My childhood included a lot of moving from house to house. At one point we moved into a house that belonged to another family and shared it with them for a time.
Let’s see: Six kids in my family. Three kids in the other family. Nine children, between the ages of five and 13. Plus four adults. In one little house. How that worked out, I do not know. We children probably didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was just another family adventure to live through.
But somehow we all got along.
My father loved to sing. He’d turn up the radio or his record player, take my hand, and dance with me while he sang. Music was a daily part of life in my household. One year someone came up with the idea of showcasing our talent in the form of the children Christmas caroling down State Street. It was the main street in town, famous for stopping Highway 101 traffic with its stop lights and people walking to the beach. On State Street we would find basics like Woolworth with its lunch counter, Ott’s Hardware, Kress Five and Dime, Joe’s Cafe, and the store where Dad tested his TV tubes.
When the sun set, the store employees locked up and went home. The lamps came on and the Street became a place to take a stroll, find a movie, or drive down to the pier. The shop window lights were bright enough to show off their displays and give the looker a reason to return the next weekday.
Winter in Santa Barbara was warmer than most places, but I was still cold when we set out to carol that night. There were itchy blankets and cups of warm drinks in the back of the pickup truck where we huddled together.
The truck rolled down Kenwood Road and then Carrillo Hill, and we enjoyed the bumps and turns as if it were a Disneyland ride. When we reached State Street, the truck pulled over to the curb. There we shook off the cold and stood up in the truck bed. When we had taken our places, the truck began its parade.
It was the late Sixties, middle December, and early evening. We giggled and planned out the songs we would sing. My oldest sister Lynne led with the ability she had gained as a school Glee club member.
And what a sight: A family Christmas choir, nine black children, rolling down State Street, belting out carols like we were performing on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Jingle Bells. Silent Night. Away in a Manger.
Phillip was the youngest child of our friends, and he lived for the spotlight. His extra phrases and rude noises were ruining our carols as well as our attempt to look polished. The rest of us would try to keep our poise as Lynne hushed him and complained to our parents. But Phillip wouldn’t give in, and all our seriousness was soon lost in laughter.
Phillip was at his worst when we sang Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. He added an echo to the end of each line, which would have been fine if he had sung. Instead, Phillip gave us an obnoxious shout:
“…(us) had a very shiny nose (Phillip) NOSE, NOSE! … (us) you would even say it glowed (Phillip) GLOWED, GLOWED!”
It took one of my brother’s well-landed punches to make him stop.
O Come All Ye Faithful. Joy to the World. Little Drummer Boy.
Our audience was appreciative, from what we could tell. People stopped and stared as we helped our city celebrate Christmas. I heard what sounded like “Merry Christmas” being shouted our way, and the truck moved along after we returned the greeting.
Only too soon the caroling came to an end. The truck headed back up the hills and toward the house that we shared. The cold air kept us quiet. I looked up, saw the stars, and wondered if life could be any better.
We never again caroled down State Street in that old truck. What prompted my parents to take us that year? Maybe they wanted to share memories of their own: a boy in Arkansas, a girl in Ohio, who had parents doing their best to create a bit of Christmas joy.
We were living during a time when our country was struggling to reconcile racial issues, and my family was one of a handful of black families living in Santa Barbara. The truckload of us rolling down the street that night must have caused more than a few double-takes. Perhaps my parents were trying to convey something to our little town: “Peace on Earth … or at least let it start here.”
I’ll never know because I never asked. But the memory that remains for me is that we went out that night for no other purpose than to spread Christmas cheer with our singing.
And today, if you ask any of my siblings what they think of when they hear Rudolph, I guarantee you will hear Phillip’s name amidst their laughter.
Family, friends, the coming Christ, and childhood innocence — all packed into the back of a pickup truck.
I hope your Christmas is just as merry.