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
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 knew
it didn’t take four hours to find and cut a decent 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
there 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.
My Christmas Spirit would build slowly, starting with cutting down the tree
with Dad, then our 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.
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!