Local Christmas stories from long ago

The first Christmas in the then-new Sacred Heart Church in 1923.

We all have our Christmas traditions, whether we believe the Christmas story or simply like the lights and cheer surrounding the day.

One of my personal traditions was listening to Christmas carols. The old KEXO FM radio station that played classical music would start playing Christmas carols among the classical pieces on Black Friday. By Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it played only Christmas carols.

I don’t know if my tradition changed because the old KEXO went away or because the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas became shorter as I aged. Now I barely get a cookie baked with a tune in the background. Still, most traditions last and multiply as generations add to them.

O Christmas tree

Christmas trees, of course, are a major tradition. Mom told of how my grandfather would go out and cut a tree on Christmas Eve. She didn’t say where or what kind of tree. Junipers were the only kind available on the Redlands, but some of them grow in pretty shapes for Christmas.

Grandpa would set up the tree and they’d decorate with candles, garlands and balls. It was Prohibition, and my grandparents were teetotalers, but Grandpa made small amounts of cherry wine for gifts or visitors. After trimming the tree he’d pour what Mom called “a thimbleful” for each of them to drink.

Marguerite Johnson remembers her father’s tree had to be perfect. Every year, he’d cut two trees, drilling holes in the trunk of one and cutting limbs off the other to fill in the bare spots. Then he would set up a model train underneath his perfectly shaped tree.

Judy Hopper thinks her father cut their trees in Glade Park. They decorated the indoor tree, then lined the roof of the house with lights. They put lights on the spruce in their front yard until it finally grew too big. As a young couple, Hopper and her husband, Wayne, picked up a tree from a school after they were discarded for Christmas vacation.

When I was a child, Arcieri Nursery was a prime spot to buy trees. Mr. Arcieri was very particular about what he cut. I remember going down the driveway just off First Street and scanning all the beautiful trees lined up. I always went to the largest, but my father liked small trees on tables, not on the floor.

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When I was 11, my dad was working in Rangely and wasn’t going to be home for Christmas. It was a year with little money and it looked like we wouldn’t have a tree either. But my sister and I decided that if we couldn’t have a spruce tree we’d have a juniper. Some neighbors with a pickup trundled us off to Goat Ranch, a piece of property owned by a cousin and situated just below Liberty Cap and Ute Canyon on the Colorado National Monument.

We wanted it to be tall—no more table trees. At home we discovered it wasn’t all that tall, coming nowhere close to the ceiling, but it was very wide. Lots of furniture had to be moved to the dining room. Building a stand like the precise little crosses my dad always built didn’t work.

I ended up nailing a large piece of plywood to the bottom and shoved the tree so tight into the corner that the walls held it up. No one was laughing, although I think Grandma hid her grins. We had one string of seven lights and about 10 glass balls and lots of icicles. It’s a good thing the tree had berries to help fill the bare spots.

Nativity sets of the past

The use of nativity sets has waxed and waned over the years. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene because he didn’t like the jewel-encrusted displays in Rome. The early Christian church used paintings and statues because most of the people were illiterate and Bibles were expensive. Sometimes the general public wasn’t allowed to read the Bible because churches didn’t think the public could understand.

The popularity of nativity sets arose in the U.S. after World War I, perhaps because soldiers had seen ornate and priceless sets in Italy, France and Germany. Many churches displayed them indoors at Christmas.

As a child, the nativity set in the old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Third Street and White Avenue looked almost human to me, with the baby Jesus in a manger with real straw, and Mary and Joseph statues on each side. The stable, a solid structure made of wood, was displayed with large Christmas trees ranging in size up to 12 feet. The only decorations on the trees were large blue lights with a star atop the tallest. At home, our little cardboard set with glued-on statues just wasn’t real enough.

Marie Neuberger said they had a small nativity at the Lutheran Church of the Messiah while she was growing up. She still has the thick cardboard set she grew up with at home.

Johnson remembers the nativity her dad put beneath the tree. It was encircled by miniature palm trees and evergreens, a combination that always puzzled her.

Whatever your tradition—whether it’s Christmas or otherwise—the end of the year is a wonderful time to celebrate, light up the night and wish everyone joy and happiness.

Eileen O'Toole

Eileen O'Toole

Eileen O’Toole loves her history and pretty much everyone else’s too. Her family has lived in the Grand Junction, Colorado, area since 1882. Eileen’s grandmother homesteaded on the Redlands in 1909. Her great-great grandmother—along with other ancestors, cousins and grandparents—are buried in Fruita and Grand Junction. She lives in the house her grandparents built in 1914. Many of her younger cousins are still in the area as well. Eileen likes writing history for The BEACON Senior Newspaper and the Mesa County Historical Society. She also reads a lot of it. She is an artist, has two cats and a dog and loves waking to the Colorado National Monument every day.
Eileen O'Toole

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