A Christmas memory

This is a Christmas post from some years bqck. I offer it again here under the idea that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


Jean Shepherd was a writer, a radio host and a fantastic storyteller. In the ’60’s and ’70’s he hosted a radio show on WOR New York at 11 pm… I was in Boston at the time and I heard it often. He had a most engaging style, always telling tales about some of the crazy things that happened back in his childhood in Indiana. I tell you this as it was Jean who inspired this next post… a reminiscence about a past Christmas that is particularly dear to me.

The little town (pop. 150) of Virginia City, Montana, was one of the world’s best places for a kid to grow up. A tourist resort in the summer, it usually overflowed with tourists and activities, only to shut down after Labor Day and become one jump to the left of a quiet, peaceful cemetery! Well, think about it… how much noise and bustle can a town of 150 people make at any one time. As I recall, the noisiest it ever got was right around 2 a.m. when the bars closed and everyone went home. Okay, “How quiet was it?” Why, it was so quiet my best friend Ricky Gohn and I could ride our sleds through the streets from one end of town to the other without ever worrying about a car coming… either day or night.

Like most youngsters, Christmas was my favorite time of year. I owe that to my parents, who helped me discover the magic of the season in so many ways. Dad and I always went up into the hills and cut our Christmas tree. He would carry a small saw, and axe and a half pint of brandy in his hip pocket. We would tromp through the snow, passing several good trees, stopping in a clearing to catch our breath. He’d pull out the brandy, smile at me and say something like, “That snow’s pretty deep this year, Stever, pretty tough going. Think I’ll take a little snifter…”

Shortly after our break, he’d find just the right tree. We’d cut it down, drag it back to the car and have another “little snifter” for the road. We continued to enjoy that ritual long after I’d grown old enough to join him for a bracer or two, and we’d always get home with a nice tree and a warm glow from the outing. Mom would just smile and tell us what a good tree we got that year. She always knew it didn’t take four hours to find and cut a decent tree.

Sleeping Mom after finishing the bar tree

In the early years we’d bring home two trees, a big one for the bar, and a little one for our upstairs apartment. Mom always decorated the bar tree while I was left to decorate the upstairs tree by the time I was six or seven. The lights and the ornaments were always easy for me, but Mom had to teach me her way of hanging the tinsel just so… doubling each strand over and making sure they were all perfectly straight! It was a pain, but the result was so satisfying… and for years it was simply a labor of love that I learned to enjoy.

Christmas time in Butte in the ’50’s

My Christmas Spirit would build slowly, starting with cutting down the tree with Dad, then our big Saturday trip into the “big city” of Butte for all our Christmas shopping. Butte really was the big city to me, with all its lights and holiday atmosphere. On top of that, a trip into Hennessey’s basement to see Santa and their huge electric train layout usually helped jump-start my Christmas feeling of good cheer.

Hennessey’s in uptown Butte in the ’50’s

It was the Christmas of ’54. I was eleven and had already learned, as an only child, how to spend long periods of time by myself. This particular December evening I had tackled the decorating of the upstairs tree. I had just gotten the lights and ornaments up when Dad came up the stairs with an armload of wood for the upstairs stove. “That tree’s coming along pretty well, Boy,” he remarked as he stoked the fire.
“Yeah, now comes the hard part,” I complained, not really dreading the process.
“I’ve got an idea,” he smiled. “Why not put on a few of our Christmas records? Might make the chore a little more bearable.”

Dad went back downstairs to the bar and I rustled through our small record collection to dig out some Christmas music. We only had 4 albums back then, the big 33 1/3 rpms, remember them? Two of them had little signs on top of the covers that heralded the coming of an aural event that was sure to change our lives in some significant fashion, “Living Stereo!”

Our records were The Ames Brothers, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Percy Faith. I carefully stacked them on our console record player in the corner and hit play. Percy Faith and his orchestra plopped down first and began with a triumphant rendition of “Joy To The World.” in Living Stereo!

Going back to the tree, I stopped and looked out the little window of our apartment that faced back into the alley. There was a light pole and a light out there that lit up the alley at night. Now, in the darkened winter’s eve, I saw snow swirling in the street light, softly, beautifully. Inside, the lights of the tree twinkled merrily and I remember thinking, “How beautiful Christmas time is! I wish it could always be Christmas!”

I began hanging the icicles, from the top down. The Ames Brothers Christmas music poured across the tiny living room, the wood stove crackled, and i found myself in a most wondrous spirit, moved by the music, the smell of the pine, the warmth of the apartment and the sweet snow in the evening… everything was perfect! I got goose bumps and remember wondering if this was what the Christmas Spirit felt like… turns out it was!

There’s no trying to explain it or analyze it… a very rare and special feeling that I’m sure we all feel in a different way. Point is, it was a very real feeling for me, one which I got every Christmas for years. It finally drifted away, probably somewhere in my twenties or early thirties. I remember missing it at first, then figuring out that growing responsibilities and the gradual loss of wonder of life were probably the ultimate culprits.

Turns out that Christmas time can be a difficult, inward-looking time for many of us. High expectations of the season is a huge problem… it’s virtually impossible for several days to approach our perceived perfection, let alone several weeks! It’s a human condition, after all… one of those things we can be aware of but still can’t quite fix. “Peace On Earth” is a myth and “Good Will Toward All” has been handily booted out of the country for now. assuming it ever really existed at all. But I can tell you this – Peace On Earth And Good Will Toward Man existed in Virginia City, Montana on the Christmas of 1954.

I remember it so well, I know that it existed and was real. And in that, I have hope that a time like that, and a feeling like that, can possibly come again. For now, I hold that memory most dear, and will cherish it always!

Steve Hulse


One Reply to “A Christmas memory”

  1. I love this one so much, if reading this doesn’t put one in the Christmas spirit I don’t know what will. Merry Christmas Hulsie! Jill

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