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MEMORIES OF CHRISTMAS, 1951

by Pat Rodgers


The day the Sears and Roebuck Catalog arrived in the mail.

For every kid in 1951 America, it was a monumental day each year. Four hundred pages thick, and the middle section was chock full of every toy imaginable in gorgeous living color, with descriptions that added fuel to a kid’s Christmas desire.


There were baby dolls with curly hair you could roll and baby dolls who cried with their own bottles attached. I quickly picked my favorite, a Toni doll with beautiful black hair and its own permanent wave set. I picked out a Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ranch set complete with all the animals. I also decided I couldn’t live without a doll house with all the furniture included. It was so exciting to think of all the toys that Santa might bring!


Christmas Songs and Poems

I was a seven-year-old little girl in the 2nd grade that year. My teacher, Miss Rita Keon, captured our imagination with The Night Before Christmas and I began to image that “jolly old elf”, dressed in fur from his head to his foot, with a bundle of toys flung on his back. His twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, nose like a cherry, and beard as white as snow completed my vision.


Many of us grew up with this lovely children’s poem but few remember who wrote it and how it came to be. It was written by Clement Clarke Moore, a well-respected theologian of his day. He wrote the verse for his three daughters and it has been called the best-known verses ever written by an American. It was published Dec. 23, 1823 in a New York newspaper called The Sentinel.


Mr. Moore is said to have composed it on a snowy winter's day during a shopping trip in his sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historic Saint Nicholas.


Moore's idea of Saint Nicholas was borrowed from his friend Washington Irving; however, Moore portrayed his "jolly old elf" as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Moore shifted the focus away from Christmas Day, and as a result, his reading audience embraced Moore's child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.


Music has always been a special part of a child’s Christmas memories. As a 7-year-old in 1951, my favorite song was, of course, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.” I played the little red vinyl records over and over on my Sears Silvertone record player.


Rudolph becomes a Christmas Icon

Many of us associate Christmas with the music and story of Rudolph. We all remember the young reindeer with an unusual luminous red nose. Mocked and excluded by his peers, Rudolph proves himself one Christmas Eve when the fog prevents the other reindeer from delivering Santa’s toys to children around the world. His shiny nose leads the way.


Rudolph sprang to life in 1939 with a young Chicago copywriter named Robert May. May worked in the ad department of Montgomery Ward, the second largest retail department store chain in America. The company wanted to create an original coloring book about an animal. Remembering his daughter’s love for the deer at the Lincoln Park Zoo, May invented Rudolph as the hero of his book.


When the book was released at Christmas of 1939, it was an instant hit. Montgomery Ward gave out 2.4 million copies and only stopped issuing it afterwards because of wartime restriction on paper. Montgomery Ward resumed publication in 1946 and Rudolph became even more popular.


Robert May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Mark, a talented composer, wrote the music for the popular book. He asked Gene Autry to record it; however, Gene did not like the song. His wife persuaded him to release it on the “B” side of his Christmas record. Rudolph became a smash hit, the second-biggest selling Christmas song of all time. By 1951 America was hooked on Rudolph, and so was I.


Christmas Trees Then and Now

Our family Christmas tree in 1951 was a small fresh pine tree, cut from the thick pine forest near our home. It was adorned with tinsel, homemade decorations, fragile balls, and colored lights. A silver star topped the tree. I remember two clip-on birds, one red and one blue. My favorite decoration was a plastic Santa with a pack on his back that lit up. He rode a plastic Rudolph of course. I still have that Santa and reindeer I prominently place on a special table each year.

Decorated Christmas trees have been a tradition for centuries. It is said that the first Christmas tree was brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700’s. Americans were late to the Christmas tree tradition and even as late as 1840, the tree was seen as a pagan symbol and not accepted by most Americans.


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are credited with popularizing the family Christmas tree. A sketch of their family around a decorated tree in the London News, 1848, was widely circulated.


It was after 1850 that the Christmas tree gained popularity with the rise of ornaments arriving from Germany. Europeans liked their trees small, about four feet tall, and Americans wanted their trees to reach from floor to ceiling.


The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees with homemade ornaments. Brightly dyed popcorn interlaced with berries and nuts became popular. It is said that Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees, making it possible for trees to glow for days on end. Christmas trees began to appear in town squares and a tree in the home became an American tradition.


The modern Christmas tree began to take shape in the 1950’s with the invention of the artificial tree by an American company called Addis. The artificial trees were made of plastic and much easier to put up and take down than a real tree. In 1955 the Aluminum Specialties Company introduced the aluminum Christmas tree with branches covered in foil. They were popular during the 1960’s, but fell out of favor in the 1970’s when people started to prefer real trees.


Our family tradition has always been a search for the perfect live Christmas tree. The children and grandchildren have taken part in selecting the tree and decorating it with their very special handmade ornaments.


Christmas around the Dinner Table

As I think back on that 1951 holiday, my mother’s Christmas dinner is vivid in my memory. Zora Lee Baker was a very accomplished homemaker in the kitchen. There were no pre-made meals that you just popped in the oven. Instead, she made everything from scratch.

Zora Lee served a roasted turkey, baked ham, award-winning dressing, whipped sweet potatoes, green beans and new potatoes. Baked corn, orange and coconut ambrosia, spiced-peaches, and of course the ever-present Jell-O mold completed the table. The Parker House rolls were always home-made and the dessert was pecan pie, mince meat pie, and fruit cake with coffee.


It makes me tired just remembering how tirelessly she worked bringing it all together!

Today I serve our family of about 10 children and grandchildren some of those same delicious dishes. We have picky eaters and I have cut back on the large variety. The crowd favorite continues to be the turkey, ham, and dressing. Zora Lee’s dressing is famous and I am carrying on the family tradition and time-honored recipes.


I will share the dressing recipe using the QR code and a YouTube video at the end of the article.



I sincerely hope you treasure your family Christmas traditions and pass them on to your children and grandchildren. Share your precious memories with your family from that magical moment we call childhood.


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