Christmas Then and Now

It’s Christmas again. Time for the annual Christmas traditions, the splendiferous decorations, time with family and friends, eating too much.

Christmas is one of the more puzzling holidays observed in our transplanted polyglot European culture, second only to Easter on my Curiosities of Mankind list. It’s a Christian religious celebration, a Germanic pagan observance, a capitalistic orgy, a childhood fantasy and an adult obligation. It’s the source of religious schisms, government regulation, cultural syncretism and social pressures and expectations. So much to be packed into a single day.

I don’t remember many of my Christmases past. The one that stands out is the year when my family moved from San Antonio, Texas to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was eight years old.

s-l500My father was in the Air Force, starting his first assignment as a flight surgeon at the now deactivated Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. The Air Force had moved us from Texas to South Carolina, but as Christmas approached, our moving van with all our furniture and household goods had not yet arrived.

Fortunately, my parents had the good sense to pack wrapped Christmas presents in our 1956 Chevy station wagon for the trip east. So we arrived at our small, very empty beach bungalow with our clothes, some food and Christmas presents, and that’s it.

The move was a bit of a shock, having come from arid Texas to the semi-swamps of pre-resort development Myrtle Beach. Our small house was surrounded by dense, very wet forests that had served as the Myrtle Beach General Bombing and Gunnery Range during World War II. When my brother and I and our friends built forts in those dark forest we found chains of live machine gun bullets and dummy practice bombs in amongst the tangled live oak (Quercus virginiana),  saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), southern bayberry (Myrica cerifera), and Carolina holly (Ilex ambigua).

We made a Christmas tree with shirt cardboard and aluminum foil, decorated it with snips of ribbon and a bangle or two and scotch taped it to the knotty pine wall in the living room. I have a memory, probably of a picture rather than the real thing, of the tree hanging on the bare wall with our presents in a heap below it. My one real memory of that house in the forest is of turning on the kitchen light after dark and seeing a herd of cockroaches scattering to the baseboards in all directions.

800px-Fiesta_Bowl_2006_from_Flickr_81639095Another memorable Christmas was in 1976, when I was shooting film for the University of Wyoming football team. That was a good year for the Wyoming team that resulted in a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, where the Cowboys were miserably defeated by the Oklahoma Sooners.

As Ed Abbey observed, Christmas in the desert is even stranger than in northern climes. It was warm, too warm for my usual winter uniform of long underwear, flannel shirts and wool socks. We left Wyoming in 30 degree weather with blowing snow, and here the sun was shining from a cloudless sky and the desert cactus were decorated as Santa Claus and his reindeer.

It was a bizarre Christmas, made stranger by the stunning defeat and an unfortunate extended delay in the Phoenix airport due to a mix-up in the scheduling of our aircraft charter. We got back to Wyoming in the wee hours of a post Christmas morning, after which I spent another 24 hours processing and editing the game film and traveling with the coach to TeeVee stations around the state for the post-game show.

Those were the days, and now Jean and I are spending a quiet Christmas at home, enjoying the warm sun pouring through the front windows, our warm tea and toast, and a warm telephone call to my father and his wife in Austin, Texas. This afternoon we’ll go for a walk to the beach to make sure it’s still attached to the ocean, and then come home for a delicious Christmas dinner and a classic Walt Disney Christmas movie.

Life just doesn’t get any better than this!



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