Christmas in Chance, 1956

7 mins read

Editor’s Note:   a laundry basket of fruit and candies and other ordinary items appeared at my door with a handmade booklet resting on top of it.  The Booklet was addressed to my children.  This is what it said.
This is the true story of Christmas 1956 and it was The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t.  We were plagued with problems and Santa was in deep trouble.  All of the dozen or so refineries and chemical plants in our town were on strike and had been for nearly six months.  With no one working and no money coming into homes in the area, Santa had to be put on the back burner and parents found it a challenge just to put food on the table and pay their household bills.   Those refineries and chemical plants like Texaco, Gulf, Mobil, Union 76, Sun Oil, DuPont Chemical, Dow Chemical and others employed 75% of the nearly forty thousand people who lived in the three-county area.  A happy Christmas was beginning to look very sad, and I feared a lot of children, including me, would end up with an empty stocking hanging over the fire place
Mama went to work at the newspaper to help make ends meet.  Daddy found work wherever he could, fixing cars for other people, building sheds, and butchering hogs on Mr. Walton’s hog farm. My brother, who was home from blind school, even made extra money by cleaning out the stalls in my granddad’s dairy barns and making sure the cows were grazing in the right pastures.  My grandmother, MawMaw Williams, who lived with us, picked the garden and canned every fruit and vegetable within sight and sold them at a small community market at the edge of the big highway.  I was only six but my cousin Ben, who was 8, and I made 10 cents a day taking care of Mr Hornsby’s hunting hounds Flip, and Flop.   He was gone seven days but paid us a whole dollar each because we did, in his words, a very fine job.  I happily added my dollar to daddy’s household expense jar.  Ben decided to put half of his in the jar too and with the other fifty cents he took me to the matinee at Pines Theater.  We saw an animated film called Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and sang the song along with the whole audience.  It was fun and just a little reward for our hard work.
Halfway into December the mood began to light a bit when the unions and the refineries called talks to try to resolve the labor problems and end the strikes.  They talked and talked and talked, but no one wanted to compromise.  Hope started to fade and tempers began to flare from the men and women who had been out of work for so long. The already tightened belts were being cinched up one more notch.    Even in our house sugar was rationed as well as any other luxury item like daytime television and only lights that were absolutely necessary were turned on, and then off again as soon as possible.  We heated water on a wood fire and brought it inside to wash the dishes and bathe.  This saved money on the water heater bill and the propane used to run it.  The biggest shock for me was when mama had to sell her 1949 black and white Ford coupe which we called “The Polecat”.  She called it her baby and she was so proud of it because she had bought it with her own money.  Now she had to ride the old bus from Chance to Beaumont every workday.  it was a fifteen-minute drive in the car, but the bus, because of all the stops took nearly an hour and twenty minutes.  Plus, it cost a dime a day round trip.
Times were really hard and I began to look at my list for Santa with a hard eye.  First I took off the two-wheeled bicycle and then the Betsy McCall doll house.  Those were the most expensive items on my list.  I decided I could do without a pair of red Dale Rogers cowgirl boots and the matching hat and guns.  The giant stuffed dog could wait too, along with the Mickey/Minnie Mouse tea set.  I eyed my list again.  The only things left were a new pair of Sunday shoes, a store bought dress,  Betsy McCall paper dolls, and a whole bag of root beer barrels from the Sears candy counter.  With a heavy heart I crossed off the store bought dress.  I could make do with more of the dresses my grandmothers made from feed sacks and old printed sheets.  Besides, I reasoned,  all the other little girls were wearing feed sack and hand-me-down dresses.
On December 16th, daddy and some of the other deacons from the church had a meeting with the other deacons and elders from the three churches in our community.  It was decided that we unify for one giant Christmas service on Christmas Eve.  Daddy being the music minister at our church was appointed to lead the singing.  Jerald Fort, the preacher at the Methodist Church would bring the message, and Roger Pippen from the Pentecostal church would light the candles and read the Christmas Story from the Bible.  Our church, because it had the biggest sanctuary, would host the event. There were some other things that they decided that night, but kept them a total secret.  I did overhear daddy tell mama that he needed all of the satsumas off the trees and for her to take them to Mrs. Templeton’s house.  That was totally curious because Mrs. Templeton had her own satsuma trees.  Then there were those three bushel baskets of apples that Mr. McGrue left on our front porch and daddy immediately hid in the trunk of the car. Other things began to happen.  Mr. Jeffcoat from the feed store brought a large toe sack of mixed nuts and Mr. Cobble from the bank brought another big box market Chance Christmas.  Then both of my grandmothers, my Aunt Elsie, and my Aunt Bell started going to the Templeton home with their crochet yarn and needles every day after lunch and would not come home until it was time to make supper. Something was happening and I was getting more curious as the hours passed.
Finally, it was Monday night and Christmas Eve.  At 6 o’clock we filed into the sanctuary with our cups and candles in hand.  The usual songs were sung with enthusiasm and daddy, along with mama, sang a duet of Oh Holy Night.  Pastor Ford brought a short sermon on remember the season and then prayed the strike would soon come to an end.  Then the lights were dimmed as Mr Pippen lit the first candle and bade us light each candle next to ours.  Within minutes a bright glow filled the sanctuary and he began to read the Christmas story from Luke. It was magical seeing all the faces bathed in candlelight, but the most magical was after the last prayer when Mr Templeton, dressed as Santa, burst into the room with a loud and jolly, “HO HO HO! Merry Christmas!”  All of the children under 12 were asked to come to the alter where he had seated himself in a big wooden rocking chair that one of the deacons had placed there.  From his big bag he pulled brown lunch sacks marked with pink for girls and blue for boys.  He handed each of us a sack as we passed in front of him.  My sack was heavy and I just couldn’t wait to see what was inside.  As I opened it I saw one of mama’s satsumas, one of Mr McGrue’s apples, and a handful of mixed nuts.  There was a pack of gum, some hard candies that were decorated with Christmas colors, multi-colored candy-canes, a brand new pack of crayons, two brand new yellow pencils, a beautiful hand crocheted purple cross bookmark and a tiny Bible no bigger than a fifty-cent piece.  Other children were just as excited and grateful as I was.  They were all small gifts but when adding them together they were as big as a gift could be.  Suddenly I knew in my head and felt in my heart what Christmas was all about.  It was not the gifts or the monetary cost of the gifts, but rather the thought, love, and care with which each gift was assembled and given.
familychristmasI didn’t get the new Sunday shoes but daddy lined the insides of my old ones with cowhide so my feet would stay dry.  There was no store bought dress, but three new dresses that mama and my two grandmothers made with materials from the general store.  No tea set, no boots, hat or gun were under the tree either.  The bicycle was not there nor the paper dolls or the Betsy McCall doll house.  but… there was a whole bag of root beer barrel candy, a new quilt for my bed that mama made, and sheet covering a large object at the very back of the tree.  Daddy told me to take the sheet off and there it was.  A doll house that looked just like our house.  It was beautiful and inside it were tiny pieces of furniture made from hickory sticks and popsicle sticks and some cotton balls that were wrapped with tiny pieces of fabric.  It was better than Betsy McCall’s dollhouse could ever hope to be.  Daddy and Uncle John secretly made it in Granddad’s workshop.
That Christmas Spirit of giving and love must have stirred some union and company hearts for on New Year’s Eve a deal was struck and people began to return to work.  Things began to be normal around our house and in the community.  Mama still rode the bus to work for a few months and then bought a used Chevy that daddy had to build a garage for because it was cold natured.  Daddy got a promotion to supervisor of the canning and shipping department and me… well I got a year older and finally got a beautiful blue J.C. Higgins bicycle from Sears on my 7th birthday.
As I look back at that Christmas from so long ago, I think of how magical it was.  Even in a time when there was no money to spare, people came together and shared what they had and it made a very special Christmas of simple things like fruit, nuts, little bookmarks, ordinary toys and crayons.  Most important to me was the tiny Bible.  I read it endlessly and believe it or not, after 60 years, I still have it and treasure it.


  1. This hits home. We kill ourselves to spend thousands of dollars on crap each year that gets forgotten in a month.

  2. Lector, this was a marvelous story. Your children are blessed to learn the lessons and to take them to heart. Thank you so very much and a very Merry Christmas to you and yours this year sir.
    And a Very Merry Christmas to all the Men of the West, and their families. May the great stories continue to flow next year in abundance. I learn a lot reading here.

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