We knew the holiday season was upon us when, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, city workers would plant a huge wood utility pole with rebar in the shape of a Christmas tree across from the Alamo.

Day by day, evergreen branches would be stacked to form the tree. Huge colored foil boxes of gifts and glittering spheres would be hung as ornaments, and colorful strands of Christmas lights would flow from the top to bottom of the tree. It was crowned with a huge, blinking white star. As a kid, I always wondered what toys were wrapped in those gift boxes. I wanted to jump the white picket fence encircling the tree and snatch a box.

Along Houston and Commerce streets, large white snowflakes hung above the streets with green garland. The Transit Tower crown was lit in green and red announcing Christmas was near. The huge jolly, red-cheeked Santa sitting on a chimney atop the roof of Joske’s department store waved at every boy and girl in Alamo Plaza. Joske’s window displays were all aglow in the Christmas spirit, and the window facing Alamo Plaza always had a running train inviting everyone to Fantasyland.

All the stores had their best merchandise displayed with Christmas themes. Even the facade of Tony’s Mirror Shine was framed with blinking Christmas lights. National Shirt Shops would display what seemed to me to be the world’s largest bottle of English Leather cologne atop a wooden box. One store had a life-size mechanical Santa outside its doors welcoming everybody. As a kid, I thought he was real and would just gaze up at him from his kneecaps.

Mom and I would go downtown to add to our humble Christmas ornament collection. At Solo Serve on Soledad Street, the ornaments were loose and you would have to pick the good ones from the broken ones. Mom would also buy me irregular Fruit of the Loom calzones and socks for 10 cents each with a coupon clipped from the San Antonio Light.

But the best part of Solo Serve was going to the snack bar. It had no chairs, just stand-up counters. We’d enjoy a tiny machine-made tamale and a Coca Cola in a paper cone for only 15 cents. You could smell the steamy tamales as the lady opened the tabletop porcelain steamer oven. It was a delicious appetizer before we went home on the Nolan Street bus with all our Christmas goodies.

Every year we received Christmas cards, many in Spanish, with Feliz Navidad printed in bold letters. I always wondered who this guy Felix Navidad was and why he sent us so many cards.

On Christmas Eve, Dad and I would go to the Handy Andy grocery store on East Houston Street. The Christmas tree lot would be nearly empty and bare, and Dad would offer 75 cents for a four-foot Christmas tree that was priced for $2. That’s all that was in his modest budget. Rather than chunk it, the tree vendor would agree to Dad’s offer. On the way home I’d sit in the back seat of our 1956 Dodge Coronet with our treasured Christmas tree.

At home, my brother Sonny and I would get a tin coffee can, fill it with dirt and rocks, and “plant” the tree. Mom would get out the glass ornaments with a single strand of Christmas lights. With the tree decorated and lit, Mom would then take out the stable, and I would carefully place the Bethlehem figures in place.

Holiday lights with the Gibbs Building and the Rotary Club Christmas Tree in Alamo Plaza in the 1950s.
Holiday lights with the Gibbs Building and the Rotary Club Christmas Tree in Alamo Plaza in the 1950s. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections Instagram from the Zintgraff Studio Photographic Collection

We lived in a strip mall on Nolan Street. Half the rented space was Dad’s barber shop, and the back half was our humble two-room home. On the night before Christmas, I would go into the barber shop, crank open the Coke machine, and grab a cold 6-ounce bottle of Coke. I placed the Coke along with a plate of Mom’s homemade oatmeal cookies by the tree as a snack for Santa. In the morning when I awoke, the Coke bottle was empty and only cookie crumbs were left on the plate.

One Christmas, Santa left me a Mosler toy steel safe, complete with a combination and alarm, that Mom got with Top Value stamps. I still have that metal safe.

On Christmas day I would serve Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Father Isidore Garcia, a priest fresh out of the seminary, would preside. He was a genuine priest and my best friend. I always wondered what priests got for Christmas.

I recently received a surprise call from Father Garcia. He was concerned about me because of the surge of coronavirus in El Paso, where I now live. We spoke for over two hours, reminiscing about St. Mary’s and the downtown we knew back then.

After that conversation and trip down memory lane, I now realize our real Christmas presents were our parents, Joseph and Carmen Melendrez. We were poor growing up, but somehow Mom and Dad found a way to send Sonny and me to Catholic schools and managed to give us Christmas memories to cherish forever. Both my parents have passed away, but they live on in these and so many other memories.

This Christmas I think of them and of my hometown of San Antonio and wish everyone a Feliz Navidad.

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Rick Melendrez

Rick Melendrez grew up in San Antonio and was educated by the Sisters of Divine Providence. He lives in El Paso, where he works as a publicist and is writing a book titled "Sister Mary Ruler, Growing Up...