Note from the writer: I wrote this story back on December 24, 2013. I did not save it as I wrote it as an email. However, my wife did save it and handed it to me yesterday and told me I should publish this story once more here. I agreed … so here it is!
Can you remember the first time you had Christmas?
My very first memory of Christmas was when I was 4 years old. Think about it … that is about 64 years ago now. My family was “dirt poor” to say the least. My dad has recently left us a month or two earlier to try to find a job in Chicago. It was 1955 and he had recently been laid off at TCI – A steel mill plant in Birmingham, AL. He had heard that there was all kinds of work in Chicago so he lit out and left my older sister, my younger brother and me in the care of our mother who he knew was strong enough to deal with a short separation and continue to raise us on what little money there was left in the cookie jar. Yes, the literally kept money in a cookie jar!
At the time we lived in a little two bedroom house (actually I believe it was one bedroom and they converted a storage room to the other bedroom for me and my siblings to share a bed). The house was full of holes and in the winter time, though it does not snow much in that area of the country, it did get cold. The only thing we had to keep as warm was a gas space heater in each of the little rooms. I remember the one in the living room was placed right next to the fireplace that for some reason never did not work (or perhaps dad could not afford to buy wood for it). As I think back on it it would surprise me if that little ole house was much more than 800 to 900 square feet of living space.
The name of the town we lived in was Bayview, Alabama (pictured below). It was a small mining camp town at the time full of little “shotgun houses” that most people would buy as starter homes. We, however, did not buy ours. We rented it fully furnished directly from the mining company that owned it. I’m not sure exactly what street we lived on but something in my memory tells me it was Bayview Drive or perhaps Forest Ave. In any event the picture below depicts this little town in present day condition (not in 1955 condition).
I just remember that “our world” was just a few blocks within the circumference of our house.
Let me get back to my memories:
Momma dressed us all up in our Sunday Best. My sister was about 6, I was four and my brother had just turned 3. It was December 24, 1955 and we were getting dressed up to go to my Grandmothers house for dinner. This was my dad’s mother’s house we were going to. We did not even have a car. My uncle Herman (Dad’s brother) had to come get us to take us to grandmothers. I remember that all my uncles, aunts and cousins on my dad’s side of the family were there. To this day I do not understand why people from my mother’s side of the family were not there. While it was Christmas Eve, the purpose of the gathering was not for Christmas as much as it was to send us off to Chicago to meet up with dad. I do remember this. It was Christmas and I was very sad because apparently Santa Clause would not be visiting the Gene Nix (my dad) house that evening so we must have been very naughty kids. I could care less about the trip to Chicago … it was Christmas and I was missing out.
I do recall that we did not even decorate our house for Christmas. We were leaving the day after Christmas on a Greyhound bus with all our belongings in three suitcases (already packed for the most part) to meet my dad in Chicago. While most of the houses in our little neighborhood were decorated – ours was not. I later learned that it was not decorated because mom had just enough money to get us to Chicago on that darn bus and no money for a tree or lights.
I don’t really know how my brother and sister felt that day, but I felt like the worst kid in the world. Did Santa really not give to those that were naughty and only to those that were nice? I thought I’d been nice for at least the last month or so in anticipation of Christmas. That summer my little brother and I did have a fight over a piece of paper candy was wrapped in, and he ended up at the bottom of the back porch steps with a bloody knot on his head … but I did apologize to my parents, to him, to God and to Santa Claus for taking advantage of his small size.
I can remember sitting around my grandmother’s house that evening watching all my cousins open toy after toy that they’d been given for Christmas while the “Gene Nix Younguns” only got socks, underwear and some winter clothing that we would need in frozen Chicago (though we did not know that yet) and that we really did not want. That was not Christmas for a kid. Where were our real presents … the toys?
After a few hours at grandmother’s house it was time to go back home and finish packing for our journey to Chicago. It seems Dad had found a job and called for us to come live with him. On the drive home my brother fell asleep in the front seat between two uncles. To this day he still seems to fall asleep earlier than the rest of us. My mom and my sister set next to me in the back seat and were relatively quiet. I leaned against my mother and cried softly. I did not want my uncles to hear me for fear of being called a “cry-baby” (though I am pretty sure my mother knew I was crying … I always did when I didn’t get my way). I was really upset … no real Christmas … and this was the first that I would remember.
Then, as we rounded the corner in our neighborhood to drive the last 100 yards or so to our little home I saw it was all decorated with Christmas lights shining in the windows. When the front door was opened I could not believe my eyes. There was a beautifully decorated Christmas Tree with with all kinds of gifts in bright red, gold and silver paper with red and green ribbons. I was cold outside and inside the house … but I did not feel it. All I felt was warmth and love.
I remember the best toy I got. It was a toy machine gun that would really let sparks fly out of the barrel as long as I pulled the trigger fast and hard. My brother got the same and within minutes our little living room full of paper from the gifts became our battlefield that smelled of burned sulphur from the little mechanism that made the gun fire. I was the Cop and my brother was the Robber. We loved playing cops and robbers and usually had to do so using our fingers as guns … but now we had the real thing … or at least they were real to us.
I don’t frankly remember what my sister and mother got that year. They were girls and their gifts did not matter to me. As long as I got mine I was happy. Yea, I was somewhat selfish as a four year old.
However, I will not forget my first memory of Christmas. I just knew Santa Claus must have really loved the Nix Kids to surprise them this way.
It was years later when I found out it really was not Santa Claus – but rather the brothers of my dad – Uncle Herman and Uncle Buddy that made it all possible. While the family was having dinner at grandmother’s house, the two of them slipped out without dinner … drove back to our house and decorated the house and the tree … then put the presents under it. But, when my brother and I saw it we could not help but believe that it was the work of Santa Claus and I remember screaming to the top of my lungs and jumping up and down for joy.
It was later in life, growing up with dad actually in the house, that I learned the true meaning of Christmas. Dad was very religious … and while he did provide for us every Christmas after the first I remembered … we were never allowed to open those gifts until after he opened his bible and read us the Christmas Story from Matthew or Luke (depending on whichever he decided to share that year). If dad were alive today he’d declare war on those in our society who have declared war on Christmas – and yes – he’d still demand the “First Story Of Christmas” be read before the gifts could be opened.
Christmas is not a bright time for everyone. There are many who may have to face Christmas alone, without loved ones around. I had to a couple of times in my life. It was not easy. Christmas 1970 is an example. I was bunkered down in South Vietnam in the boiling heat missing my family in Chicago during Christmas, ironically while holding a real machine gun in my hands.
Then on Christmas day, 1971 I was even in a worse place … Fort Hood, TX. I made it through those lonely times without family around … but it was not easy or enjoyable – though on both days I opened my New Testament that the Army used to issue to every soldier (not sure if they do that today) and read about the true meaning of Christmas.
For those of you who may not know, this was plaque was given to Elvis Presley in 1958 when he served in this unit. I was in the same unit … just several years too late to ever meet him.
As you enjoy your Christmas this year, please remember there are some that are not was well off as the rest of us. Keep these people in your prayers.
There are those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can enjoy Christmas in the way that we choose – be it in a Christian or Secular fashion. Let’s remember them and their families.
If you know someone who may be facing a “Blue Christmas” this year … try to think of something that you can do to make their Christmas a little better. It may not be much, perhaps a simple phone call or visit to wish them a Merry Christmas.
Eleanor Roosevelt once stated …
“Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give.”
And, from the Bible, Acts 20 …
“In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, `It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ “
To my dad, who died 19 years ago and who taught me the real meaning of Christmas I want to say, Merry Christmas Dad – I’ve never stopped loving you!
Now as I close this piece I will close with a song from two of my favorite singers. One of these singers was born in 1935 and died in 1977. The other was born in 1966 and is still alive today. I don’t know if they ever met each other … but they sure (through the use of technology) did a great duet together which I present here: Click your mouse here Elvis Presley with Martina McBride.
Thank you all for reading my articles and