On the one hand, you felt terribly disconnected from the world depicted by television and the movies. As a child, I had no idea what snow really looked or felt like. My one experience, when I was four, was seeing flakes coming down. I was so excited that I ran to the side of the house to tell my mother. By that time, they were gone. Not until my thirties would I experience a snowy Christmas.
Growing up, I wasn't fleeing snow or staying in a resort. Christmas in this preternaturally green oasis surrounded by the Sonoran Desert was all I knew. And yet it seemed right and possessed no little sense of enchantment and meaning. After all, Jesus had been born in a desert. In the Phoenix of my youth, going to the Christmas Eve service at Central United Methodist Church and exiting into the chill, dry air and canopy of stars, I felt very close to those shepherds abiding in the field. Every valley shall be exalted.
In the 1960s the luminaria on the sidewalks of Willo were decades away. Willo wasn't even a name. The fancy light shows were to be found in Palmcroft and Alvarado, where the rich people lived. Even so, most houses in the contiguous neighborhoods that ran from Roosevelt to Thomas and Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street had some sort of lights. We always had a tree in the picture window of our house. My grandmother had her favorite tamale vendor.
Downtown Phoenix was still a major shopping destination into the mid-1960s. Gold stars and ornaments hung over Central Avenue. I'm sure they were gaudy (and I can't find a photo), but they were an unmistakable reminder of the season. At right is how the decorations looked in the 1940s; the location is Central, south of the Hotel Adams. Farther north, Park Central did a brisk business.
The central core was intact then, before the massive demolitions. So a boy or girl on a bicycle had many other options, too. I remember buying presents for my mother and grandmother at the Sprouse-Reitz on McDowell, with its red-tiled front. Shops lined Central between downtown and Uptown Plaza.
Among the most popular gifts for friends and family "back East" was the produce of the Salt River Valley. You could ship boxes of oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, lemons and dates. Alas, by the time I came along most of the famous arty citrus crates were being replaced by cardboard boxes.
Christmas could get cold then. We regularly had several hard frosts (which is why West Nile mosquitoes were not around). Aircraft engines with propellers were placed on poles above the groves and cranked up when it got around freezing to keep frost from settling on the precious crop.
Phoenix still had the feel of a small town and the state was big and empty. Flagstaff and the High Country could count on snow. Tourism was big business in Phoenix but nothing like today. Many people still came by train when I was little. In 1971 the Fiesta Bowl was born on Dec. 27, but seemed destined to be a second-tier affair (which did nothing to dampen local enthusiasm).
By the time I was in high school, this season was marked by rehearsing and performing Handel's Messiah. Under Eugene Hanson, Coronado High presented the work every year, an ambitious undertaking for any secondary school but one of Coronado's traditions of excellence. We music students also caroled around town, at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, and, in one misbegotten adventure, from a hay truck driving along Scottsdale Road. Somehow we avoided pneumonia.
I also recall a holiday foray with some buddies and a bottle of peppermint schnapps. That's a tale for another day, but my liquor tastes did improve.
Later, on the ambulance, I seemed to catch the holiday shift every year with its attendant tragedies.
Many Christmases passed before I returned in 2000. But Christmas in Phoenix was as magical as ever. Something about the desert.
Next week we'll get back to the tough stuff. In the meantime, I wish you happy holidays and the best New Year. Your continued and growing readership is what keeps me doing this. Thank you.
Christmas 1953, the Luhrs Tower and businesses on First Avenue.
The courtyard at Central Methodist Church Christmas Eve 2014.
Want to know more about Phoenix's amazing history? Read Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.