A Very Special West Virginia Christmas Remembered

By Roger L. Raines

Leaving Harrisonburg, Virginia after attending a three-day meeting, rather than go to Lynchburg where I had been working, I decided I would drive home to Alabama to spend two days with my wife. The last year has seen us apart more than together. I miss being with her all the time.

I left around 4:00 PM. Rain began to fall shortly after getting on Interstate 81 and it continued through the entire 9-hour trip. As I drove my thoughts began to center on Christmas and what we were going to do. Linda and I both yearn to be together with the entire family during the holiday season, especially Christmas, but we realize each of our three daughters have families of their own and our grandchildren need to experience Christmas in their own homes.

Looking Back

As I drove I surfed the radio and on several stations, Christmas music played. My thoughts drifted back to my childhood and the many Christmases I had enjoyed. The temperature was in the low forties and I had no heat turned on; thus the defroster blew cold air. As the cold air blew across my face, it too reminded me of the many Christmases I spent as a child in West Virginia. In my early teens, I liked, and still do, the wind, snow, and the cold. My thoughts focused on one Christmas Eve in particular that remains very dear to me across these many years. I was born the last child of twelve children, the eighth son to a father and mother who lived their lives for their children. They made sure we had the necessities of life, often doing without. My dad became disabled due to Black Lung disease he had contracted while working many years in the coal mines around West Virginia. When I was seven or eight years old, it put him out of work and later, like so many other men, it would eventually take his life.

After being forced to quit work, we moved from the coal mining town of Bemis to Elkins where my father and mother lived the rest of their lives. Many of these years were tough as Dad spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital. He knew what the disease was and he knew what the end result would eventually be. Never the less, his spirits were high and his children still came first. During my years as an adolescent and into my teenage years we had very little. The older brothers and sisters had married and moved away seeking a better life. Three of us remained at home during these years and it still was a hardship on our father and mother to provide us the basics we needed. How they persevered, I don’t know but they did.

Photo by Nicole Wyatt.
Photo by Nicole Wyatt.

The Perfect Tree

No matter how tough it was, we always managed to have a Christmas Tree. Some Christmases Dad and I or one of my brothers would walk several miles, to the woods just outside of town, to cut a tree from the many that grew wild on the West Virginia countryside. This year for some reason was very special as it was Dad and I who went for this year’s Christmas tree.

We walked the snow covered railroad tracks towards Parsons for about two miles before finding just the right one. I recall Dad commenting on how Mother would like it as it was a beautiful Blue Spruce. It was full and stood about six feet tall. I remember the walk back home as it seemed much longer mostly because I was anxious for Mother to see the tree. I remember Dad carrying the bottom of the tree and I the top. As we both expected, Mother was really pleased that we had found such a beautiful tree. Dad and I built a stand out of two pieces of wood. Put them into a cross and nailed them to the bottom of the tree. Expecting us back, Mother had made a pot of coffee. As we entered the apartment, you could smell the aroma. Dad poured himself a cup and me a little with a lot of milk in it. We sat at the kitchen table for a minute and enjoyed the warmth it provided.

Later, Mother, Dad, my brother, sister, and I decorated that tree it as if we were having a million dollar Christmas. Mother had accumulated a mixture of Christmas ornaments over the years and we had plenty to choose from.

Making the Best of It

As did many towns in central West Virginia, Elkins had its share of underprivileged children who, when Christmas came, often would experience little in the way of giving and receiving. Local organizations did what they could to help these children and one in particular was the Elkins Junior Chamber of Commerce (JCs).

The Elkins JCs, during the Christmas Holidays, would pick several under privileged children and provide them with money to go shopping for their parents. In addition they held a party for those children at the YMCA. The party consisted of cookies, cakes, lemonade, and Cool Aid. Each child received some small gift.

These children were in most instances exceptionally poor. Their Christmas often was comprised of some little thing that their parents or relatives either made as they could ill afford to buy presents for them, and most often their Christmas was only that which the JCs provided. I look back now and realize many children were blessed by the efforts of the Elkins JCs. How wonderful their efforts were.

Dad would, when he could, provide each of us with a dollar or two that we would use to buy Mom a present. The money came as a result of him saving pennies and dimes throughout the year. Mom’s gift from me was most often a glass dish containing powder with a cover on which there stood small deer. When she opened that gift, she would react as if it was the only thing she ever wanted. I later realized she truly did like it and kept those glass dishes forever.

Dad, he usually got some little thing but always insisted that we make sure Mother got something from each of us. While not every Christmas was as lean as this one, most were, and this year was to be the roughest. There would be no powder dish with a little deer on top this Christmas.

A Christmas to Remember

This Christmas we were to be blessed with one of heaviest snowstorms of the season. Snow started a falling a few days before Christmas and it just kept coming down. To me it was as if someone knew how much I liked it. Christmas Eve Night was bright as day simply because of the heavy bright white snow that fell and blanketed everything.

As I said, this Christmas was really tough as Dad and Mom both had been sick and money was just not there. None the less, we had each other. I knew there would be little or nothing under the tree this Christmas, and I, along with the others, accepted this and just enjoyed the season as it was. When you are use to having nothing, getting nothing is not an issue.

Loving the snow and cold as I did, I remember playing in the street in front of the apartment, next to the Western Maryland Railroad Station. Playing till my hands were nearly frozen, going back inside getting warm, then going back out again. The lights from the railroad station provided a background that made the falling snow appear to come down as if it were a large white wavy curtain. Once in awhile the wind would whip up and the snow would blow in such a way as to make it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of you. The driving wind and snow took my breath away. How great I thought this was.

Photo by Kathy Skidmore.
The Western Maryland Railroad Station in the present time. It is currently used by Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad for their tourist trains and as a Welcome Center for Elkins. If you can though, imagine it as it was almost 60 years earlier. The station being covered with white dry snow, the wind whipping the snow around with such ferocity that one could hardly see the station from the street. Photo by Kathy Skidmore.

Each time I would go in to get warm, my Dad would say to Mother, “That boy doesn’t have good sense”. Mother would reply, “That’s because he is yours”. Dad would laugh, as he knew I was in many ways, just like him. Thank God that a lot of his beliefs, his ways, his love, his wisdom, became a part of me. It took a few years for the wisdom to sink in.

During one of my trips inside to warm up, Mother and I talked about the snow and Christmas, and Santa Clause. She, like Dad, was disappointed because of our situation that year, As we talked, Mother told me all she could give us this Christmas was “A Hug, A Kiss, and an I Love You”. At 13 years old, those words touched me in ways I cannot explain. Those words, so caring so loving, changed me in the way I looked then and still look at Christmas. I remember getting that special loving and gentle hug, a kiss on the cheek, and the “I love you” echoes in my memory to this day. Her words, the hug, the kiss, warmed me more that Christmas Eve, more than any gift, more than the heat from the old gas heater we used to heat the apartment.

For these reasons, I love, and cherish that snowy Christmas Eve of 1957 more than all others. It was that Christmas, I made a vow to someday provide my Mom and Dad with a Christmas, they could only dream about. I vowed to myself that when I was old enough, and had a job making enough money, I would give them anything they wanted, I would give them a Christmas to remember.

You see, I was one of those children at that JCs’ Party and I was there because my parents loved me. They made sure I experienced Christmas that year. It was Mom who contacted the JCs and asked that I be included. The money that the JCs gave me to shop for Mom and Dad that year, went to buy a small Turkey, which I helped Mom fix for Christmas Dinner. One of my greatest joys came from helping her make the stuffing for that Turkey. In later years with her, and to this day it is one of my favorite activities that I share with my family especially at Thanksgiving.

As I played in the snow that cold and windy night of December 1957, I thought of what I could do to return the love of these very wonderful, thoughtful, and un-selfish parents. I knew deep in my heart that someday I would be able to extend back to them, that and more, which they had extended to me.

This was a very special Christmas, not because of gifts from the JCs, but because that year, I believe I found a truer meaning of Christmas and family love. I discovered that giving of one’s self to others, love of family, love of being together, is far more satisfying and no material “Thing” can replace that which love brings. I discovered that “words”, special and meaningful words, can be the best gift one can give and receive. My Mother gave me more than she would ever realize that Christmas in 1957.

The Gift

That very special Christmas passed, as do all of them. The next few years passed and I saw similar Christmases come and go. I was unable to fulfill my dream, my desire, and my inner promise to give to them what I had committed to. At seventeen, I left and joined the Air Force and was sent overseas.

During my 4-year tour of duty, I sent Mom and Dad $20 a month out of my $54 monthly pay. I never missed it, never asked them what they did with it. For four years, on Christmas, no matter where I was stationed, I always received a box of Mother’s homemade cookies and fudge along with a card. Inside the card was written a note, and on that note was written those very special words, here is “A Hug a Kiss, and an I Love you”. My mind would immediately return to that cold snowy wonderful Christmas Eve of 1957. My eyes filled with tears, my heart broke, my love for Mother and Dad, grew.

From that Christmas, until this December of 2015, when asked by my family what I want for Christmas, I simply replied “A Hug, A Kiss, and an I love you”.

This year, Christmas of 2015, while it is likely that I will receive more than I want. In all actuality, what I really want is that which I received, from my Mother in 1957, that being simply from each of my children, my grandchildren, “A Hug, A Kiss, and an I Love You”. Maybe more than just one!

I never fulfilled my dream of providing my father with that special Christmas, as he died two months after I got out of the service and three months before Christmas in 1965. He, like myself, wanted little in the way of material things so I hope that cards I sent over the years, the notes I wrote in them, expressing my love for both he and Mother, helped to send the message as to how much I loved both of them.

After my father died, I was fortunate in that I was able to provide Mother with many things she otherwise would not have been able to afford. Especially at Christmas time, I made sure that she got something special and that I gave back to her, that which she had given me so much of that Christmas and the Christmas’s that followed.

So if I am to receive anything for Christmas this year, or in coming years, simply give me those very special words, which my mother gave me that snowy and cold Christmas Eve in 1957. Lots of Hugs, lots of Big Kisses, and many, many “I Love Yous”.

Not much to ask for I think.

My very Sincere Thanks:

To the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Elkins, West Virginia, from someone who has never forgotten, and on behalf of all those under privileged children whose Christmas you helped brighten in 1957, I, we thank you for your kindness, your thoughtfulness, and for making our Christmas Star, much brighter.