A Desert Christmas

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.

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15 thoughts on “A Desert Christmas”

  1. Pat – A lovely depiction of an old-fashioned Christmas. Times have changed, haven’t they? Though I’m not a fan of Christmas shopping, our family does try to hold to some traditions – in our own way. Thanks for sharing a wonderful description of what Christmas was like for you.

  2. Pat, thank you for posting this. I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately (always hits me this time of year) and this goes right along with the way I’m feeling. I remember those kinds of Christmases and they were the best. My uncle going out on the hillside and cutting a tree only a couple of days before Christmas, and everyone helped decorate it. We strung popcorn with thread and needle and used whatever was on hand that might make it look festive. Music from the radio — we didn’t even have a tv. We childen had one gift each, and it was from Santa Claus and didn’t appear under the tree until Christmas morning. I don’t remember the adults getting anything at all back then. It’s pitiful to think about how poor we were, but I’ll always remember those times as some of the richest of my life. Thank you. I hope your Christmas season is joyous and filled with the richness of family and friends.

  3. Hi Pat! I loved your account of the Christmas in the desert. I’ve always thought simplicity is better. We need to get back to those uncomplicated times when the joy of just being with family was celebration enough. We’ve become a nation of “too much.” And it’s created huge financial burdens on people to try to outdo each other. We always had a stocking and one or two gifts. But as times got better for my parents we got more. I guess that’s how it is. We always want our children to have more than we did, even if it sometimes overshadows those memories of simple joys and closeness.

    Interesting post, Pat! 🙂

  4. Hi Pat! Wonderful story of Christmas in the desert. I agree with you that Christmas doesn’t seem to be the same nowadays as it was when I was growing up. I, too, wish we could return to the joy of just being with family at this time of year without all the commericalism.

  5. Oh, Pat, I got teary-eyed just reading this! As room mother for my son’s class a while back, we got assigned “American Christmas” as our grade’s theme..(e.g. one grade had Italy, another Germany etc). I learned that, out on the prairie where evergreen trees were scarce if not non-existent, folks would cover a tree branch with cotton batting and hang homemade decorations on it. My husband cut off a branch for our ash tree, and the kids all made simple decorations. It was great fun then, and a wonderful memory now. Thanks, Pat, for reminding us all that the true joy of Christams isn’t the latest electronic gadget!

  6. I think we are missing most of the true spirit of Christmas. How can we not when the stores had Christmas displays right beside Halloween?

    My family is keeping Christmas simple this year. We’re not even having a huge dinner. Food is required to have been made ahead and be easy to pull from the fridge, defrost or heat and eat. We are not cooking or doing dishes all day. We are enjoying each other and celebrating the real meaning of Christmas.

    I appreciate your thoughts on this. Have a wonderful Christmas.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. It’s a great reminder that there’s more to the holiday than all the presents and material things.

    It’s the time spent together, being thankful for the people in our lives and the blessing the day is really all about.

  8. Why is it we hear stories of old time Christmases and can recognize that real, lasting memories have almost nothing to do with how big and flashy and bright the gifts and decorations are.
    But then, even knowing that, we still go out and spend too much and stress too much, all trying to make the Christmas bright?
    We don’t even listen to our own experience and gain wisdom from it.
    And yet, I’m already fretting over the girls and their gifts and worrying about spending equal amounts and giving them plenty. Even though they’re all grown, can afford all the toys and clothes they want, and pretty much make more money than I do!!!!!

  9. The celbrations and gifts I remember most are those when we had so little. Maybe a lone gift becomes more precious because it isn’t overshadowed by so much. I wonder what our children would say now if we limited them to only one special gift not because we can’t afford more, but because we want to recapture the spirit of appreciation and closeness that seem to be missing. To put emphasis on the Christ of Christmas rather than our idea of what is fair and expected.

  10. I think so often in today’s world we so miss the gentleness and kindness of Christmas’ past and sometimes I long for simpler times…..then I think about going outside to the privy and I’m all okay again.

  11. wow I loved that story so glad i read it I think it would be so nice if we could get back to the simpler things in life. I think alot of us will always remember the first time we saw The Wizard of Oz and how we were taken away with it now there’s so much digital technology out there it’s hard for us to be wowed like that now same as with Christmas but i’m never going to let life take away from the specialness of family and memories of Christmas

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