|My one and only Christmas in Iowa|
I have quite a few Christmas memories. Most of them are good ones, so even if things weren't exactly typical of a White-Boy Childhood in the '50s otherwise, Christmas was almost always a happy time for me. I never felt like I lacked for presents at Christmas. If anything, it sometimes seemed like I had too many. In a sense, the abundance of gifts at Christmas may have been meant to make up for some of what I lacked the rest of the year.
Christmas in my childhood always meant a live tree, one that smelled strongly of pine forests in winter. Lots of decorations on the tree, different kinds of Shiny Brites in a range of sizes, the old-fashioned lead tinsel (or was it tin?), icicles made of silvered glass and later white plastic, glass birds with long white tassel tails, lots of multicolor lights including those bubble lights that I guess are still available. The tree-topper was usually one of those glass spike things, but we had a star as well, and some Christmases, we put the star on top of the tree instead of the spike.
We still have some old Shiny Brites on the tree we keep up all year in New Mexico. I'm not sure that any of them were saved from either my childhood or Ms. Ché's. I know I've been collecting them from thrift stores for several years, and I think that's where all the Shiny Brites we currently have came from. We also decorate the tree with newer imitation Shiny Brites that aren't quite the same as the genuine articles. We also use lots of local decorations like glass chiles, tomatoes and saints in their nichos and such. No tinsel though; too risky for the cats.
After about 1951, the Christmas tree always had the Lionel train set my father gave me around the base. There's nothing quite like them any more. The steam engine was long and heavy and intricately detailed.
There was a coal car, two freight cars -- one red, one white, a flatcar with logs, a tank car, a baggage car, a passenger car, and a caboose. There were milk cans in the white freight car and a man dressed in white who unloaded the milk cans onto a platform at the station. The passenger car windows lit up. The brake wheels on the cars turned. It was a nice train set, and I kept most of it through all the many moves of our household around southern and northern California. The pieces started disappearing when I was a teenager, and the only one I managed to hold on to was the caboose. And now, I'm not sure where it is.
I have some other train memorabilia, but nothing like the Lionel train set I'd get out every Christmas when I was a kid. One of the ironies of my ancestry research is that I discovered that my father's German grandfather (as opposed to his Irish one) worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway in the Iowa yards as a carpenter. More irony was that I learned my mother's father was killed in the St. Louis Wabash rail yard where he worked as a switchman. One of his brothers was an engineer with the Wabash line. I was surprised to learn of my ancestors' railroad connections and still haven't absorbed the significance of it -- if any.
Gifts at Christmas usually included lots of school clothes, and typically science or art supplies. Toys? I suppose, but I recall very few. One that I remember was a large model airplane that had a motor and propeller and was supposed to fly at the end of a long double cable. I could rarely get it into the air, and when I did, it usually crashed within seconds. My friends weren't much more successful with it than I was, so in the end, the plane wound up as decoration hanging on the wall in my room.
I received a number of you-put-together model cars at Christmas, all antiques and classics. I had a collection of Floyd Clymer Historical Motor Scrapbooks and the model cars were in many cases examples of the cars in the magazines. The one that took the longest time and most patience to put together was the Dusenberg, which ultimately was pretty spectacular, but I'm not sure what happened to it.
One year, I received an elaborate chemistry set with which I made much mischief. Another year, it was a rock and mineral collection. I kept the garnet from the collection for many years. Still another year, I received a crystal radio kit which I put together and was amazed at how well it received stations, though I had to listen through earphones.
Then there were the encyclopedias. I remember we had a complete set of the New Standard Encyclopedia, but I would also receive one or two volumes of a child's encyclopedia every Christmas for several years. Since I was a voracious reader, both sets were paged through again and again. I had a lot of books from an early age a few of which I still have (I think!)
One Christmas, I think it was in 1957 or 58, I received an "all chrome" bike. It wasn't actually all chromed; I think the frame was painted silver, but it was very fancy and unusual. There wasn't another one like it in the neighborhood. It was a full-sized adult bike, and at first, I had difficulty riding it because it was too big. But eventually, I got the hang of it, and I rode it everywhere. I didn't have to ride to school because the school was right behind our house, but after school and on weekends, I rode that bike all the time.
One day toward the end of the school year, I rode down to the Stassi and Humphrey market about a mile from my house and I parked the bike outside while I went in to get some chewing gum and soda. When I came out, the bike was gone, stolen.
I didn't have a lock. Nobody locked their bikes in those days. Bikes were stolen fairly often, but usually they were recovered within a few days, so it really wasn't a big deal. I never got my bike back. Police were notified, and they said they checked with known bike thieves and fences, but no luck. I suspect the thieves promptly sold the bike out of the area because I never saw it again, nor did I ever see one like it in my neighborhood.
My mother bought me another bike soon afterwards, a plain-jane Schwinn, and I kept it for several years and several moves until it, too, was stolen, lock and all.
Throughout my childhood and well into adulthood, I looked forward to Christmas, not so much for the presents, but just for the simple joy of the holiday and its festivities. As I got older, it really didn't matter so much, but even now in my dottage, I find I enjoy the holiday more than not.
And as my memory fades (oh yes!) I am grateful for the snippets I can recall.