They’re in their 70s and 80s now, but they can still tap into the thrill they once felt as kids getting that favorite gift – a pair of roller skates, a toy car, a musical instrument.
Or, for Ray Davies, who’s about to celebrate his 87th Christmas, an electric train.
“I played with that forever,” he said, smiling as he recalled his growing-up years during the Great Depression as the son of a steel-mill worker in Youngstown, Ohio.
Ray, who made his living in industrial sales and marketing, is one of four residents I interviewed last week at the Laurels in Highland Creek – an assisted living community in north Charlotte.
Let’s call them Christmas experts.
Experts, because they’ve experienced so many Christmases over so many decades. All those years in various roles – as children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.
These Christmas veterans say they have become more appreciative of the day as a religious holiday and as a time to spend with family. They’re less taken with the rush to buy ever-more expensive presents.
Ray and wife Vida, who lives with him at the Laurels, plan to spend Christmas visiting family – four grown children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He will cherish the time; he remembers what Christmas was like without family around. It was 1953 in Korea. Ray was in the Army, and his holiday duty was guarding a camp.
“It was a pretty lonely, desolate time,” he said. “Our families were all back home.”
Food, family, faith
Barbara McIlwain’s favorite Christmas as a child in Lancaster, S.C., came the year she and her five sisters all got roller skates. She was in the seventh or eighth grade then; now she’s 82.
“Everybody on the street had roller skates,” she said, recalling the scene of sisters and friends donning their wheels and joining hands. “You had a nice long line and whoever was on the end was in trouble.”
Barbara’s father was a minister who pastored AME Zion churches around the country – in Massachusetts, New York, the Carolinas. She and her sisters sang in the junior choir. And their mother, a teacher, played piano.
At Christmastime, their reward for singing carols in church was a bag filled with oranges, apples, nuts – and sometimes candy.
Food, family and faith – those are still what define Christmas for Barbara, who retired after 31 years of teaching at Westerly Hills, Biddleville and Oaklawn elementary schools. She’ll spend the holiday with family and bring her best dishes – candied sweet potatoes and potato salad.
For Christmas, she doesn’t want anything you can wrap. Her wish is for good health for her family. Her sister and daughter both battled cancer and both are now in remission.
Barbara’s philosophy of Christmas: “It’s a time to evaluate how you’ve been living, as far as Jesus is concerned.”
You get a passing grade, the retired teacher added, if you’ve learned “to live together peacefully, help each other, share and look to God for help.”
‘Just being a friend’
For 30 years, Jackie Oehler taught Sunday school at Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church. She was the one who made sure the kids’ angel wings were on straight during Christmas pageants. And despite her best efforts, a young Wise Man once announced not that he came from afar, but that he came from a farm.
So Jackie was right at home last week when first-graders from the Community School of Davidson visited the Laurels to serenade her and other seniors with “Jingle Bells,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and other holiday favorites.
“I’m so glad you came today,” she told Annalise, 7, before playing patty-cakes with her and agreeing to “ooh” and “ahh” at all the little girl’s missing teeth.
Watching Jackie sing along and tap her finger to the music on her walker, it might be hard to believe that Christmas was once – and sometimes still is – a difficult time for her. On the day after Christmas 1980, she said her oldest son, then 30, took his life.
Sometimes the sad feelings return, she said, but “they’re not as bad as they used to be. Time takes care of a lot of things.”
This will be Jackie’s 87th Christmas. And her first at the Laurels, where she moved six months ago after doctors said she could no longer live by herself in her house.
At first, she hated it. Then she discovered a calling.
“I found people I can help over here ... just being a friend,” Jackie said. “There’s one lady who doesn’t like to go to her room at night. And I just sit and play games – Rummy or something – with her. And there’s one little lady, 100 years old. She’s very much with it mentally. And she and I are kind of buddies.”
Now Jackie believes that “the Lord sent me here.”
Jackie O. – as she sometimes identifies herself, laughing at the allusion to Jackie Kennedy Onassis – spent much of her childhood at Fort Bragg, where her father served in the Army before and during World War II.
One Christmas, she remembered, they gave the enlisted men’s children a present. All they had to go on were the kids’ names. So Jackie, whose name sounded a lot like a boy’s to one gift giver, got a train.
Another Christmas, she and her younger brother got a bicycle they had to share. It was a girl’s bike, but her brother took a broomstick and made it into a boy’s bike.
On Christmas, Jackie will be with her children, going house to house to house to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Her advice to less seasoned Christmas celebrants: “Count your blessings.”
‘Quite a surprise’
David Laeger, 76, is retired Army – Salvation Army, the Christian church and international charity that famously marks Christmas with bell ringing and collecting money in iconic red kettles.
David’s mother was a social worker with the group, which helps the poor and homeless. His grandfather was a uniformed officer in the quasi-military church. And David himself became a Salvation Army minister.
He doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t love Christmas – the “precious story” of Jesus’ birth in a manger, the Christmas plays where he got to play the trumpet-like cornet, and the inspiring hymns like “O Holy Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., he recounted the time a Salvation Army minister came to him and asked him to try out a new cornet.
David put aside his old one and delighted in his new brass instrument.
But, then, two or three weeks before Christmas, the minister said he had to take away the cornet. The owner wanted it back.
David recalled the disappointment.
But on Christmas Eve, when his family opened their presents, his mother had placed a big box under the tree.
“I opened it and there was a new cornet,” David said, grinning at the memory. “Quite a surprise.”
David married wife Anna in 1967. They moved to the Laurels five years ago, after a career in the Salvation Army that took them to Alabama, Atlanta, Mexico City and the western North Carolina towns of Hendersonville and Waynesville.
Their four grown children are scattered all over: Hawaii, New York, Connecticut and the Asheville area. So instead of getting together on Christmas this year, the plan is to gather in 2017 to celebrate David and Anna’s 50th wedding anniversary.
David is still in love with Christmas, though, and if he could, he’d be writing poems about it. But with his Parkinson’s disease, his hands won’t hold still.
In 2007, David filled a book – “Seasons of the Son” – with his religious poems, including 21 he wrote about Christmas.
In one, “Light is Born,” he re-creates a moment from that first Christmas in Bethlehem, when mother and child anticipate the holiday that, for David and others at the Laurels, has come to mean the enduring gifts of family and faith.
“Born beneath the canopy of cloud,
swaddled with an infant shroud;
bathed in Mary’s warm embrace,
they look into each other’s face,
and kiss the manger cave with grace.”