“I think I saw one of Santa’s elves peaking in the window”, Mom said in hushed tones, putting a stop to my argument with Rinda about who should finish tidying the upstairs playroom. I no longer believed in him but Rinda did so I immediately put on a fake happy face and finished the job, perpetuating the Santa myth. The Santa we knew was not big on unconditional love.
Since those days of my Hyrum boyhood, I’ve learned that all families have their unique, quirky holiday traditions and that memories of Christmases past are among the most vivid and treasured. Here are a few peeks into Christmas in Lyle and Joyce’s home.
Although she loved Christmas, Joyce hated decorating for Christmas. Looking back, I recognize that she was a perfectionist and that our humble, tattered decorations could never transform our home into Bethlehem or the North Pole (depending on the year.) This made decorating for Christmas markedly stressful for Mom as she teetered between wanting us kids to experience helping and methodically measuring how far every delicate, stringy icicle hung down from the tree branch.
Kids helping must have won out because I distinctly remember those icicles. I don’t know how many Christmas trees they’d adorned before we got to carefully attempt to untangle them, one-at-a-time, then place each one in the perfect spot on the tree. Even though a new box of icicles cost less than 50 cents at Low Cost Drug in Logan, it was tradition that we keep the same icicles from year to year. Readers probably understand that Christmas decorations are not put away with the same eye for perfection with which they’re put on display. When removed from the tree, the icicles were draped over a piece of cardboard, then slid back inside the original cellophane-covered box.
Not all of the icicles found their way onto the tree or, after Christmas, back into their original packaging. Somehow, hiding in the “blue room” upstairs, I discovered that when placed in a metal measuring cup and touched with two wires from my model train transformer, the icicles ignited in a bright flash of fire and acrid smoke. Until just recently, that was my only welding experience. Out of curiosity, I just went Googling for a picture of the old-fashioned icicles. Although now called “tinsel”, they’re still available on-line. Should I be worried that what I thought was aluminum was actually “lead foil”? Oh well, at least I didn’t try to smoke them!
We usually had a real tree although I only vaguely remember going to Logan to buy it. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a nursery on Canyon Road (I think the family name started with a “W”…perhaps “Worthen”?) that stocked Christmas trees. Despite Mom’s secret desire to be the “Martha May Whovier” of Christmas trees, our tree decorations fell short of that lofty standard. A few classic glass ornaments, recycled icicles, and colored lights found their way onto the tree each year. One year we added a popcorn garland and another time a paper chain made from red and green construction paper. I’m sure Mom had a variety of Christmas knick-knacks but I can’t remember any specifically. The nut bowl and nutcracker, stocked with assorted nuts, did make an appearance every year. Brazil nuts, hazel nuts and almonds disappeared in that order. Walnuts and pecans were always the last to go.
I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad spent way more than they could afford every year. Often, Christmas is a time when parents are hit smack in the face with their economic realities. As a parent, I’ve experienced that desire to get our kids everything they want even at the cost of blowing the budget and wracking up some credit card bills that’ll take a few months to pay off.
As Christmas approached, the kids looked forward to the arrival of the winter Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs. They were the Amazon.com of our day, featuring at least a hundred pages of toys, neatly separated for boys and girls. We fought constantly over the catalogs and must have spent dozens of hours drooling over the latest toys. I remember having such a hard time deciding what I wanted most, changing my mind almost daily. Should I ask Santa for a new BB gun, a chemistry set or a bow and arrows? So many dangerous choices!
One year, probably about 1963, I remember falling in love with an elaborate Lionel train set at the Firestone store in Logan. Besides tires, the Firestone store carried appliances, lawn mowers, bicycles and a variety of tools now commonly found in hardware stores. Paul Thompson was the manager and had grown to be a close family friend. The train set cost just over $100. That may not sound like much money but, factoring in inflation, it is the equivalent of at least $775 dollars today! I knew it was far more than the family could afford so had little hope of seeing the train set under the tree on Christmas morning. I’m sure Mom did a little price negotiating with Paul Thompson and that it took several months to pay for the train. I still have most of the train set and treasure it to this day. It often finds its way into our homemade Christmas village and will forever remind me of how much Mom and Dad sacrificed to make Christmas magical for us kids.
Mom always got tremendously excited about giving Christmas gifts and had a very difficult time not telling each of us what we were getting. Somehow, I learned that Mom usually hid our gifts in a large box behind a dresser in their bedroom. In the pre-1960 home, their bedroom was at the front of the house on the west side. The dresser was set diagonally in the bedroom’s northwest corner, thus concealing the present box behind it. On more than one occasion, Marianne and I worked in tandem (one of us acting as a look-out) to snoop through the box well in advance of December 25th. I felt guilty about pretending to be surprised on Christmas morning but apparently I shouldn’t have. Many years later, I learned that Mom even helped Marianne carefully unwrap her presents for a sneak peek!
One long-awaited Hyrum tradition, dating back to when Lyle was a boy, was Santa’s arrival at the old Elite Hall on the corner of Main Street and 100 West. A couple Saturdays before Christmas, most of Hyrum’s young children congregated on the sidewalk in front of the Elite Hall, straining to hear the wail of a siren. Once our ears detected that sound, we knew Santa was approaching, riding in on one the City’s fire trucks. The fire truck pulled up to the curb as the siren wound down and Santa waved to the crowd of kids from his seat on the back of the truck. He’d make his way to a chair inside the Elite Hall where we each got to sit on his knee and tell him what we wanted for Christmas. I don’t remember even thinking about how long it would take to get through the line but do remember being thrilled when Santa handed me a small, brown paper sack of hard tack candy and peanuts after patiently listening to my lengthy Christmas wish list.
Our Christmas Eves were quite traditional, consisting of a good meal and Dad reading the nativity story from the old family Bible. Although religion didn’t come easily to Dad, I still remember how solemnly and tenderly he read of Christ’s birth.
One big question on Christmas Eve was what time Mom and Dad would let us get up on Christmas morning. They always tried to send us to bed as early as possible, often accompanied by additional threats that Santa’s elves were watching and that Santa wouldn’t come if we were awake. I vividly remember the year Marianne, Rinda and I slept upstairs in the old house on Christmas Eve. The upstairs room was never an actual bedroom and in the wintertime it was often littered with large, dried sunflower heads from Dad’s garden. For whatever reason, that year we “slept” upstairs. I was always so excited about Christmas that it’s a miracle I didn’t develop childhood ulcers. We’d lay there in the dark, quietly whispering back and forth about what we wanted for Christmas, wondering what time it was and straining our ears to detect any evidence of Santa’s arrival. Old houses make a lot of creaking noises…noises that sound, for all the world, like reindeer on the roof. Eventually, Rinda and I fell asleep. What seemed like (and was) only minutes later, sometime between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., Marianne shook us awake and told us it was time to sneak down the stairs to see if Santa had come. Little did Rinda and I know that she’d already tip-toed downstairs and seen all our gifts! Mom and Dad emerged bleary-eyed from their bedroom. Dad was decidedly less enthusiastic than Mom about our early start but I don’t remember them ever telling us to go back to bed. In fact, more than one year Mom woke us up when she could no longer tolerate the excitement.
Once the 1960-1962 house rebuild was completed, all of the kids slept upstairs and Mom and Dad’s bedroom was downstairs. The wide staircase opened to the family room downstairs, making it easy to sneak down the stairs and peek at the Christmas tree. Until the formal living room was completed in 1977, the tree was always in the southeast corner of the family room or centered in the family room window.
Christmas was always about the kids and I don’t remember Mom and Dad getting any large gifts at Christmas. It’s entirely possible that they did but, like all children, I was mostly concerned with what I got. I left home in the spring of 1970 so memories of Christmases thereafter present a different picture. I’m sure Rinda and Matt could add many recollections of life in the Miller home during the holidays with Mom and Dad.
After Mom and Dad became “empty nesters”, Konnie and I often visited them on Christmas or during the holidays. Mom never did develop a love for Christmas decorating. In fact, if anything, she liked it less and less. While we lived in Rexburg, we frequently made the trip to Cache Valley to be with Mom and Dad for Christmas. More often than not, we’d walk into the house only to find all of the Christmas decoration boxes waiting for us. Typically, Mom hoped to “get around” to decorating for Christmas before we arrived but just couldn’t face tackling the chore herself. Like the earlier years, she was never satisfied with her decorating. Although Konnie and I couldn’t spend much time putting up the tree and finding homes for her knick- knacks, Mom always seemed to appreciate and admire our handiwork.
We did notice that her dislike of decorating did not prevent her from buying new Christmas decorations! Many were rescued from certain anonymity at Logan’s Deseret Industries and some had been bought on the clearance shelves after the previous Christmas.
After an always hectic Christmas meal (complete with Christmas plates, bowls, cups and saucers), festivities moved into the formal living room.
Mom and Dad loved to have Santa (often played by Michael Bartschi) drop by. Santa arrived with a sack of presents, one for each family member. Often Mom had spent weeks finding the perfect small gift for each person. Santa perched on a chair, then pulled a gift out of his sack, calling the recipient’s name. When my name was called, I’d go sit on Santa’s knee and reluctantly answer the inevitable “Have you been good this year?” question, then share what I hoped to receive for Christmas. Even Dad’s German Shepherd Sackett got a present! The most memorable years were when Dad played Santa. He didn’t fill a Santa suit but wore the hat proudly and was so sweet with each of us when we sat on his knee. I’ll never forget his laugh!
Grandchildren took the lead roles in the annual nativity re-enactment although Baby Jesus was sometimes a doll. One year, Matt’s family made a cardboard sheep (with a “sheepish grin” that looks more like a leer) to round out the manger scene and Dad dangled an aluminum foil-covered star from a fishing pole directly over “where the sweet baby lay.” The sheep was later determined to be a bit sacrilegious, losing it’s place in the nativity. I’m proud to confess that I still have the leering sheep, foil-covered star and fishing pole stored safely in top of my garage.
A few of the later years, we held the annual Christmas bash at the Hyrum City facility in Blacksmith Fork Canyon. I remember those celebrations as terribly chaotic but somehow Santa still found us.
Some of our most cherished videos of Mom and Dad were taken on Christmas Eve in Rexburg in the mid-1990’s. The video includes both Mom and Dad talking about the Christmases of their childhoods and are priceless. If you haven’t watched the videos recently, check them out under the “Video” tab.
I trust that you also remember Lyle and Joyce’s Christmases fondly. It’s hard to realize that our own children and grandchildren will someday look back on the Christmases they spend with us in Cedar City much the same way!
Dana Miller, Dec. 23, 2015