It was Christmas Eve, 1938 and I was six years old and lived in a little cinder block house is a subdivision called El Vista out in the county of Peoria, Illinois. In all, thirteen family members lived in that house, three of them younger than me. You know it’s funny but no matter how hard I try this memory is the only complete Christmas memory that I have.
The young ones, me included talked about and worried over the fact that we had no Christmas tree in the house and Christmas was just one day away. Now how was Santa going to find our house if we didn’t have a brightly lit tree to guide him? The fact that my parents did not have money to buy a tree and all the pretty lights did not register with us. No, our only thoughts were Santa and that missing Christmas tree.
Just before dark, two men came to our door. I can still see them as they brushed snow from their jackets, smiling, wishing us a Merry Christmas. The four of us stood back grinning ear to ear because we knew that they were bringing us something very good. They were from the county relief offices and as they sat the two baskets on the floor we crept closer to see what wonders they had brought. Once they left we gathered around our mom as she lifted each apple, orange and candy cane up for us to marvel over. My what a joyous sight!
Our older sister finally trundled us upstairs to bed. We slept in an unfinished
attic dominated by a crooked chimney in the center of the room. The four beds managed somehow to shelter us during the stifling summers and miserably cold winters. I remember getting up and finding a fine spray of snow on our floor and beds. One vivid memory I have is waking up hearing my mom cranking ashes from the stove we had in our living room. Soon after that sound we were up hugging the warm chimney until we were certain it would be warm around the stove when we went downstairs.
Since we had no indoor plumbing at all, except the cold water faucet over the kitchen sink, winters were not exactly our favorite time of year when we were really young.
That Christmas Eve our sister read Christmas stories to us and reminded us that even without a tree Christmas morning would still be a wonderful day. She told us about the food, pies and cakes and Christmas candies we would have. With those thoughts we fell asleep.
Christmas morning we trooped downstairs and when we walked into the living room…we saw it! We stood together at first, mesmerized by the spectacle of our beautiful Christmas tree. Almost as if we were one we moved forward, looking at the tree then each other.
My mother had covered the front door with white sheets, hanging and folding them in a truly magical way. Red and green and yellow Christmas lights crisscrossed the sheets from the ceiling to the floor in a beautiful array of colors. Strings of brightly colored popcorn zigzagged about the sheets and on each string hung silvery pieces of glittering tinsel.
Behind us most of my family stood watching us as we pointed up at the candy canes that hung from the strands of lights. On the floor carefully situated in the folds of the sheets were three little sheep and the three wise men gazing into the crib of the baby Jesus. On the wall hung four large white stockings jammed with oranges and apples and small sacks of Christmas candy. After all these years that Christmas morning is still vividly etched in my memory even down to the song on the radio, which was playing, “O Holy Night.”
I looked over at my mother expecting her to be as happy as we were, but she was crying. Now why was she crying? We had our tree, Christmas was here and we were happy. Of course I didn’t understand then why she was crying…but I do now.
Editor’s Note: Norm Kelly is a retired private investigator and author of true crime and historical books on Peoria, Illinois. All of his books are available in the Peoria Public Library. Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: