Yard decorations are already going up in my neighborhood. Elaborate ones. We have a contest for the very best, and the competition is steep. We have moving carousels, toy trains, herds of reindeer, Santas by the dozens, and lights galore. I’m a Grinch with one paltry angel. If I have time, I’ll add some lights to my crepe myrtle outside. That’s always the plan,but other matters usually get in the way. I’m the neighborhood disgrace.All of which bring me back to the book I blogged about several weeks ago, the book written by my uncle about homestead life in Arizona in the very early years of the 1900’s.Oh, how the celebration of Christmas has changed! Here’s the tale of one western Christmas.
My uncle was thirteen at the time, my father a baby. My grandfather had taken his wife and children from Minnesota to Arizona’s southern desert to homestead. He and my uncle built a house in an area with very little water. But hope sprung eternal.
So in the days before their first desert Christmas, my grandfather and uncle decided the family needed a Christmas tree. Unlike Minnesota, evergreens were not abundant in the desert.
The plan, according to my uncle, was to take the horse-drawn wagon – along with four of the six children – “up toward Parker’s ranch, out Duncan-way, and see if we can find an honest-to-goodness Christmas tree.” Parker’s ranch was ten or so miles toward the western horizon away.
They started out in the morning. “It was two or three hours before we saw even a sign of a spruce, but we journeyed on after enjoying our lunch. The higher climbed, the more grand the view behind us.”
After another hour of climbing, they came to a stand of spruce of various shapes and sizes. “We ran around in circles trying to find the one tree that we could all agree on. Dad set about cutting it down. He gave each of us a chance to take a stroke with the axe so we could all lay claim to cutting our first Christmas tree.”
They returned as the day ‘was about spent.” My grandmother had a hot dinner waiting, “but not before we had propped up the stringy looking spruce. She said it was better than nothing and would look okay when it was properly trimmed.
“That was the next project, and we spent the next two weeks stringing popcorn, making daisy chains, paper windmills and stars . . . ”
On Christmas evening, “Our stockings, holes and all, were always hung from over a kitchen chair, but this year we had a real fireplace to hang them from and a real mantle, and our three pairs of stockings were securely tacked to the mantle, ready for Santa Claus.
Presents could not be opened until after breakfast Christmas morning, “so we hastily gulped down our fried corn meal mush, a slice of salt pork and a glass of milk, and tore into our stockings filled with ten cent toys, an orange, some nuts and gaily decorated candies.
By then, the Christmas tree had been gaily decorated with the popcorn strings, green and red paper daisy chains and cranberry strings. “A few candles in old clip-on candle holders had been carefully placed on the limbs of the dry, explosive tree and with a big bucket of water nearby, Dad made a big event of the lighting of the candles. With a watchful eye on the candles, we sat and enjoyed the lighted tree.
“With Mother at the piano, we sat around the tree and sang all of the old favorites – ‘Joy to the World,’ ‘Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,’ and, of course, ‘She I wait’ which had nothing to say about Christmas, but was an expression of our outpouring of love for the dearest Mother kids ever had.”
“After presents and songs out of the way, we sat down to a scrumptious dinner of roast quail with plenty of mashed potato, gravy, squash, cranberries, hot bread and Mother’s delicious steamed plum pudding, a feast for kings.”
It was the first and last Christmas in the house in the desert. Without water, the farm was destined for disaster, and the family moved into a nearby town where my grandfather got a “real job” and the children could attend school.
But that Christmas in the desert remained in all their hearts. The stories about that year are endless.
It sounds like a smashing Christmas, and I find myself longing for those days gone past. No huge pile of presents with limited life. No mad dashes to the mall on Christmas Eve to grab a last minute gift. No contests to see who can outdo the neighbor in the number of lights in the yard.
I must admit I like the neighborhood lights, but then I think about that lone cabin on the desert with the spindly Christmas tree and stockings with holes in them, and a family gathered around a piano and hearth fire and wonder if we aren’t really missing something fine.