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home : commentary : columns January 18, 2018

Christmas growing up on a farm in New Mexico

By Moises Sandoval Catholic News Service

When my five brothers and I were growing up on a farm in northern New Mexico during the Great Depression, we did not believe in Santa Claus. Our parents never asked us to hang stockings on Christmas night.

Our Christmas celebration was religious, veneration of the statue of the child Jesus in the manger. Then we prayed the rosary kneeling on the hard plank floor of our house, which seemed to take a long time. But there was one exception and that was the most memorable Christmas we ever had.

That year Mom asked us to hang stockings, though it was Jesus who would bring the gifts and not Santa. We complied somewhat reluctantly, skeptical that there would be anything in them on Christmas morning.

Imagine, then, our wonder and joy when we found them full of candy, cookies, an apple and an orange. But we did not believe anymore that Santa or Jesus had come in the dark of night. We knew that our parents had put the goodies in the stockings.

What left us full of wonder was that Mom and Dad had been able to buy and bring all the goodies into the house without our having any inkling of what they were doing.

Shopping in those days was a major excursion, a journey on a horse-drawn wagon along dirt roads for 20 miles to Las Vegas, New Mexico. The trip took about eight hours, and in winter, your feet hurt terribly from the cold by the time you got there. Dad usually made those trips himself and Mom stayed home because it was too hard for her.

In those days, the only Christmas tree we saw was in the one-room school we attended. There were no bright lights there or anywhere, for no one had electricity. Moreover, homes were too small to accommodate a tree. And, of course, there were no presents. Everyone was poor. Mothers baked cookies, called biscochitos, or perhaps a prune pie or cake, and those were the only treats.

The wonder of that Christmas when we actually hung a stocking and found it full of goodies on Christmas morning has remained vivid through all these decades. It was the only time Mom and Dad were able to do it.

I marvel at the wonder of it all and ponder at our parents' larger goal because in our family, there always was one. I think that they wanted to instill in us the sense and hope that wonderful and unexpected things could happen on the day Jesus was born. And I think of the joy it gave them to see our eyes grow big at the sight of that wonderful surprise.

Mom and Dad died decades ago, but I still think of them. Each of us has a story of how they motivated us with some unexpected gift bought at an appropriate time, other than at Christmas. I loved typewriters although we did not have one. So when I was about 10 years old, they bought me a toy typewriter that actually worked, laboriously, of course.

But I used it to type some of my schoolwork. That little gift, bought at great sacrifice, led me into writing, and the keyboard has been my constant companion. Every one of my brothers and two sisters, who came later, had similar experiences.

Our parents' schooling ended in the fifth and eighth grades, respectively. But nine of their 10 children earned at least one college degree. Their wisdom, hard work and values were their greatest gifts.

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