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Local View: Christmas surprises quickly become family traditions

Joe Heller

Every family has that one great Christmas story that shows where their family began. This is mine.

Tina StradalDad was born in 1926, and Mom came along five years later, both growing up during the Great Depression. Dad grew up in northern North Dakota, and Mom came from a small central Minnesota town near Mille Lacs Lake.

Dad's family lost his mother when he was 2, so he was raised by his father and older sisters. His family farm was prosperous enough that his father did not need to leave for work.

My mom, on the other hand, watched as her mother ran the farm and raised the family while her father left for days at a time, working for the railroad in faraway Duluth.

By 1948, World War II was over, and Dad was no longer living in North Dakota. His father had remarried, had a young son, and was living in central Minnesota.

Dad was visiting his family on a warm spring morning when he was asked to collect his younger brother. The young lady, living with her grandmother next door, was sitting for the child. Dad walked out the back door and sitting on a low rock wall was his 5-year-old brother. Sitting with his brother was, as Dad put it, "a strawberry blonde cutie."

His first words to her were, "Hi ya, honey." From that first devilish twinkle of his eyes to her surprised and blushing face, the connection was made. Eighteen months later, in the fall of 1950, they were married and about to begin their new life in Duluth.

Family was important to both of the newlyweds, and they had family on both sides in their new hometown. Their first home could have been living with either family, but they wanted to strike out on their own.

Because of his father-in-law, Dad acquired a job working for the Great Northern Railroad on a cleanup and maintenance crew. The pay was not much, and it was hard work keeping the tracks clean and the boxcars ready for the upcoming engines. Dad loved the work, though, because it was outdoors and it was very physical.

The pay was not enough for them to afford their own home right away, so they rented a small travel trailer from his sister. It was so small that if one person sneezed at one end, another person could wipe their nose from the other end.

This was where Mom spent her days while Dad was at work. The amenities included a tiny two-burner stove and toaster-size oven, a small single sink, a two-seat kitchen table, a tiny toilet, no shower, and room in the back for a double bed. But there was electricity and running water. To keep busy, Mom would read, cook, sew, and listen to the tiny radio she borrowed from her sister.

On his days off, they would explore their new hometown. Mom knew the area well because her dad had worked the rail line for years. The first place she wanted to show Dad was the town of Oliver. They got in the car, and he was told to drive southwest of Duluth to Gary and then to turn left at the sign for the Oliver Bridge.

This was all new to Dad, so he just followed directions. He had never heard of the Oliver Bridge over the St. Louis River, but Mom knew what to expect: a covered car bridge with a train track over the top, all of it made of wood and steel. It had to be experienced. A newcomer may not realize the lower deck was made of wood until halfway across, and then it would be too late to turn around. Not telling this information was a trick my mother's family had been doing for years to newcomers to Duluth. She did it to my dad.

Not much scared Dad, but the Oliver Bridge sure did. The way I heard it, after they crossed the bridge and he stopped being green, Mom laughed herself silly. Eventually he saw the humor in it and joined in. This trick was then adopted by my dad for years to come.

Movies were always a big draw for my parents. Duluth and the surrounding area had plenty of choices in theaters in 1950, with two favorites being The Doric and New Garrick. In these places, musicals and westerns were the vehicles of entertainment the young couple sought. For $1.50, my parents could enjoy a good movie, snacks, a drink and a hot dog — on those rare occasions when they had the money.

As the days went forward, the weather became colder and snow began to fall. Lake-effect snow can be extreme and that year was particularly hard with a 25-inch blizzard hitting early in December. Too much snow and extra work for Dad meant plans to visit family for their first holiday season were stopped. Mom and Dad knew they would never be able make it that year.

It would be a very quiet and lonely season for them both, but making the best of every situation was becoming old business for the newlyweds. When the weather permitted, Mom and Dad spent time together walking through town. Grocery shopping or just wandering the streets, window-gazing at the holiday decorations, lights and displays, occupied time for them.

Each one worried how to give the other the best gift on their first Christmas. Dad and his family were more religious than Mom's family, so she knew Christmas meant church. He knew Mom loved decorations, lights, and the tree her family put up every year.

While Dad was at work, Mom pored over the telephone directory to find the nearest church with a Christmas Eve Mass so they could attend, as his family had done when he was a child.

The closest church, as chance would have it, was within walking distance, was Catholic, and had a Christmas Eve Mass. Though Mom was not baptized Catholic, as Dad was, she still made plans to go with him. She bargained with his sister for material and made a new dress for the occasion.

Dad tried everything possible to buy ornaments for his new wife, but their money was being saved to move in the spring. The trailer was too small for a normal-sized tree, so he scouted the wooded areas for the perfect miniature tree for his new family. A week into his search, he found it, the top branches barely peeking through the two-foot snowdrift. A few days before Christmas, Dad dug out the little two-foot spruce with short little blue needles and brought it home. He talked family members into sending him old ornaments and decorations they no longer used.

For a week, ornaments, garland, lights, and a nativity set came in the mail or were dropped off at the little trailer. With the surprises of a Christmas Mass, decorations, and a tree, Mom and Dad were very happy.

They even broke into their house money and bought a new felt and wire angel topper for the tree. The little tree fit perfectly on the small kitchen table with the nativity sitting nicely on the small stove. Though there were no real big presents under the tree, there were the surprises.

An end-of-the-year bonus from the railroad waited for Dad and was enough to help them move into their own home much earlier than they planned. Mom had another surprise as well. She would be making her husband a father by their first anniversary in October of the next year.

What started out as the smallest Christmas either of them ever knew ended up being the beginning of the traditions that are still in my family. Sharing ornaments, angel tree toppers, nativity sets, Christmas Eve services, and short-needle trees are still as much home in my living room today as they were for my parents in that small Christmas so long ago in Duluth.

Tina Stradal's parents lived in Duluth in the 1950s during the first seven years of their 59-year marriage. Her parents now deceased, Stradal lives in Quamba, Minn.