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Tom Ross: Humble holidays

Local seniors share their memories of Christmas past

Jim Nowak donned his reindeer blazer and slacks Dec. 23 to play Christmas carols on his accordion for senior citizens at the Steamboat Springs Community Center during a luncheon served by the Routt County Council on Aging.
Tom Ross

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The secular celebration of Christmas in Steamboat Springs need not be expensive, nor does it require the latest electronic gadgets for it to be joyous.

All that’s really required is a modest home heated by a cast iron stove, an evergreen tree cut from the forest and decorated with homemade ornaments and an orange in the bottom of your stocking.

If you’re not persuaded, sit down over a meal and talk to some of Routt County’s wisest citizens. That’s what I did on Monday, Dec. 23, at the Steamboat Springs Community Center, where the Routt County Council on Aging, as it does so many times every year, was serving a hot meal to senior citizens.

One of the seniors, Nadine Arroyo, brought little jars of home-canned strawberry/raspberry preserves as gifts for everyone. That’s how she was raised on the family ranch south of Steamboat near Routt County Road 14.

“We always got an apple, maybe an orange and one gift,” Arroyo recalled about her childhood Christmas mornings. “We had a wood and coal burning stove, but my mother had a fake fireplace made of crepe paper that,” she draped on the wall. “She would put up our stockings up on it.”

Sometimes, along with the fresh fruit, Arroyo and her siblings found peanuts in the shell.

“We thought that was the best thing,” she said with a smile.

“Mother did a lot of sewing, and we would string the empty spools around our necks. And we had a set of picture alphabet blocks from my father’s family,” she recalled. “One Christmas, all of us girls got new coats. Mine was turquoise (colored), and I wore it until I couldn’t anymore.”

The Arroyos raised beef cattle and sheep and cropped wheat, oats and barley. Nadine had enough brothers that she didn’t really have to get involved in the fieldwork. But the family’s source of ready cash came from laying hens and milk cows.

“We’d always try to take some cream and 30 dozen eggs with us when we went to the store to buy groceries,” she recalled. “It was a matter of survival — we ate what we grew. That’s how we survived.

“We harvested strawberries right out of our garden, went to Palisade for peaches, and we could get bushels of apples in Rifle back in those days,” Nadine added.

More Routt County Christmas memories:

• As a 5-year-old growing up in Chicago, Dorothy Nordstrom recalls a Christmas Eve when she heard jingle bells outside the house, and her parents urged her to go to her bedroom. When she returned to the living room, she found a child-sized baby buggy with a doll in it.

“I was thrilled to no end,” Nordstrom recalled. “We soon moved to the South side of Chicago (it was like Disneyland back then), and there was a little Scottish girl I played ‘babies’ with all the time.”

• Diana Simon and her sister grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, where they shared a bedroom.

“I remember one Christmas when I was about 12, my parents told us to go to the library. We wondered, ‘why?’”

Finally their parents picked them up and returned them to their bedroom, where a new homemade dressing table awaited them.

“My dad built it, and my mom added a ruffled skirt around it,” Simon said. “I was the oldest, and my sister Barbara was really excited.”

• Shirley Dunlop recalls that her father always cut a Christmas tree from the forest and harvested extra branches. That way, if the tree had some gaps in it, he could drill holes in the trunk and insert the backup boughs.

After Shirley’s mother died, the family always decorated the tree with all blue and white lights, as a way of remembering her.

• Leonarda Vanderwerf grew up in the Netherlands, where St. Nicholas made a public appearance, riding a white horse off of a boat. Christmas is a very serious holiday in the Netherlands, she said, with very little emphasis on presents.

“The children only get one gift in a wooden shoe,” she said.

• Katherine Gourley recalls that as a girl she looked forward to watching movies, starring the child actress Shirley Temple, at the Chief Theater in downtown Steamboat. And for Christmas 1939 (or was it 1940?), she received a Shirley Temple doll that her mother ordered from the Sears catalog.

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.


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