The excitement and anticipation of wondering what presents I have under the Christmas tree diminished many years ago, replaced by the joy of watching my children experience that wonderful time of year. I am not saying I have lost the Christmas spirit, it has just been refined to simpler, more important things, like family and friends. Still, I like to reminisce about Christmases past, and the Christmas Eves full of opening presents.
My first memory of Christmas was as a four year old when we lived in Colorado. I got a boxing bag, mounted on a stand that I stood on and when I hit the bag it would spring back so I could hit it again. It was a bit too tall, and Dad would roar with laughter every time I swung and missed the bag. He kept encouraging me to keep trying, but what I really wanted to do was ride my new horse! He was silvery white with a red saddle and bridle, with pedals for stirrups and wheels for hooves. When you pushed on the pedals the horse would roll forward. It was great! I have pictures of me riding “Silver” down the sidewalk in front of our home. He spent many later years in Dad’s barbershop for kids to ride. I put him out to pasture a few years ago in the museum at the Cultural Heritage Center, where kids for many generations can admire him and wish they had been lucky enough to have a horse like Silver.
A few years later, my Christmas present was a small portable record player along with several 45-rpm records. The song I remember most was “16 Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Whenever I would hear him sing after that, I immediately pictured in my mind that little player, setting on the floor next to the Christmas Tree. Mom knew I loved music, and I she was as excited from watching me play those records as I was in playing them.
The famous Red Ryder BB gun Christmas was next, but that is another story. The BB gun Christmas was followed a few years later with my first shotgun, a 20 gauge bolt action Mossberg with interchangeable chokes. I shot that for several years, finally outgrowing it.
Cowboy Christmases began when I was a teenager. Santa Claus must have stopped at the W Bar S before coming down our chimney, because Dad got a new hat and boots and I got batwing chaps and a sheepskin vest. I always felt Mom got left out, but she was excited to have a new washer and dryer! No more wringer washer or hanging clothes on a line outside in the middle of January. She didn’t like horses anyway. I spent Christmas day riding around town wearing my new chaps and vest, freezing the whole time.
After all these years, I have come to realize that the best Christmas presents I have received haven’t been wrapped in pretty paper or tied up with a bow. They haven’t all been given at Christmas time either. Some have come in pink and blue baby blankets, warm and cuddly and sweet, precious and perfect. Some have come in white shirts and ties, teenagers bravely sharing their faith. Some have come in chance meetings, sometimes literally out of the dark, to be a friend, to share my interests and passions. They have all touched my life. They, friends and family, are the lifelong presents we all are given, and I hope we cherish them throughout the years as the true “Christmas” gifts they are. Give them all a big hug today, and as often as you can. Merry Christmas!
Gary Heintz owns an insurance agency in Pierre and writes a column for the Capital Journal. He is also co-producer of the Dakota Western Heritage Festival, held each September in Ft. Pierre.