When you’re young, or maybe just young at heart, Christmas is certainly the best time of the year. For me, the Christmas of 1961 was special. I was eleven years old and lived in Arizona with my parents, my older brother Bill and my younger sister Beverly. The climate in Yuma, Arizona, as you might imagine, didn’t allow my mind to conjure up Norman Rockwell inspired images of a traditional Christmas. But that was to be the year of the Christmas my family celebrated with my grandparents in Noel, Missouri.
My mother’s reputation for over-spending was legendary, and even now is still talked about. She was notorious for filling a room more than a foot deep with skillfully wrapped presents. However, that year the presents remained at our home in Yuma as space was at a premium in my father’s red, 1960 Ford Station Wagon and the drive to Noel would be long.
My grandfather was the Noel City Marshall and my grandmother, Phoebe and her sister, my great aunt Rosalyn, owned and operated a greenhouse that was located on a piece of ground next to their house. The house could not be considered large by any means. It had three bedrooms, including Rosalyn’s room, a living room, a kitchen and one bathroom. A wood burning fireplace occupied space in one wall of the living room. An addition was located on one end of the house that was wrapped in thin plastic, and only used during warm summer months.
As we neared Noel the Ford Station Wagon passed under the overhanging bluffs where sagging frozen fingers of water threatened to fall on passing cars. My brother tormented my sister telling her that an icicle once fell on a car killing the driver. We crossed the old bridge on the edge of Main Street entering Noel at around 7:00 P.M. on a Saturday evening. Christmas day fell on Monday that year. The downtown streets and rooftops were snow covered. In the summer the sounds of music originating from Shadow Lake, the local hot spot, followed the concrete sidewalks and storefronts up Main Street to the railroad tracks and drifted over the warm Elk River water eventually finding the ears of the campers relaxing and swimming at Wayside Beach. But a sign near the entrance to Shadow Lake read “Closed for the season”.
Don Davis’ Phillips 66 Service Station, a local gathering place in the summertime, was empty. Cars were usually parked at the gas station and men could be seen standing on the lot talking about the goings-on in and around Noel. Youngsters and adults alike gathered in front of the theater on warm Friday and Saturday nights waiting for the doors to open, but the sidewalk was empty that night and a sign on the marquis read “Closed for the season”.
My brother and I sat in front of the fireplace on Christmas Eve and the burning wood warmed our backs. I remember my grandfather, who was usually a serious man, commented that he believed Santa was going to be in Noel later that very night. My brother and I looked at each other and smirked; we couldn’t be taken in by such talk. However, my six year old sister’s eyes widened as she jumped up and asked to go to bed. The real-world logic minded and normally outspoken Rosalyn quietly laughed but didn’t say a word. Throughout the evening Phoebe’s Siamese cat Mamie, relaxed on the fireplace mantle where she unobtrusively oversaw all the proceedings.
Christmas morning came and after a bacon and egg breakfast the presents were haphazardly opened throwing paper in all directions. Hot chocolate was the drink of choice and I recall it being the best hot chocolate I ever tasted. I don’t recall a single present I received, but I remember clearly the warmth of the fireplace, the laughter and the gladness I felt because we were all together.
The cloud covered days and nights helped create an aura of peacefulness, and I remember the cold windless days that wouldn’t let the snow on the streets and rooftops melt. It was how I always envisioned Christmas in my dreams.
That Christmas was the best one ever when growing up; not for the gifts received but because the entire family gathered to celebrate a special time of the year at a special place, Noel, “The Christmas City”.