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For Christmas Comes But Once a Year

Among the things that haunt old newspapermen are stock, seasonal “stories” that come around again and again.

This week’s astonishing revelation is that some kids are afraid to talk to Santa Claus at the mall.

I was a victim of Santaphobia. When I was five or six, Grandpa Cook drove me from Peoria to one of the department stores in downtown Phoenix. (This was some years before malls began luring the department stores from downtown.)

As we approached Santa, I freaked. He didn’t look anything like the storybook Santa. He was a real guy with a phony beard. I told Grandpa I didn’t want to talk to Santa, and he drove me back home.

There were no recriminations, but I felt bad about him driving all that way so I could wimp out. I haven’t told that story before; maybe I need to tell it in order to get well.

I not only wanted to believe in Santa, I insisted on believing. In 1944, we lived in what had formerly been a country gas station, where the southbound access road now enters I-17 at Northern Avenue. In those days, that was farmland, miles north of Phoenix.

The lube bay had been enclosed and was our barracks-style family bedroom. A small living room, kitchen and bath were attached .

On Christmas Eve, I heard movement and muffled merriment from the living room. I got out of bed and peered in. Mom sat on the floor, her skirt pulled up above her knees, manning a wooden model of a .50-caliber machine gun on a tripod. It was to be my Christmas present.

This was during World War II. Metal was scarce, and many toys were made of wood. A crank on the side of the machine gun caused it to make a rat-a-tat-tat sound.

Mom was strafing Dad, who had taken cover behind the Christmas tree. He ducked and dodged and, as he would have phrased it, grinned like a skunk eating cabbage.

I returned to my bed, and chose to believe the following morning that Santa had brought me the nifty machine gun.

Only a few Christmases stand out in memory now. Dylan Thomas wrote that in the coastal Welsh village of his childhood, one Christmas was so like another “that I can never remember whether it snowed six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

I’m having the same experience I found Welsh poet Thomas in the most nourishing book I know, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. If I did not already have a worn copy, it is what I would want for Christmas.

Winston Churchill wrote in 1930, “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved on the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.”

Taking the latter half of Churchill’s advice, I re-read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. (It’s on the Internet, of course.) For all his fogbound writing, I identify with his memories of predictable Christmases among family.

We did not live in one place during my youth, but in several, and they were pretty much unlike what I imagine a Welsh village to be.

We moved from Northern Avenue to Camp Verde, a cowtown of 400 or so people and one paved street, half a mile long. By then, I had faced the reality that there was no man in a red suit flying around in a sleigh. We had never lived in a place that had a chimney, another cause for skepticism.

I guess it was all over the year that I helped Dad assemble my red bicycle from Sears. It had come in a box on the “mail stage,” a pickup truck that ran a route from Globe to Payson to Camp Verde to Prescott.

Dad, who fought forest fires for a living, must have had overtime pay that year, because not all Christmases were so rich.

In 1948, we moved to Flagstaff, which was then smaller than Wickenburg is today. I spent ten years there. I think of Flagstaff in December as a Christmas card town, jingling with Salvation Army bells.

Santa brought my brother Dean a Flexible Flyer sled that Christmas. There was no snow on the ground.

The day after Christmas, however, it began to snow, and nearly two feet of snow accumulated by New Year’s. It continued to snow, and 104 inches of snow fell during January.

We lived in a house trailer set tight against the ground, its wheels removed, so cold couldn’t get underneath. We had to shovel snow to find daylight.

Schools were closed for quite a few days, and we gave Dean’s new sled a heck of a ride. I have some cute pictures of our baby sister, Wanda, on that sled.

I saw many snows after that, and a few white Christmases. I can’t remember which they were. After the storms of 1948-49, a mere three-foot snowfall was hardly a challenge.

Some years we’d drive to Phoenix for Christmas with our grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins.

Most years it was just our family–Dean, Wanda, our parents and me. We made a practice of being delighted by whatever presents we could afford for each other. Sometimes an unattached family friend would join us for Christmas dinner.

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations got me into this reminiscence, and Bartlett’s will get me out, just before I start telling you about the times I was a shepherd or a donkey in the Christmas pageant.

In 1557, an English farmer and poet named Thomas Tusser wrote a lengthy poem called “A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry: The Farmer’s Daily Diet.” Tusser is the one who wrote:

At Christmas play and make good cheer, For Christmas comes but once a year.

The staff of The Wickenburg Institute for Factual Diversity wishes you good cheer.

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