Tales of Christmas Past
Long ago, before there were freeways, fast food outlets, supermarkets and televisions, Truckee residents enjoyed the holiday season in a simple and memorable way.
A nostalgic look into these memories was provided by the late Marjorie Fay Zoebel, who was born Marjorie Fay in 1913 to Pete and Edith Fay.
Marjorie grew up in Truckee during the late teens and ’20s and attended public school in Truckee and the University of Nevada, Reno. During her retirement she graciously provided us with many bright and witty stories of her early life. Her recollections of people and events were remarkably sharp and alive with detail.
The following story of Christmas Past, as told by Marjorie to the Sierra Sun in 1993, represents a first-person account of what wintertime Truckee was like in the early 20th century.
I would like to share a few of her joyful memories in wishing everyone a happy holiday season.
By Marjorie Zoebel
During its early years, Truckee was totally isolated in wintertime. Winter storms were huge and there could be 25 feet of snow. We often had to slide down banks of snow into the stores.
There were snow carnivals and even in those days Truckee was a well-known winter resort, which lured many tourists with things such as a sled dog race to Tahoe and back.
Cars were put in storage for the winter and horse and sleigh made all deliveries.
Kids would tie up their sleds behind the sleigh and get a free ride. Ski pants were unheard of. We had to wade through the snow to get to school.
Sometimes kids would sled down “McGlashan’s Hill” (Spring Street). Johnnie Rablin, Jess Maxom and Pete Passinetti were the ones I remembered who had bobsleds. About 5 p.m. they would go to the cooks at the Sierra Tavern and ask if they could have kettles of hot water. They would pour water all up and down the hill and then go home for dinner. By 7 p.m. that water would have frozen and made that hill as slick as glass. They had built a saucer of snow at the bottom of the hill that rounded onto the main street. That too had been watered and frozen.
Olla (Zunino) and I learned that if we were at the top of the hill when the boys came up with their bobsleds, they would tuck us in between them to make more weight. We’d start from in front of Wilkie’s house (at the top of Spring Street), race down the hill, make the turn on the saucer at the bottom and go as far down the main street as the Southern Pacific Hotel.
These boys were expert skiers, too. A long high scaffold had been built at the top of the ski hill (Hilltop). They learned to ski jump off this scaffold. We were so proud of them!
There was a ski club that met every so often in a building north of the railroad crossing. Olla and I dared to join. There would be quite a roomful of young people and we had “basket socials.” Each girl member decorated a cardboard box with a lunch for two. The boxes were exhibited and the boys would bid on them. The highest bidder on each box got to eat with the girl who made the lunch.
Sometimes at night we’d go over to “Slaughterhouse Hill” (the hill to today’s Regional Park) and build a bonfire at the top. We would sled down and walk up several times, then sit around the fire and listen to Doug Keenan tell science stories.
On weekends, kids would go across the river to Wally Gillette’s toboggan ride. For 15 cents a man would slide a toboggan onto a platform connected to a sled where a huge gasoline motor would operate a cable. He would attach the toboggan to the cable and you would be pulled up a wooden trough to the top of the hill. There, a man would meet you, unhook the toboggan from the cable, set it over onto a shoveled pathway, see that you were safely tucked in and send you down that hill. At the bottom you would meet another man who would repeat the same procedure and you’d end up back where you started.
We also did a lot of skiing. I remember the huge tree over by the ski jump being wired for Christmas tree lights. It was also lit for snow carnivals, etc. I remember stores bulging with extra merchandise and the boxes and wrappings seemed to spell Christmas.
On those long, stormy nights, kids got out games. Parcheesi, checkers and card games, such as casino, old maid or solitaire, were popular. Also, there were spelling bees, guessing where famous quotes came from, writing letters or trying your hand at writing poetry. Mom could always be depended on to make caramel apples, popcorn, fudge, penuche or puffed rice candy. On evenings, we would sit around the wood stove while she read a good book.
Boys would spend time sanding, varnishing and waxing their skis while they were dry. We would often stand at the cold windows and watch the fury of the storm. How much more snow would come before this ended? The storms were always a bit scary!
There were many nights and days with no electricity. Always on hand was coal oil for lamps as well as candles. Lucky were the few who had fireplaces! What is more relaxing than a huge log fire with flames dancing colors to entertain one? The crackling and spitting sound of sparks might cause parents to doze, but it would invigorate the kids.
It snowed 10 to 25 feet in one year and temperatures dropped down to 21 or 22 degrees below zero. It kept few people home. For the kids it was a challenge to get out into it. It took a good, raging blizzard to keep people home. By the time I was in high school, winters were less severe and the roads were usually open.
The churches had special devotions and the Methodist church usually had children join in the service. I remember one year when my blonde hair had grown down my back. Miss Clark, the preacher’s sister, draped me in white and had me kneel at the bottom of a cross with my arms outstretched on the cross’s arms for the whole service. The pews were always full at Christmas, but not everyone came to church.
In those days the family could go out on one of the hills not too far from home, or maybe even at the side of the road, to find and cut down the perfect Christmas tree. It had to be just right – the height we wanted, branches with no bare spots and a perfect tip. The trees we cut were fresh. We made a stand out of a few pieces of lumber. Our lights were seven-inch candles that fit into a colored tin holder that fastened onto the branch of the tree like a clothespin might. We lit them only when the family could enjoy the tree – usually in the evening or on the holiday. We never heard of anyone having a fire (from the candles).
With homemade treats we made our decorations. We popped popcorn, not with an electric popper, but with a small box-like contraption made out of screening. Attached to that was a handle about two and half feet long. We put corn into the screen box and, holding the handle, shook the box above the open flame. It was wonderful for those of us who had fireplaces. While one person popped the corn, others strung it to be hung around the tree. We also strung cranberries or hung mandarin oranges on our tree. We did have tinsel and a few homemade decorations. It was a “must” to have a really nice decoration for the tip. This is what we would go to all lengths to find, especially an angel. A letter to Sears, Roebuck, or a trip to Reno was usually the answer. Once having found one, it practically became an heirloom.
Ladies seemed to work the year around making gifts. The gifts were practical. Quilting, cutwork, crocheting, knitting and tatting were popular. Of course, there was dressmaking, but that was usually for one’s own. And then there was always embroidery, preserves, jellies, jams, pickled peaches, chutneys, relishes, and etc., which were excellent for gifts.
During the summer wives would comb the mountains for gooseberries, currants and chokecherries in preparation for their winter jams.
And let us not forget our merchants! It was possible to call by phone, give your order, or ask if they would order something special for you. The order would be charged to your account and delivered to your door.
Closer to Christmas time came the candy making, the cookie baking, the cake and pie baking. Recipes were family hand-me-downs. They were seldom given away. And then, of course, there was the shopping in the stores and from the catalog. What child didn’t want a flexible flyer (sled), skis or shoes skates. Girls longed for a doll with hair, and a buggy. Tinker toys and games were always welcome.
There was always a dance at the Masonic Hall on Saturday nights. We had a theater (silent films, of course). The grammar school students always had a performance before letting out of school for their two-week vacation. Our two churches had special devotions. The congeniality and jovial greetings of all passers-by made for a happy Christmas spirit.
Truckee was too cold and the summers too short to ever think of having a garden. A few people had lawns. Flowers had to be ordered and shipped in. This was done for Decoration Day, but otherwise was just too expensive.
For Christmas, we could always count on plenty of snow, but never did we have poinsettias, holly or mistletoe, nor did we have imitation flowers. Decorating the house was pretty much limited to using houseplants, tinsel, presents from years before and family heirlooms.
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If Israel and the United Kingdom are any indication, widespread vaccination will knock the pandemic down to … normal life. Something near.