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Favorite Christmas: A Slam Dunk

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 33 No. 4

Editor's Note--I think that it is enjoyable to see how others celebrated their Christmas. When reading other accounts, it is interesting to compare and contrast our memories of this most important of days. As you read this Christmas story, let your mind go back to your childhood memories. How we celebrated this event is so often a reflection of the historical times we lived in. If you are so inclined, write down your memories and mail them to BCHRLF at the Vicary House C/O Charles Townsend. Next Christmas we can include your Christmas memories in Milestones.

My all time favorite Christmas? That is a no-brainer. But, before I reveal that, can I please let you in on a few other fond memories that have tugged at the heartstrings during this festive season.

One is sitting by the old Philco on a cold, snowy afternoon. Santa Claus, probably beamed in live from the North Pole, would take center stage over radio station WBVP in Beaver Falls. It was stunning to visualize how many kids were tuned in hoping Santa had received their letters and would read them tonight outlining what their Christmas wishes were. We'd all have the same thought. Would this be the afternoon that he reads my letter! And tell the world-at least our parents-what we wanted.

Finally he'd stop feeding Prancer, belt out a few ho-ho's and say my name. I'd be on "cloud nine" as he'd point out, "Jack of North Sewickley Township wants a ." I really wasn't sure what made me the happiest. Being an instant "radio star" or knowing that the "big guy" now, without any margin of error, knew what I wanted. But out of the thousands of kids, would he remember me?

I grew up when family values were still strong and clear. I also had the good fortune to celebrate the Yuletide Season in two settings.

The first was when I was a "little guy." My dad was in the military until I was five. So, we spent Christmas back on my grandparent's farm. It provided me with a good solid foundation along with some of my most memorable whispers from a more innocent past.

I'll never forget watching my relatives arrive. They'd descend down the hill with their tire chains throwing up mud, snow and ice. That white stuff would continue pelting their windshields as they'd jockey amidst the slush and goo for parking spots on the slopes of the hilly driveway. They'd soon brave the winds and come across to the ol' farm house. My aunts would be holding a covered dish, my uncles would be holding them. Tagging along behind, with their favorite new toy, would be my cousins.

The ladies would veer off and stop in the kitchen where grandma was, in her white apron, toiling over her black iron coal stove. Red-hot coals glistened and popped as a heavenly aroma wafted through the home. The men, after chatting for a while, put the extensions in the table while one of the women would put Gram's newly ironed linen tablecloth down. Place mats were located and the table set. Meanwhile, bug-eyed and keeping our ears open, we kids would go into the adjoining parlor and check out our new toys. Soon, those three little magic words-"come 'n get it!" would ring out. Talk about chaos.

Following a prayer that seemed to last for hours, Uncle Wilbur, with a carving knife, would take on the main entree. Mirth and laughter echoed throughout as we gleefully shuffled plates of goodies back and forth. There were no interruptions in the forms of TV, cell phones or other hi-tech thing-a-ma-jigs. Just a bunch of old fashioned socializing.

Eventually, we were stuffed. Everyone then pitched in and helped with the dishes. The uncles primed and carried water in from that rusty ol' pump in the front yard. Needless to say, dishes were done by hand then. Us kids would "help" too, carrying dried ones to my aunt who stood ready at the china cabinet. Afterwards, the adults would gather around the piano. Mom would adjust and then take her place on the stool.

Uncle Wayne and Aunt Doris would strum their guitars and before you knew it, Aunt Mae and Uncles Glen and Cecil joined in. No, the "Carter Family" they were not. But, I bet they got just as much enjoyment out of it. Before long, music could be heard as far as "that little white shack in the back." As their voices gave way, someone would point to that half-finished jigsaw puzzle on the table. Perhaps others would suggest playing cards. A hotly-contested checker tournament was a "must" every holiday. As the day was creeping to an end, the various farm chores were just beginning. Some would help. You see, the farmers' work never really had a holiday.

We kinda drifted away from the farm reunion when Dad came home and opted to spend Christmases at home.

The preparations would begin about a week prior. Mom would visit the A & P, City and Economy Markets to stock up. We kids didn't mind. This was during the days when a "cartoon carnival" at the Regent or Granada served as our baby-sitter. Do you remember going to Isaly's after the show?

Meanwhile, back at the house:

We'd retrieve the lights and other ornaments down from the attic. Dust the boxes off and open them. The lights, rolled up neatly last year, would be a tangled mess this season. Pap would work feverishly until he had them all untangled. But, that was the easy part. The next step was worse by far. If you recollect, lights were wired serially then which permitted electricity to flow in only one direction. Simply put-when one bulb blew, they all went out.

His blank forlorn look told the complete story. More often than not, he'd plug in a line that was deader than a doornail. Like many at that time, he'd take a bulb out of a string that glittered brightly. He'd get on the floor and, one by one, he'd test em until he found the culprit. Finally, he'd stand up smiling as the line came to life and radiated.

It was then time to get the perfectly sized evergreen. Dad would hop in the car and mysteriously take off. It wouldn't be long until we heard a car horn honk, and there he was looking out of the car window with what appeared to be a giant shrub on the car roof. He'd chop here and then chop there. Soon, what looked like an unruly bush, was trimmed into a tree. After putting it in its stand, a proud man stepped back and grinned.

Now it was time for Dad to put the star on the tippy-top. Then we all "helped" decorate it. Some of the ornaments had been homemade and handed down through the families. The lights would go on first. Ours were big, probably over an inch around and tapered to a point. There's nothing like the traditional dazzling display of orange, yellow, blue, green, white and red lights illuminating the room. The balls were next and then the icicles and tinsel.

\We didn't have a real fireplace so Dad had to "build" one each year. It was made of white and red crepe paper, common in that era, with images of bricks on them. It even had mortar pictured between the bricks. He'd tack it under two adjoining windows near the tree. The window base or sill served as our mantel. WE, in turn, could tack our stockings to the edge of the sill. And speaking of socks, we had to find our own. I fondly remember going through Dad's drawer until we found a pair big enough to hold lots.

With my older brother and me, things were okay. Two kids, two socks, no problem. But, child no. 3 came along and now it was three kids, two socks, big problem. Yearly staples in our stockings would include: a bright shiny apple, maybe an orange, perhaps a tangerine. Also, there was hardtack candy which always stuck to the fabric and usually had to be washed clean. Several walnuts, a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, or, Black Jack was in there as well. A collapsible cup for school, the little gizmo where you tried to get the numbers slid in order, and, rounding out the list maybe a Lone Ranger Badge or Dick Tracy Code Ring.

On Christmas Eve, Dad would tinker with his annual construction of a small village under the tree. It'd include plastic houses, stores, service stations, etc. He'd use a string of smaller lights for this. Most slid into a groove either behind or on the bottom of each building. The light would be slid into it and each place was now alive like a Norman Rockwell painting. A mirror was put down dignifying a park and frozen pond. A small green three-rung wooden fence enclosed it all.

Due to the fact that we had no chimney, we'd make sure both doors were unlocked for Santa. I have to admit, I was somewhat worried if he came in the back way. The roly-poly gent would have to navigate 6 or 7 steps in the dark yet! And, with him wearing that heavy suit, toting that bulky bag, well, that sure wasn't good. I didn't want to be known as the kid who killed Santa Claus. How could I face Rudolph and the gang?

Just before nightly-night, we'd set out a plate full of cookies and a big glass of crisp cold milk. I have to confess. I once had a diabolical plan. I figured if I drank glass after glass of water, I'd have to go to the bathroom more. Right? That'd increase my chances of catching Santa red-handed or seeing the toys he left as quickly as possible. It worked like a charm. Only thing is, I didn't fully consider that our bathroom was an outdoor privy!

Okay, getting back to my favorite all time Christmas. It wasn't, surprisingly, during the days when I was a youngster. Not even as a teenager, although I have many happy and unforgettable memories from both. However, I think everyone will agree with my decision. Drum roll please! My Christmas of 1961 beats 'em all.

It was that April 17, when I received orders stating I was going home from my overseas military assignment. The date was December 13 and I began to seriously consider surprising my parents over the holidays. It was hard not to say anything but I knew it was also possible to get "bumped" from my flight by an officer or anyone else of higher rank. It didn't take long to taste this nasty hardship either. In May I lost my seat and was rescheduled for a week later, or December 20. I knew it took four days to travel just to the mainland so my hopes were dimming.

But, in my calculations, I forgot something crucial: the "International Date Line" So, it wasn't the 24th when we got to California but the 23rd. The airlines made a special trip, and we were placed in first class as they flew us to Pittsburgh International.

Thus, this was and still is, my favorite and most memorable Christmas.