When I hear the word “Christmas”, the years and memories flash back inside my head through a fire hydrant rush of memories to Timber Lake, South Dakota where they all began. Like yesterday, the winter prairie wind is outside my bedroom window, the cold December snow is squeaking under my feet and the little town is glowing like a western hallmark card. I am “home” for Christmas one more time.
Today, black Friday and internet specials mark the start of the Christmas season. In 1970s Timber Lake, the beginning of the season was the day mom brought home the first Christmas catalog. Sears, Wards, and JC Penney each sent a magical book containing all the new toys. If I wasn’t fortunate enough to grab it first, the wait for my turn while my brother or sister turned pages in slow motion was simply agonizing.
Eventually, I would have my turn to gaze with eyes wide open and jaw slightly dropped at each page of never before seen games, toys and stereo systems with record players AND 8-track tape decks built in TOGETHER. By the time presents were under the tree, the pages were dog-earred and worn with the covers sometimes gone or hanging on with a few pieces of scotch tape. Whenever I see the long lines after Thanksgiving or hear a tale of shopping on-line, I think back to Montgomery Wards at the kitchen table, the Sears Wish Book on the couch and JC Penney under the reading light on my bed.
Sometime after Thanksgiving, a truck loaded with trees would arrive at Thompson’s and later Kelly’s Grocery. Word would quickly spread through town. Mom would come and get me after she got off work. To get a good tree, you just had to get there early. Wanting to avoid the rush and hassle, Mom sometimes talked of getting an artificial tree but always gave in to my annual dissertation on every reason we HAD to have a real tree.
I can hear the jingle of the back door of the store, feel the hardwood floor creak under my feet and smell the stacks of evergreen in the storage cooler. In my mind, I see a small boy walking tall because it was his “job” to help pick out the best tree ever. After standing up several while we debated the height and branch structure, the chosen one was taken home sticking out the open car trunk.
Mom refused to decorate until the branches had a few days to naturally fall into place. Then, we would pull down the box of Christmas ornaments carefully stored in half gallon milk containers from companies such as Foremost and Flav-o-Rite. Each kid had their favorites and each helped decorate the tree. However, Mom was in charge of the tinsel as she disapproved of going heavy on the glitter. Sparingly dispersed across the tree, I don’t think we ever had to buy new tinsel. The lights strung on the tree didn’t flash, blink or twinkle. They were solid red, blue and green. We always capped off the tree with the same plastic Star of David.
Then, there were the occasional trips around town to view the lights. In pajamas, snow boots and coats, we waited for Mom to scrap the car windows in the cold dark December nights. While most houses had lights of some kind, my memory goes to the big tree by the hotel, up past Paul Schweitzer’s wide array of lights then always, always over to Dean and Marian Fett’s display of Santa and his sleigh. It was never truly Christmas until the reindeer were rocking and Rudolph’s nose was glowing red.
I am sure kids today will have fond memories of Christmas to recall in 40 years. I just know they probably won’t involve simple lights on a huge tree or a single red nose on a plywood deer that moved in unison with Donner, Blitzen and the rest to the simple amazement of every young child in town.
We didn’t grow up with a lot but somehow every Christmas, we had just enough under the tree to make it “wide awake at 3 a.m. but can’t open presents until 5″ special. We had family, friends and tradition to share. It is “40 years later” special. It was my Timber Lake. It is forever home.