(Note: This is a true story written by my father, LaVarr B. Webb, a member of the Greatest Generation and a WWII vet who died a number of years ago. It has been a family favorite that helps us appreciate the bounteous blessings we enjoy today in contrast to times past.)
It was a cold day. A gray day, gray with the threat of snow, and gray with the threat of tears. There were children, three of them, ages one, 12, and 14. There were two children missing on that cold, gray day. They had died one Easter season some four years before. Scarlet fever had wracked their bodies and blotched their skin.
But now the memory of that sad season was replaced by what could be a happier one. It was Christmas Eve 1935. A Depression year in Salt Lake City. A father without a job, trying to get on WPA (Works Progress Administration). I don’t know where he was that night, just that he wasn’t home, but I remember a mother trying to create Christmas joy with nothing to work with.
I was 14. My sister was 12. I don’t remember that we were concerned about Christmas presents, at least I wasn’t. My sister probably wanted a doll. She always wanted a doll, a baby doll, a doll like my baby sister had been, with fat, pink cheeks, and chubby hands and arms.
I don’t remember much about that Christmas of 1935 other than I wanted a Christmas tree. I told my mother, “Christmas will not be Christmas if we don’t have a tree.”
My mother shook her head sadly. “We have no money to buy a Christmas tree.”
My sister and I would not be deterred. We took colored paper from catalogs, cut it into strips, curled the strips into circles, and using flour and water paste, pasted one link into another until we had long lengths of highly colored paper chains.
We looked for tin foil from discarded chewing gum wrappers and cigarette packs. Some of the foil we cut into thin strips for icicles. Our neighbor had an English walnut tree. We took halves of walnut shells, wrapped them with foil, and had beautiful ornaments that would rival anything found in a store.
We popped pop corn and made chains. We found discarded cranberries and made cranberry chains. But we had no Christmas tree for our lovely ornaments. Finally, as day was fading, and the dark was creeping across the valley, I asked my mother, “See how much money you have. Maybe someone will sell me a tree.”
She went to her purse, and handed me 28 cents. She was crying when she said, “That’s all I have.”
I jumped on my bike, and rode up to 21st South Street where all the Christmas tree lots were located. I went from lot to lot, but no one would sell me a tree for 28 cents.
About nine o’clock, on 21st South and State Street, I found a man turning off his lights and shutting down for the day, shutting down for the season. I asked him, “Do you have a tree you will sell for 28 cents?”
His exact words were, “What the heck! I can’t sell anymore anyway. Take your pick.”
I found one just a little taller than I was, gave him my 28 cents, put the tree across my handle bars, and headed home. As I peddled out of the lot, I heard him shout, “Merry Christmas!” And it was.