Of A Christmas Spirit Past

I used to get it every December… in spades! That warm, wonderful feeling that comes over you, that all is right and beautiful with the world, and you are exactly where you’re supposed to me in this moment in time. Feelings of love for the beauty of the earth, for others, for this life… those feelings would expand our hearts and sometimes even bring tears. Tears of joy. A temporary acknowledgement that everything was okay, really. That there was so much more love and goodness in this life, so much more than hate and despair… that the Christmas Spirit brought hope… hell, it was hope, to me.

It happened to me all through the 1950’s. I used to wait for it, that feeling of Christmas Spirit. it was that important to me. Far more important than the special joy of Christmas morning, with the toys and the tree and all… as soon as I felt The Christmas Spirit, I was complete, at peace. Christmas had indeed come again, and all was well.

Woolworth’s in Butte at Christmas time, 1954

We always drove into Butte before Christmas to do our holiday shopping. shopping. Uptown, my favorite place to shop was, naturally, Woolworth’s. Their toy selection was outstanding. Downy Drug, down on the flat, was also ripe for the pickings, but at Christmas time, uptown was the place. Hennessy’s and Penny’s both had electric train layouts in their basements, and Hennessy’s had a Santa Claus on Fridays and Saturdays!

Hennessy’s in uptown Butte at Christmas time, 1954

I would usually buy Mom a piece of cheap jewelry in Woolworth’s, and I’d get Dad a box of Roi Tan cigars and some bullets for our .22 rifle. Yes, bullets… hell, Spillum’s, the uptown sports store, they’d sell anything to a kid.back then. At the end of our shopping day, we’d usually end up at Eddie Pizzola’s Ranch House, a cozy bar just a few doors down trom the the Mecca and the police station. Mom and Dad would have a few with Eddie, and I’d get an eggnog, without the booze. If I hadn’t already gotten the Christmas spirit, our shopping day in Butte would usually seal the deal!

For me, the spirit of Christmas came differently, every year. I know, I remember… because it seemed so magical. Can I remember what I got for all those Christmases? Hell no, not even close. A couple of electric train sets were highlights, but that’s about it. But my Christmas Spirit? Yes, I remember nearly every one. One year it came to me while I was upstairs in our apartment above the bar, decorating our little tree as Mom had taught me to do, with the lights and the balls just so, then hanging the icicles down very straight, one by one, until the tree shimmered, holding my eyes with a beauty and a sense of peace I couldn’t look away from.

On those tree-decorating evenings, which I did alone once Mom taught me how, I’d put on our five Christmas records and play them while I decorated and sipped an Orange Crush… which was a rare occurrence in itself. What were those records?? Percy Faith’s Joy To The World; The Ames Brothers’ There’ll Always Be A Christmas; Bing Crosby’s White Christmas; Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song; and some organ and bell choir doing Christmas Favorites.

These records had become scratched over the years, and even skipped in a few places, but I knew them so well I could hum along through the skips, never missing a beat. In later years I would replace most of them with CDs, and strangely, I kind of missed the scratches and skips.

One year the Christmas Spirit came to me while I was decorating the tree, with the Ames Brothers’ Oh, Holy Night, playing. That overwhelming sense of abiding peace and magic flowed through me that night, and I felt like the happiest boy on earth.

Sleeping Mom, having just finished decorating the big tree in the bar.

It came to me one early evening, as I was walking back up the street from the post office. The big Christmas tree, that the Tuffy, Walt and Dad always put up in the center of town, was lit, and in the last glow of evening I stood right next to it, looking up at it, feeling its power and beauty. The big lights (colored lightbulbs) swayed gently in the breeze and I remember feeling that Virginia City had to be the very best place in the world to be at Christmas.

And it came to me one Christmas Eve. As I was leaving church after the evening service, Selma Brook grabbed my arm and had me help her down the steps to the sidewalk. We stopped there for a moment, looking up at the snow, swirling softly in the beam of the street light, our breath billowing above us in the chilly Montana night. Selma squeezed my arm, looked up at me and said quietly, “Stevie, isn’t Virginia City the best place to spend Christmas?”
My throat got tight, and I hugged her. “Yes, Selma, it truly is.”

Then there was the day that Rena McDonald, our 5-8 grade teacher, told Ricky and me we were to leave class for the afternoon and cut down a Christmas tree for our room. Why she did that we will never know… perhaps to simply get us out of there for a few hours?? Whatever… after lunch Ricky & I left school, dropped by his house for his sled and an axe, and headed for Rocky. Rocky was a small mountain on the west end of town, covered with pine, spruce, and you guessed it… rocks. Big ones. We knew we could find a good tree up there as we’d built a fort up there with rocks and trees the previous summer.

Remember that, Rick? We found what we thought to be a good tree, chopped it down and dragged it back to town on Ricky’s sled and up to the school right as class was ending. Mrs. McDonald seemed surprised, maybe even amazed, that we did exactly what she asked us to, and did it fairly well, for the tree was truly beautiful, if a little too big. Big enough, in fact, that two of the bigger boys had to get a ladder to get the lights on near the top. As Matt Stiles and Ricky’s older brother, Ed, were decorating the top, the rest of us were trimming the bottom, with Mrs. McDonald clucking around us, saying really meaningful Christmas things like, “My, my. That’s very nice, Casey. You know this tree will be dead within a week, don’t you?”
And there it was… that wonderful rush of Christmas Spirit, making the world suddenly clearer, rosier, happier than it had been all year.

V,C, in wintertime. That’s Rocky, down at the end of the street. The red builiding is Ricky’s Dad’s bar, Bob’s Place

One of my favorite lines in our Christmas music was from the Ames Brothers album. In the song, Good King Wenceslas, there’s a line –
“Mark thy footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
That would always remind me of how I felt with Dad when we went up into the mountains to get our yearly Christmas tree. No matter how far we were away from town, no matter how high up, no matter how cold and wintry and how deep the snow, I was never cold, never afraid when I was with my dad.

But I have thought for some time now that the Spirit Of Christmas gradually diminished with age, and that it was, finally, replaced (with luck) with a sense of peace and contentment, as one poured oneself yet another glass of Jameson’s. But then yesterday, while B & I were trimming our little tree and listening to Charlie Brown Christmas, it came suddenly to me again, as strong, as magical, as breathless and overwhelming as ever. And the tears came, as they have so many times before. The Christmas Spirit! It came again. It can still come… I was wrong!
Imagine that.

Steve Hulse

One Reply to “Of A Christmas Spirit Past”

  1. Mr. Hulse – What a truly wonderful Christmas story you have written. You have left not a dry eye in Gohn household. Growing up in Virginia City Montana is a world unto itself. Clearly we had no clue what a great place it was for a kid. My grandchildren are not quite sure I’m telling the truth as I relate some stories of my youth to them. They are growing up in cities/areas with two million or more residents; we had, what, maybe 200!

    Rena McDonald – the name brings a winch from me as I recall her making me lay my frozen fingers out on my desk while she whacked them with a ruler. All because I was stuffing snowballs down the necks of a few girls! Ah yes, the Christmas Tree trek – I believe you are correct in that she sent the two of us out to get the tree just to get us out of her room.

    Nice pic of your mom – I had forgotten what a pretty lady she was. And her Christmas Tree decorating skills – it was the envy of the town.

    Thank you for your story, it has added a wonderful special touch to Christmas.
    Cheers and Merry Christmas to you and B!

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