Christmas in Arkansas
Ho, Ho, Ho!
"I grew up in rural Arkansas on Route 4. That road is now called Dixon Road. Our house was across the street from Primrose Methodist Church and a few houses down from Granite Mountain Hospital, operated by Dr. Samuel P. Junkin, my grandfather. When we were children, the whole area surrounding our house was our playground. There were no strangers around to be afraid of and we roamed the neighborhood freely. Every year as Christmas approached, my sister and I became wild little women, with ideas of how to sneak a look at our gifts without our parents knowing. My sister was five years older than I was. I think she had figured the Santa Claus myth out by the time of the particular Christmas I'm remembering. To her credit, she never told me the truth about Santa and I can still remember lying in my bed listening for sleigh bells and reindeer hooves on the roof.
The night before the Christmas I'm remembering, my dad, who was not a playful sort of person generally, called me on the phone. I remember Mom saying someone wanted to talk to me. Well, no one ever did, so I was curious and excited. A voice that seemed a little familiar said: "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!" I know my eyes had to have been huge. I was just amazed. I told my sister, "It's Santa Claus." He spoke a few more words, then said he had to go. Looking back, I am grateful to my dad. I know things like that did not come easily to him. I told everyone who would listen that Santa called me. My Sunday School teacher asked me what he said and I said, "Ho, ho, ho." We learned at church that Christmas was Baby Jesus' birthday. I got very upset with the fact that we didn't buy Jesus a present one year and I remember my mom trying to explain to me why without laughing.
We Thought of Christmas from July till December Every Year
By December 20, we had shaken, pinched, even listened to every gift under the tree. I remember as Christmas got closer, there were a few times we made small holes in the wrapping paper to see what was inside. My dad's favorite thing to say when we acted up was, "Whose children are these? These can't be our children, acting like this. We have good children." I was looking around constantly while poking holes in wrapping paper, expecting to hear those words coming out of his mouth.
My family didn't have a lot of money. I was 10 years old before I realized that we not only weren't rich but were probably a bit poor. I think my friends and their parents all thought we had plenty because of my grandfather's position as a doctor owning his own hospital. Not so. We scraped and saved and did without just like everyone I knew back then. So our Christmas presents were a really big deal to us as were the pretty outfits our aunt and uncle from Magnolia brought us periodically. Christmas itself was such a thrilling thing because everyone was in a good mood around that time and we listened to carols on the radio and "One Man's Family," a radio broadcast we listened to faithfully, always had a Christmas theme during the week before Christmas. Sometimes Gene Autry sang "Here Comes Santa Claus" on the radio. It thrilled us to death!
Under the Christmas Tree
No one in the country bought a Christmas tree. Everyone loaded up the kids and an axe and headed for the woods. Daddy seemed to kind of enjoy that part of Christmas, although at some point when Sis and I started to argue about which tree we wanted, he ran out of patience. We always had a nice one, though, and always a pine. Daddy would go only so far in the spirit of Christmas. When it came to driving around looking for a cedar tree, forget it. We would agree on one we both liked and he would get out the axe and chop it down, then put it in the back of the truck and head home. We always put our tree in a bucket of dirt. I don't know whether we couldn't afford a stand or if it just lasted longer. Mom took old sheets and made a tree skirt. My sis and I would get out the lights and ornaments. We did fine with the lights and the first part of the ornaments, but about halfway there, we were ready to be through and just put things wherever we could find a place. And then the icicles! We would stand halfway across the room and throw them at the tree! It was great fun and they actually didn't look half bad. Our lights were the old fashioned kind, red, green, and blue. Once the tree was up, it changed the whole spirit of the house and Christmas was there for another season.
First Christmas I Remember
Daddy was always up with the chickens, as my mom used to say, as far back as I can remember. On Christmas morning, if we didn't pop up as early as he wanted, he'd start saying, "Santa Claus must have been here. What is all this?" We'd be up in a shot, wiping sleep from our eyes. The first Christmas I remember, my toy -- we only got one from Santa and some candy and fruit -- was a doll. My mom had a red glass bowl that had points around the edges. The doll was sitting in the bowl. I can never remember being quite that happy since. When I picked her up, she made a cooing noise, and my sister named her Cooie Jane. She was my favorite doll for years until I had the flu once and my fever was so high I was a bit delirious. I took the scissors I was using to cut out paper doll clothes and cut off Cooie Jane's toes. Her stuffing started falling out everywhere, I got in a bit of trouble, and she disappeared that night. But it was a marvelous first Christmas. I will never forget seeing her sitting in that bowl and the best part was realizing I had the complete attention of my parents as I ran to get her.
Once we finished opening gifts at our house, we ate breakfast, then got on the road in Daddy's truck to deliver gifts to Granddaddy and Grandmother. They were separated for a long as I remember, although they never divorced. He lived in his hospital and she lived out in Saline County in the country in a house on a hill. He went to see her every Sunday and took her for a ride. When we would go to the hospital to visit Granddaddy Sam, we always found him and his nurse Nan in the family area at the end of the long hall that led from the waiting room to the back. They would be sitting in front of a warm fire with a heartily spiked glass of eggnog if it was after lunch. I never knew who did the tree at the hospital, Nan, I guess, but it was a wonderful sight to see. They had bubble lights, which were really new back then and I was so impressed with them. Granddaddy always had a huge pile of gifts sitting beneath the tree. Being a very young little girl, it bothered me tremendously that he hadn't opened them. Sometimes the presents would sit under the tree until finally Nan would tell Fanny, Granddaddy's cook, to open them herself. Granddaddy treated many African-Americans. Most of them had no way to pay him, but on Christmas and Easter, the back porch of the kitchen was loaded down with sweet potatoes, shelled pecans, and all matter of goodies. We all got money from Granddaddy for Christmas, which was especially fine with my mom and dad as his checks were always generous. Mom got him pajamas and ties and he told us to add them to the pile under the tree. After a drink of some sort for my parents and cookies and milk for Sis and me, we were off to the last stop of the day, a late lunch with Grandmother.
If it was snowing or iced over, Daddy had trouble getting his pickup truck up Grandmother's driveway out in the country as it would become a solid chunk of ice. I remember hearing the gears grinding, trying to climb the hill. Grandmother always had lunch for us and my dad's brothers and their families on Christmas Day. I remember there were powdered dates, a delicacy we didn't have often. Her house was small and quaint and she always had tables set up around the living room and dining room with name cards for where she wanted each person to sit. I heard the grownups laugh about this behind her back, but I thought it was grand. I also loved the Andrew Wyeth print of the picture, Christina, that hung in her living room. That was long before Wyeth had become as well known as he is now. The picture now hangs in my den. The food was good and we always minded our manners when Grandmother was around. If you didn't put your napkin in your lap, she had no problem with reminding you in front of everyone. Sometimes, if it wasn't snowing and bad weather, the grandchildren got to go out to the guest house. This is where she kept all her bric-a-brac and souvenirs from her travels to Canada, Chicago and the like. We also got presents, which I remember as being my favorites of all my gifts as they were always books and they took me to far off places and on grand adventures.
After Grandmother's house, we were through. Daddy drove home, often through the driving snow. When we got home, we had a day of rest and play, reading our books, playing with our toys and one more Christmas was winding down.