Opinion: Finding Meaning


That True Meaning of Christmas

It’s elusive, isn’t it, the true meaning of Christmas? We don’t so much find it, as it catches us, often when we least expect. As an example, here’s a family Christmas story. It begins with my Mom, who had a difficult childhood. She didn’t know her father; he died of pneumonia when she was just two. He was a hard-rock miner who had gone down into the mines at 16 years old when his father died. Without a father the family struggled, but by working together plus a little hard grit they got by. Mom was a bright student, skipped several grades, and started high school at 12 years old. This was during the Depression and her wardrobe was a hand-me-down skirt and two blouses, one worn while the other was being washed. One Christmas, I think it was 1935, had true meaning for her.

Her mother had gone away to care for a sick relative and Mom, fifteen years old and on the cusp of womanhood, was left in charge of the home and her two brothers, helped by a nearby aunt. As Christmas approached, Mom was able to find a little tree and simple gifts for her brothers. She went to bed Christmas Eve content with her arrangements, though there was no box with her name under the tree. Christmas morning brought a surprise, a gift from her absent mother, delivered in the night by her aunt. Mom was delighted to find a green taffeta gown, her first nice dress and a perfect fit for her developing figure. It came just in time for the big holiday church dance.

Mom lived in Roseville, Calif., a railroad town back then. Bob Hellewell, my future father, lived up the road in Lincoln, where his family operated a grocery store. Bob had a pronounced limp, the result of a childhood infection that had destroyed his hip and left him in a wheelchair. His family emigrated to California seeking help at Shriner’s Children Hospital in San Francisco. The good doctors at Shriner’s fused my Dad’s hip together, giving him the gift of a life on his feet. He even learned to dance, taught by his partner at a nickel-a-dance club in Sacramento.

On the night of the big church dance, when Dad saw my Mom in her new dress, he asked for a dance and never let her go. This was in the big band era and kids of all ages knew the pleasures of dancing in the arms of your beloved. There must have been magic in that green taffeta gown and it lasted the rest of their lives, through hundreds of dances and the rearing of 10 children, until he passed on.

Mom and dad met at a holiday church dance and never stopped dancing. Courtesy of Skip Hellewell

Mom still has a great love for Christmas, it’s her favorite season. She puts all her energy into making it special, sending cards and gifts to well over 100 descendants. I’ve been wondering what to get her for a gift this Christmas. I think maybe a green taffeta gown. She might want to wear it when she next sees Dad. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]

Share this:
View Our User Comment Policy


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here