Being a poor person, last year I wrote this story for my family, and that was my Christmas gift to them. Excuse the length. In the version I gave my parents, children and grandchildren, I included all the recipes to the cookies I talk about. I thought this was a good way to preserve memories and pass on family recipes and traditions. This is a story of growing up in the sixties on Air Force bases.
Christmas for children means Santa, decorations, trees and colored lights, music and presents, and if you live in the right place, snow. Children love hearing about the baby Jesus being born in a manger, attended and worshipped by animals, poor shepherds and kings bearing gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. They sing songs of joy and noel and angels. Children feel the magic and excitement of Christmas that we seem to outgrow the older we get. Children are why we tell stories about Santa, a merry old soul, dressed in red who brings gifts in the night to good little boys and girls. Christmas is for children. Although, as we grow older and we lose those special feelings from childhood, the one gift we get to keep forever is our memories of Christmas.
My parents have pictures of the first Christmas I remember when we lived on Guam (1959-61). We are living in a Quonset hut, and because the pictures are now over fifty years old, the colors in the pictures taken of that Christmas have faded with age. My mom is very beautiful with her brunette, curly hair, brown eyes and red lipstick. My dad always looked handsome in his uniform, (which is what he had to wear all the time and how I remember him) although in the pictures he is in a tee shirt. We have a scrawny thing that could barely be called a tree, (They were probably very hard to come by on a tiny Island in the Pacific), and we were probably incredibly lucky to even have one. My brother Ryland and my sister and I are all in our baggy underwear, it was very warm at Christmas time on Guam, my sister and I with our tight, curly, permed hair. Craig was only a few months old. My sister and I each received a doll and a crib for our dolls. That was probably all we got, maybe a couple small things. In one picture, after we got scrubbed and dressed, we are in matching print dresses (my mom always made us identical clothes) and holding our dolls.
I remember going to the movie theater where the base would always have a Christmas party for the kids and give each child a present and show cartoons. This was something that happened every year on every base we lived on. That year we sang songs that went like this “jingle bells, cockle shells, stickle burrs all the way”. Instead of a one horse open sleigh it was a caribou....It was Guam.
The next Christmases I remember were in Burns Flat, Oklahoma on Clinton Sherman Air Force base which only had around 700 service members and their families in a town that was about population 18. Burns Flat, right outside the gates of the base, consisted of a gas station, a Hart’s and Pockets five and dime, a Toot and Moo (kind of like an earlier version of Circle K), a coin store, a big Baptist church, a Dairy Queen and a High School. My sister and I regularly went outside the gates, crossed a major highway, (although we were single digit ages), and went to the few stores over and over. You could still buy penny candy, like little wax bottles filled with colored syrup, jaw breakers and Beaman’s gum for two cents a pack. We could get a whole bag of candy and gum for a quarter. Hershey bars were four cents at the BX (Base Exchange), and they were bigger than the ones you buy now. Bread was 28 cents a loaf. My mom would feed a family of six for two weeks for sixty dollars.
Nobody worried back then about little kids wandering around on their own and crossing major highways. Even at the tender ages of six and four, my sister and I had freely roamed the jungle on Guam with curiosity and no fear. We found plenty of coconuts, sugar cane and star apples to eat. There was one tree on the island, that if you touched its delicate, small, fern-like leaves gently with your fingertips, it would fold them up in protection. One native woman we would visit in the jungle lived in a mostly bamboo house high up on stilts, and she would give us cocoa mixed with sugar for a treat. We were Air Force brats and had already been half way around the world. Crossing a highway was nothing.
I often feel sad for kids today. They are thwarted from wandering on their own with protective parents who are filled with worry and fear and concerns of security by a new world reality. They don’t have the freedom to explore like we did. Maybe they are safer, and maybe they lose some of the chance to develop a sense of their own identity and experiences at a younger age.
Cindi and I walked everywhere we wanted to go on base. We walked to school until the fourth grade, and then you had to ride a bus to Will Rogers Elementary School,which was off base and down the highway. We walked to the movies on Saturday morning when they showed a movie or cartoons for kids. It cost fifteen cents to get in. The theater was in a shopping area by the BX and commissary, where military people grocery shop. We walked to the swimming pool almost everyday in summer where we took swimming lessons for years, beginner, intermediate, advanced and Junior lifesaver, which is the last class I passed. We walked to the library near the pool where they always had a summer program for children and showed movies. We walked to the recreation center. That’s where the kids would all hang out playing pool, ping pong and the jukebox. We walked to church once a week for choir practice, past the hospital. We walked to the school in summer time for Vacation Bible School where we learned lots of verses, and I recited every book of the Bible by heart. We walked to the playground, there was no grass so it wasn’t a park, which was the closest to our house. You took a right on the sidewalk at the end of our drive, past three houses to the end of our street, Mohawk Trail, and it was catty-corner from where you stood. Our parents never drove us anywhere. We walked.
Living on base, we were a very self enclosed society with all the houses being identical duplexes, except the officers’ houses maybe had an extra bedroom. We all went to the same school, same movie theater, same swimming pool, same church (they had two services, one Protestant, one Catholic), library, and stores and hospital, where no one paid for healthcare. There weren’t a lot of choices on base. It was a perfect picture of socialism at its finest, and we liked it.
All the families when I was growing up had more than two children; the Hwylers only had two, and they were the exception rather than the rule. Frieda Tinsley was my mom’s best friend, and she had seven children. The Alexanders next door to them had five. My parents four. Now you know why they call my generation the baby boomers. Blame our parents.
Within our block we always had a group of at least a dozen kids or more for any game we would spontaneously play. War was one of the favorites with the boys being soldiers and the girls nurses. We had tents set up for medical units, and every boy had lots of toy guns at that time. No one thought anything of boys having play guns then, and they even brought them to school. We also played red light green light, red rover, freeze tag, I spy, looked for UFOs with our telescopes and had lots of tea parties. Skipping rope and playing jacks were other great pastimes for the girls, and my mom was the best jack player I ever knew. We knew lots of jump rope rhymes like:
Not last night but the night before
24 robbers came knocking at my door,
as I ran out, (run out of rope), they ran in, (jump back in)
[they] knocked me on the head with a rolling pin
I asked them what they wanted
and this is what they said
Chinese dancers do the splits, (jumper doing the commands after each)
Chinese dancers do the kicks,
Chinese dancers turn around,
Chinese dancers touch the ground,
Chinese dancers get out of town, (run out of rope, end of turn)
When our parents had parties, we would get a kick out of playing hide and seek in the dark, hitting the ground and freezing if you saw car lights; because there was a curfew on base, and kids were not allowed to be out after dark. Some of the kids my sister and I played with were little Frieda, who was called Bibi, her sister Chrissie, their brothers Fred and Joey, Joe and Jackie Hwyler, Nina and Cheryl Alexander, Rosemary Joslin (Cindi’s best friend), Beverly Darby and Pamela. Those are just some of the names I remember.
My parents used to sing and dance a lot. My dad played the guitar, and my mom had a very beautiful singing voice. Some of my favorite songs to hear her sing were Down in the Valley, “valley so low, hang your head over, hear the wind blow” and the Tennessee Waltz and Put Another Nickel In, “in the nickelodeon, all I want is loving you and music! music! music!”. She knew all the Teresa Brewer and Brenda Lee songs and many old country songs. We played the transistor radio all the time doing dishes, and I remember my mom saying what a sad song Mr Lonely was. “Lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely, I have nobody for my own. Letters, never a letter, I get no letter in the mail, I’m forgotten, yes forgotten, oh how I wonder, how is it I failed. I’m a soldier, a lonely soldier, away from home, through no wish of my own, that’s why I’m lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely, I wish that I could go back home.” It was about a young soldier in Viet Nam, the war was in it’s early years.
Music was a big part of our lives. We never had a car radio, and we would sing everywhere we drove, even though my mom was the only one in the family who had a good voice. One of our favorite Christmas presents at that time was our record player, and we had a lot of 45’s. The first album we had, that my sister bought for a couple dollars, was The Beatles’ first album after seeing them on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
Christmas when I was young was a time of excitement. Growing up on air force bases, the BX would always open a store next to the BX called Toyland. “Toyland, toyland, little girl and boy land” (song from the movie Babes in Toyland, Disney 1961). We didn’t have Walmarts or others chain stores; we only had the BX and they never carried toys till a few weeks before Christmas, so as children that was the only time we really got a first hand look at toys in abundance. We got to look at them in catalogues, but not in person ,except in
Toyland. We would wait with anticipation for the Christmas catalogue to come in
the mail, and after it arrived we would spend hours and then days writing our names on things we knew we would never get. Many of our gifts probably came from the catalogue.
Our parents would get us one thing we really wanted, like when I was about nine or ten I got a guitar and my bike one year, and then they would give us a family present which was usually a board game. My family played a lot of board games together like Monopoly, LIfe and Scrabble, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers and card games. Kids used to play board games all the time too. Board games required at least two people to play but were more fun and challenging with three or four. They required skills of concentration and strategic planning and for some money, math and an ability to spell. We played to win.
Another family present we got were these big styrofoam blocks called Flintstone blocks (they looked like giant legos, white with blue speckles), and we would build forts in the house out of them till they finally crumbled. My sister and I had giant paper doll Flintstones too. We loved our paper dolls. Cindi and I played paper dolls all the time and would even design our own clothes and cut them out for them.
My parents had bought us a collection as a family present of The Great American Treasury of Songs, and all four of us would play them for hours singing along. In this way we learned every patriotic song including all the hymns of the armed services the Caissons go Marching Along, From the Halls of Montezuma, Anchors Away and Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder which was the AF song. We also learned all the folk songs, and Ryland, my brother, would crack everyone up singing about the boll weevil “lookin for a home, just lookin for a home”. Old Dan Tucker was another one we liked, as well as all the Stephen Foster songs, Way Down Upon the Swanee River and Oh Susannah. Another favorite we sang a lot was Swing Low Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home. “Well, I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home”.
We also got a tether ball one year, our first one in Guam but one in OK too, and we played a lot of tether ball. There were tether balls at school too, and I considered myself something of a tether ball champion for a few years. I learned all the tricks like swinging it hard without touching the rope and bouncing it with one hand and slamming it with my other fist. Touching the rope or holding the ball was a foul, and you lost a point and had to give up the serve.
Another favorite present for my sister and I was roller skates. We roller skated all the time in the summer and fall, and every neighborhood had side walks so we could. Our driveway had a steep inclined drive, and all the brave kids would skate down it. I was always too scared to, but one day, when my parents were gone shopping and no one else was around (a very rare experience in my house); I decided to try it since there were no witnesses if I chickened out. I went down the drive, across the road and into the drive across the street and fell, breaking my arm.
We got our first Barbie dolls for Christmas when I was about six or seven, which was the first original Barbie, that came with a whole set of clothes that cost my mom three dollars each. Cindi got the brunette and I got the blond pony tail in the original black and white striped bathing suit, and the set had about seven or eight outfits for them. I wish we had them now, they are worth about ten thousand just for the doll. Nina’s and Cheryl's mom was a great knitter and sewer and made every girl in the neighborhood tons of clothes for our Barbie dolls.
One year our family present was a Flyer sled. We had a big hill out behind our back yard that was one of the favorite sledding areas for all the kids. It always snowed a lot in OK, and that was one thing we could count on was plenty of snow and lots of sledding. We had a partial wood fence between our back yard and the hill, and one year I crashed through the fence but was not seriously hurt, just a little scared and sore. My parents still had this sled in their garage when they lived in Vegas. I don’t know what happened to it after that. I’m surprised they kept it so long, because there was no snow in Tucson or Las Vegas where we lived after OK.
There would be three or four feet of snow everywhere at Christmas time. Our dog, a Cockapoo named Tinker Bell, who we got as a puppy when I was six and was my best friend (she lived to the age of seventeen), always followed us everywhere and played like one of the kids. She even learned to climb the slide ladder and slide down and loved baseball. One winter Tinker and I were in the snow for so long, snow froze to her legs in hard clumps, and I spent hours in the kitchen thawing her out with warm water and hugging her till she quit shivering and shaking. Maybe that was before global warming, because I don’t think they get that much snow now from what I notice on the weather forecasts.
Every year my dad would make the fudge. That was his job, and he took it seriously. You needed patience to make fudge, and my dad was a patient man. You had to wait for the sugar, cocoa and milk to boil for a long time till you could form a ball with a drop of the fudge in cold water. Then you had to beat it, and beat it, and beat it with the mixer for an even longer time, till it wasn’t glossy anymore. Then you had to quickly get it out of the pan before it got too hard. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. It was some awesome fudge.
What is it about the smell of fudge that makes you want to eat some? And since we couldn’t (not till Christmas), we did the next best thing. Two kids each got a beater, and the other two got spoons and the pan. Believe me, they were
licked perfectly clean. Everyone in my family is a chocoholic. I sincerely believe it should be a major food group. Anything that people can crave and love that much must be vital to life.
Then, there were the cookies. Dozens, and dozens, and tens of dozens of cookies. Cookies for everyone! Friends and neighbors, some to take to school and some to send to relatives. And us! Don’t forget about us! We like them too! Smells of vanilla, almond, peppermint, spices, nuts and sugar baking filled the house, along with the added warmth from the oven. My mom loved to cook and bake. She was a natural in the kitchen and a gourmet. She loved food. I think you have to love food to be a really good cook.
We spent hours, and days, and weeks baking cookies. We made refrigerator cookies, which were one of my favorites (and always my husband Skip’s), a nutmeg, clove and cinnamon spice cookie with black walnuts. You just rolled the dough in plastic wrap, put it in the fridge, let it get hard, slice it and put on a pan and bake. Wonderful and delicious. We also made Russian tea balls and almond crescent cookies, both delicate cookies rolled in powdered sugar, but with distinctive tastes. To make peppermint candy cane cookies, you would separate the peppermint flavored dough into two parts and color one part pink. Then you would roll ropes out of them. Take a pink and a natural rope, twist them together, cut them in strips and form in candy cane shapes on the baking sheet.
The celebrity of the holiday was the sugar cookie. We used the recipe with powdered sugar and a touch of almond in it. After it hardened in the refrigerator, my mom rolled it out with a rolling pin; and then we cut shapes of trees, stars, bells, and stockings. My mom used a biscuit cutter to make a wreath shape, and the center became a miniature cookie. After they cooled, we frosted them with an almond flavored, shortening frosting, fluffy and white. Then we would decorate them with green, red, and multi colored ball sprinkles. Little red hots became berries for the wreaths and added a hot cinnamon burst of flavor to the cookie when you bit into them. My sister could spend hours decorating in perfection, but I tended to be more in a hurry. Now that I’m grown, I do it my way. Fast, but I do it! The cookie has a touch of crispness and melts in your mouth. This is, was, and forever will be, everyone’s favorite cookie.
This is one tradition I have always carried on in my own life, when my kids were little, after they left home, and last year when I made them, once again, for family and friends. See mom, some things do stick. I learned a lot of recipes hanging out in the kitchen with my mom. She was a good teacher. People have always complemented my food when I make my mother’s recipes. Thanks mom!
We would make a Christmas decoration for the tree every year. One year we took pointy, paper water cups, glued two together and turned them into Santas with red felt for his hat and white cotton for his beard. My mom sewed little stockings out of red felt, cotton trimming the tops, for party favors for our classes with each child’s name on them in silver glitter. We would cut snowflakes out of folded white paper and hang them in the windows. Then we’d decorate the tree together, about a week before Christmas, and my sister would hang each piece of tinsel separately, so each strand would hang perfectly straight. I didn’t get to hang tinsel. I wasn’t patient enough.
Christmas caroling was my favorite activity at Christmas and some of my favorite memories. My sister and I sang in the children’s church choir, and my mom usually took charge of the caroling. I was always stimulated by nature; and I loved being in the cold, snowy, crisp night air. Doing something after dark was always appealing. The children’s choir would go all over base, out to the flight line to sing to the guys that had to work, the base hospital and the neighborhoods.
We knew lots of Christmas songs from church, two of my favorites were always We Three Kings and Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel (this is still my favorite Christmas song). We sang Silent Night with slow, solemn, reverence. Silent night, holy night came from our small, blue lips as if we imagined ourselves in the presence of the baby Jesus on that holiest of nights.
My mom made us hot chocolate and gave us hard candies of peppermint and butterscotch when we were done; and then she would pile ten or more kids in our old, green, Ford sedan to take everyone home. This was a long time before car seats, and we never used seat belts (I don’t think we even had them); and although the roads were icy and frozen, she never killed or maimed one child.
My sister and I would be so excited that we barely would get any sleep on Christmas Eve and often were up by three or four in the morning, too excited to sleep. We would try to be quiet, and Cindi would sometimes separate the presents into piles for each of us. Although we thought we were whispering, soon my parents would be up, hours earlier than they would have liked, because of our creeping, giggles and rustling about. Our stockings would be filled with the same things every year: a candy cane, colored ribbon and round hard Christmas candy, an orange and an apple and walnuts still in their shells, which my mom said were for luck. She also told us only good boys and girls got nuts in their stockings.
It doesn’t take long to start feeling the first pangs of disappointment at Christmas when it gets reduced to only receiving, and pretty soon we realized that we didn’t get as many presents as the other kids. We would get three or maybe four, and since all of our grandparents were poor (or had died), as well as aunts and uncles, we never got presents from them; although my mom would make sure we got our cousins something out of our meager allowances, usually something for a dollar or less (we had to plan our list very carefully). We got 25 cents a week for doing our chores (we got a raise to 35 cents when we moved to Tucson).
Every year without fail she would send every member of her and my dad’s family gifts. She tried to teach us the meaning of “it is better to give than to receive.”
We never realized our paucity of presents until we made friends with the Tinsleys and would go over to their house and see their tree barely visible through the huge pile of presents. They had more kids, it’s true, and lots of relatives. This was when Christmas started to lose a little of its former glow.
One of my most magical memories was lying in my pajamas by the sliding back door on a chilly Christmas Eve night. I was growing older and, realizing I would not get a lot of gifts, wishing for a Christmas miracle. An almost full moon loomed high in heaven, large and bright. It had not snowed for awhile and looking out the back, glass door, snowflakes started to fall, sparkling in moonlight and picking up the reflection of the Christmas tree lights. It seemed to me they fell slowly, as if in suspension, brilliant crystals in colors of blue, green and red and gold; and I was filled with a sense of awe and amazement. I felt like I could almost see the uniqueness of each snowflake. Billions fall, no two are ever alike. I remember that night as if it were yesterday. The disappointment of presents dispelled with the wonder, beauty and splendor of nature.
My parents had four children, and the AF didn’t pay a lot of money. Now I can look back and know, that although my parents weren’t rich, and we may not have had an abundance of presents, they cared about us very much and gave what they could with love in their hearts. We live in a country where materialism is accepted as a fact of life. Kids today get way more than we ever did as children, and Christmas has turned into a highly stressful, commercial holiday filled more with expectation than excitement. In this time in our country, when so many parents are out of work, losing their homes or working part time and barely making ends meet, maybe there will not be lots of gifts under the tree for many children. I hope they grow up to learn that love is worth so much more and doesn’t break or get lost and you never outgrow it. Treasure your memories.