’s a saltbush unrelated to the green stuff — the grey color comes from salt on its leaves. I haven’t seen any for years but it is supposed to be found in Death Valley.
Mom was a correspondent for the Bakersfield Californian for many years and delighted in sending them photos of desert puckerbrush and Joshua trees covered with snow.
Family secrets revealed
Among our memorable Christmas stories are ones like the first year my wife Billye and I published the first Christmas issue after buying the Mojave Desert News.
For weekly newspapers, the Christmas issue can be a gold mine. Businesses that wouldn’t think of buying an ad the rest of the year would pop for one wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
Having all those ads generated a lot of room for news, which we had to create.
We had a young high school student working part-time that first year, and he wrote an hilarious true story about a favorite uncle who liked to celebrate the Holidays with adult beverages, which led to some memorable events, recounted in amusing detail by our young helper.
Everyone who read his tale loved it —except for his mother, who couldn’t decide who to kill first — him for writing it or me for publishing the piece.
By the way, that young man has gone on to be quite successful.
Several Christmases that occurred on those nice December days we often enjoy in High Desert winters would see our family troop across the street following dinner for an impromptu baseball game on the Mojave High School lawn.
Mom loved these games, and when she came up to bat would assume one of the more bizarre batting stances ever seen.
The men in the family would always pull in close thinking she couldn’t hit it very far but, to her delight, would be surprised at watching them chase the ball. (She could also beat anyone at blackjack, probably from counting cards, something she may have learned at Stanford).
Christmas in D.C.
When we lived in our nation’s capitol family dinners were always held at my brother Mike’s home in Northwest D.C.
Mike not only carried on the family tradition of being a great cook, but he and wife Carolyn employed a wonderful woman named Fay, a former Scrabble champion of her native Jamaica, and one of the world’s truly great culinary artists.
I never hesitated to help Mike with DIY projects around his house because of the delicious lunches Fay prepared.
One memorable Christmas after U.S. troops invaded Kuwait, Mike’s daughter complained at dinner that several of her friends who joined the military to get free college had been called-up to serve.
Her friends didn’t think that was fair.
My usually quiet bride Billye, who grew-up as the youngest of five children in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, quietely and firmly launched into a short lesson on responsibility.
Our nephew, who was younger than his sister, had just swallowed a fork full of food, and almost choked to death laughing.
That Christmas has become a legend in our family.
The real Santa
While getting checkedout at the Mojave Stater Bros. right before Christmas one year, I told the checker, an old friend, how we had shopped at a supermarket in Tehachapi a few days before, and that the store had a Santa and Mrs. Santa wandering around the store frightening the kids.
The young lady bagging groceries eagerly told us that she had been in a department store in Bakersfield a few days before, “And their Santa looked just like the real Santa.”
The checker and I looked at each other and smiled.
Back when the Marines were in Mojave during the Korean War, Santa often arrived in a big, dark blue Marine Corps Sikorsky HRS helicopter. Santa, a local man named Stan Richardson who was not much of a flyer, usually stepped carefully out of the helo (known as the H-19 to the Air Force) looking a little green around the gills.
My wife and I hope all of you have a great Christmas and that everyone will have a reasonably prosperous New Year.