christmas tree

"The Christmas of 1963"

By Jeff Owenby

Thinking back on the holiday season, my favorite memory would have to be the Christmas of 1963. Though many have passed before and after, this is the one that seems the most profound to me. It was at this time of my life where I learned that poverty and riches wore the same coat, only inside out. During that cold winter, my mother was separated from my father. A divorce was pending, and we lived on public assistance that barely took care of us all. Money was extremely tight, but my mom managed and seemed to do so without skipping a beat.

There was one particularly cold night I remember well. Pellets of frozen rain crystals assaulted the windows with intermittent blasts. My brothers and I were huddled around the black and white television set watching "Bewitched." We crunched candy canes and fussed with the rabbit ears each time a gust of cold wind disturbed the reception. Our beloved dog Bonnie, a regal Collie with a beautiful salt and pepper coat, kept me warm many a cold evening as I curled up next to her. Her breathing was a soft cadence that caused a mountain of fur to rise and fall with each breath. As Samantha tweaked her nose, and Darrin was aggravated by her covert witchcraft in his orderly American household, the world seemed a safe place. Canned laughter from the television reminded us that life shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Still, even Samantha's shenanigans couldn't compete with the holiday excitement in the air. Christmas was just a few weeks away. Neighboring lights that hung in multicolored strings over gutters and garage doors were blurred through rain streaked windows. As I hand-squeegeed the glass, silver stripes of cold moisture dribbled down making annoying streaks for Mom to complain about during the daylight hours.

Our house was decorated with garlands of candy canes, faux evergreen, and Christmas cards. Holiday music was accompanied by the cracks and pops of worn records broadcast through a tinny record player speaker. From the kitchen I can still smell cinnamon and ginger, homemade breads and special desserts. Even now I see that brightly lit kitchen and worn linoleum floor where Bonnie's toe-nailed paws click-clacked as she lumbered along in her elderly gait. If I concentrate hard enough, I can feel the ache of my older brothers' knuckle punches to the arm. Of course this painful reminiscence is contrasted with the taste of homemade applesauce cake fresh from the oven.

My mom had a Christmas tree wheel light that revolved slowly. It was a round plate with four colors and turned slowly illuminating the tree in a rotating white, red, blue, and green. I always loved watching it with Christmas music playing in the background. Though our tree was just a cheap do-it-yourself, it was festooned to the hilt with an array lights, ornaments, and tinsel. With money being extremely tight, I recall that we kids collected pop bottles with a Radio Flyer wagon until we had enough income to buy Mom a set of richly colored glass pitchers and decanters from a neighborhood junk store. Wrapping paper was another issue. Most of what we had was more like white tissue, but it got the job done.

I suppose that the very essence of what made Christmas so special was the fact that it was celebrated for so long. As always, the wait to see what lay under the tree was excruciating, but the season in itself was by far worth every moment. Even though mysterious treasures were concealed in festive paper and tucked away under green branches, the season wasn't just about getting lots of toys; it was about families and friends getting together. Activity on blackened night time streets was abundant. People were Christmas shopping, putting up their lights, or just out and about. It was like a dark and dead world suddenly came to life on December 1st.

Some of my favorite memories are the wonderful Christmas specials on TV. I also loved the fact that all of television shows we watched faithfully had a Christmas episode. As for the specials, I remember most of the classics such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (narrated by Burl Ives), "The Grinch That Stole Christmas", "Frosty the Snowman", and of course, the ever moral-forging "Charlie Brown's Christmas". The lineup of movies was also fun, such as "A Christmas Carol", the magnificent "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol", and "Miracle on 34th Street."

There was also the fun of Christmas shopping and Christmas Eve dinner and all the presents piled up beneath the tree. Of course, the long weeks of waiting were agonizing. On our walks to school, we discussed what we were sure we were getting for Christmas. The parent-child politics of what you wanted as opposed to "what was good for you" were always factored in.

I remember many wonderful Christmases, but that one magical time for me was the Christmas of 1963. Never had I learned so much about hardship and warmth, sharing and understanding, patience and strength, and of above all, love. Now, as an adult, I think about those wintry days cooped up in that small house that rested on a dirt road behind Barlow Elementary School. Like absent friends or ghosts rattling around the rafters, these memories still speak to me, and each holiday season, they remind me of the Christmas of 1963.