Bill's Annual Christmas Column...Remembering Christmases With My Father
When I was a child, the holiday season was one of anticipation. From Thanksgiving until December 24th, I was literally counting the days to December 25th. It truly was Advent, but unfortunately only in a secular sense. I was awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, not the Messiah.
And now that I am about to experience my sixty-second Christmas, the season is for me all about Christmases past.
I no longer count the days till Christmas. Instead, I spend my evenings sitting in my lounge chair beside the Christmas tree and the fire place in our den, remembering Christmases long ago.
And this year, most of those memories will be about Christmases with my father.
This will be my first Christmas without my father, as he passed away back in August.
It will be the first time that I have not gone to church with him on Christmas Eve.
It will be the first time that I have not shared presents with him on Christmas morning.
It will be the first time I have not had Christmas dinner with him.
And so this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be a time when I look back to sixty-one Christmases with my father.
And here are a few of the Christmases past I will remember:
Visits with Santa in the Enchanted Forest. Each year, on a Saturday in early December, Mom and Dad and I would get in the 1956 Ford Fairlane and drive to Front Street in downtown Memphis, where we would park in the Goldsmith’s Department Store parking garage. We would then walk through a tunnel below Front Street that connected the parking garage to the department store. At the end of that tunnel, we arrived in the “Enchanted Forest,” a poor man’s Disneyworld full of robotic elves and reindeer and polar bears in a magical forest.
And at the end of the Enchanted Forest, we would see Santa Claus. I would assure him that I had tried to be a good boy during the previous year, and then I would tell him what I hoped he would bring me for Christmas. Dad was always standing alongside taking notes.
It wasn’t until years later (when I became a father myself) that I realized that my father was Santa’s chief helper and financier.
Christmas, 1963. A rare white Christmas in Memphis. Fourteen inches of the white stuff! A Christmas blizzard. And somehow Santa and his reindeer flew through inclement conditions, landed on our rooftop, and delivered me a Sears & Roebuck official NFL electric football set. It was the coolest Christmas toy I ever got. The game contained an awesomely-realistic metal football field (a forerunner of astroturf) and two complete teams consisting of twenty-two little bitty plastic football players.
My father and I spent Christmas morning competing in the first annual “Haltom Family Christmas Bowl,” as we lined up our little plastic players, and then pushed the little red switch that made the electric metal gridiron vibrate like an earthquake. The little plastic football players then rolled in all directions. More often than not, my running back would turn around and run the wrong way just like Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels did in the 1929 Rose Bowl.
But it was still the most exciting football game I’ve ever seen.
The annual Children’s Christmas Pageant. For several Christmases, my father was the director of an off-Broadway play. About a thousand miles off Broadway. It was the annual Children’s Christmas Pageant held in the church my father pastored. While I am no Tom Hanks, I starred in many of these productions, as Dad cast me over the years in such diverse roles as a sheep, an angel, a Wise Man, Joseph, and the innkeeper. The annual production never won a Tony award, but it did become the longest-running show in the history of the American theater, with even more performances than A Chorus Line, Annie, and My Fair Lady combined.
Last minute Christmas shopping. My father and I shared an aversion to shopping at any time of the year, but particularly during Christmas. We both hated the malls and department stores packed with stressed-out shoppers, ramming their carts into one another as if they were contestants in a yuletide demolition derby. And so many years ago, we came up with a wonderful plan of yuletide procrastination. Dad and I would do no shopping until Christmas Eve day. And then on the morning of December 24th, we would meet for breakfast, review our shopping lists, and then make a tactical strike on the stores, doing all of our Christmas shopping within a few breathtaking hours.
It was a shopping sprint, rather than a marathon, and it actually made the holiday season more enjoyable and less stressful.
Christmas, 1985. It was my first Christmas as a dad, and my father’s first Christmas as a grandfather, as we shared Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with William Howard Haltom, III.
“Will” was only eight months old, but Dad and I got him a train set. And then Dad and I spent Christmas Day playing with the train set while Will slept.
Three years later, Will was joined by a baby brother, Ken, and a few years after that, by a little sister, Margaret.
And my father and I kept making sure that on Christmas Eve Santa brought the Haltom children toys that their father and grandfather could play with on Christmas Day!
Christmas, 2009. It was the last Christmas that my father was really with me, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. And on that day, at Christmas dinner, I asked him to share with his grandchildren his own memories of Christmases past.
My father recalled a Christmas morning back during the Depression when he was a boy growing up in the mill town of Bemis, Tennessee. His father (my grandfather) was blessed to have a job at the mill. Even so, money was really tight, and there was some doubt whether Santa would come, and if so, what he would be able to bring.
“I’ll never forget that Christmas morning,” recalled my father. “My brothers and sisters and I woke up, ran into the living room, and found by the Christmas tree. . .a crate of oranges!”
When my father recounted this story, his three grandchildren began to laugh. But then they quickly stopped. They realized their grandfather was very serious.
“I don’t know where my father got those oranges or how he was able to pay for them,” said my father. “I guess Santa brought them, and they were absolutely wonderful!”
And now we come to Christmas, 2013. It will be a day filled with memories. But I have the feeling that if my father were able to join me one more time this Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, he would tell me to focus on Christmas present...to enjoy the moment with his grandchildren and his daughter-in-law.
I believe he would tell me to enjoy the Christmas Eve service at our church, and afterwards to enjoy joining his grandchildren in hanging their stockings on the fireplace mantle.
I believe he would tell me to enjoy Christmas morning delivering hot meals and presents and hugs to home-bound seniors in the Metropolitan Interfaith Association’s Meals on Wheels program, continuing a long-standing family tradition.
I believe he would tell me to enjoy opening presents with his grandchildren, and I am sure he would tell me to enjoy every bite of Christmas dinner including the turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie...and maybe even an orange.
And I believe that he would also tell me to look forward to Christmases yet to come...with his great grandchildren.
And so this year, in honor of my father, I will remember our wonderful Christmases past. But I will also try to enjoy Christmas present. And like I did as a child a half century ago, I will eagerly anticipate Christmases yet to come.