A bolillo’s memory of Christmas in Laredo: tamales, fireworks, red cowboy boots, and my own record player

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A famous Christmas tale begins, “One Christmas was so much like the other, …that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Dylan Thomas’ Wales will never be confused with Laredo, much less the Welsh poet and me, but we have in common the experience of all our childhood Christmases being much like every other. Like Thomas, I can never remember whether it was 90 degrees on December 25th when I was six or fifteen years old. Weather Underground’s online archive quickly set me straight: they both were.

That was the thing about Laredo winter weather.

It really wasn’t winter in any conventional sense. The average temperature on Christmas Day during my eighteen-year Laredo childhood was highs of 70, overnight lows, 48. Those Christmases were all “Home on the Range, where the skies are not cloudy all day.” Let’s just call it mild, — or perfect! Especially compared to the days of 10 above, nights of 15 below, and the three feet of snow I barely survived in four New England Decembers.

Someone reminded me that Laredo’s 1983 Christmas Day set a record with a very cold by any standard 14 degrees. Lucky for me, I wasn’t there to help my parents clean up the watery mess from the uninsulated, frozen, split, and thawed water pipes someone ran through the attic of their new house in Belmont when the Building Code Inspector wasn’t looking.

Christmas afternoons were for heading over to the old Blessed Sacrament basketball/tennis court on Mier Street between the church and the school. Levi’s, tee shirt, and Converse All Stars were basketball gear in that weather, and there would always be four or five brand new rubber basketballs to break in on the court in the warm sunshine.

For several years in a row during the mid-60s, an itinerant roller rink arrived in December and set up its hardwood floor under a big tent on a vacant lot just down the street from Blessed Sacrament, on the corner of Bartlett and Guadalupe. During the Christmas season there were usually school friends to be found skating there to the tunes of the Top-40 records playing through the rink’s PA system. There was no “Hokey-Pokey” that I can remember, but then it may well be one of those mercifully forgotten nightmares. Every hour or so there would be a push-your-squatting-partner race with a free additional hour of skating for the winners, and those I remember with a smile of retrospective pleasure.

Unlike my Catholic friends, I had few Christmas religious activities to attend at First Baptist Church. No Advent, Immaculate Conception, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, misa de gallo, and none of the other traditions like Las Posadas from Mexican culture. My Christmas observances were very low-key and private in comparison.

The First Baptist Church across from St. Peter’s Plaza until 1962 did not indulge in popular Christmas traditions that might distract the faithful from prayer and Scripture reading, so my family didn’t either. Sure, we did have decorated Christmas trees with wrapped packages underneath, a nativity scene on the mantle above the gas heater in the living room, a poinsettia or two, a snow globe you turned over to see the snow you’d never seen before fall on the little village that didn’t look at all like South Texas, the mesmerizing brass contraption whose vanes spun in the rising heat of the four candles lit in the ring below, cookies with red and green sugar sprinkles, and Christmas carols on KVOZ.

Although no disrespect was shown to Santa Claus, the fact that he was a ‘saint’ diminished his standing in a Protestant family heir to the Reformation’s 500-year campaign against the veneration of saints, and I was taught that devotion to saints was just a step away from polytheistic idolatry. In my Baptist family, the celebration of Christmas had its spiritual high point with each of us taking turns reading aloud the Bethlehem narrative in the King James’ Bible’s magnificent 17th century English.

And then there were the other traditions.

The secular ones.

Dinners on Christmas day were fancier versions of our everyday lunches. Some of the foods, like the canned pitted black olives, pickled beets, and celery ribs served in the fancy glass, partitioned serving dish, were holiday-only fare, but the mashed potatoes with gravy, the canned green beans, roasted beef, the lettuce and tomato salad with McCormick’s Italian Salad Dressing mix drizzled on it, and a pineapple upside down cake for dessert were not uncommon fare.

The silverware though was Christmas-only, as were the china place settings and the cut-glass goblets for water. My mom never served water at our meals. For me it was always milk, and my parents drank iced tea except for the three or four cold days of my Laredo childhood, when they drank coffee. Christmas dinner was different. I suppose the iced tea and milk didn’t look right in that cut glass.

There were guests occasionally, and we were invited other people’s houses once in a while, but my memory is mainly of just the three of us in the Clouse nuclear (which my dad always pronounced “nucular,” just like Homer Simpson and a recent President) family, the father-tron, mother-tron, and quarky-son.

And no account of Laredo Navidad would be complete if it were to omit the seasonal tamale.

My mother had been trained in the traditions of Southern American cooking, and she could fry chicken, make grits, bake cakes, …and overcook vegetables with the best of them. No question of making tamales in her kitchen on Garfield Street. The industrial-scale production of intergenerational tamaladas was something I only knew about from December visits to friends’ houses. The Anglo sector of Laredo society approached Mexican cuisine in a variety of ways, with some all-in, others with a certain hesitance bred of capsaicin intolerance, and others who left the cooking entirely up to the criada or a chef like Señor Briseño at the Acapulco Café. Hence the quality of the Mexican cuisine varied widely.

But even Anglo Laredoans were unanimous in appreciating the local version of the Christmas tamale and looked forward to Advent, if not as a spiritual season, certainly as a culinary one. Yeary’s, where my father worked for forty-five years, had a Christmas party every year on an evening just before the days off for the holiday. The extended families of employees came, and I did, too. Christmas bonuses and wrapped gifts for children were presented.

The Yeary’s Christmas Party’s main attraction for me at least, was the tamales that were all served with frijoles and ensalada on paper plates in the front of the store.

On the evening of these parties my dad and I would go by the tamale factory (no other word does it justice) on the east side of Zacate Creek to pick up five large, still hot from steaming metal cannisters filled with tamales. How many were in each one? Ten dozen? Too many to count.

I know that besides the family tamaladas, there were several such businesses in Laredo to supply the demand for tamales at Christmas events. The older woman entrepreneur, who today would be called a caterer, had a an outbuilding behind her small house where a staff of five or six women produced their masterpieces in a cloud of steam and the complex aroma of moist hojas de maíz and mouth-watering spices. My dad paid in cash, how much I have no idea, and I’d help carry the cans out to the blue Dodge pickup to haul downtown to the party. The orders were planned with left-overs factored in, and I enjoyed the world’s greatest tamales breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of the Christmas holidays.

Lebkuchen, krumkake, bûche de Noël, turrón, and all the other traditional Christmas foods of the world are fine in their way, but let’s be honest: tamales are unsurpassed and unsurpassable. Christmas without tamales? Now that is a “War on Christmas!”

Male contemporaries reading this account will out me as a fraud, if I fail to mention the omnipresence of fireworks among us. So, in hopes of maintaining my credibility of my memory, I turn to those days of yore when Laredo had only one significant import from China, okay, in those days of Chairman Mao, it would be more accurate to say, from Hong Kong and Macau: fireworks.

Christmas always meant that fireworks stands had been set up around the edges of town. Was it because there was a municipal ordinance banning the sale of fireworks within the city limits? I don’t know.

At the vendors, we boys had an irresistible temptation to squander all our earnings, allowances, and gifts, sending our money literally up in smoke. But with the great value of loud noises and flashing lights! There were also sparklers for sale at the stands, but until the late-60’s vogue for altered perceptions and enhanced experience, none of us could see the point of something that did not explode or make a loud noise.

The unindicted co-conspirators and I were great fans of Black Cat firecrackers, bottle rockets, and Roman candles. Of course, cherry bombs in their triangular newspaper shapes had been for sale year-round at the Mercado Maclovio Herrera, but most of our parents, jealous of our eyesight and continuing decadactylism, wouldn’t let us have them. Readers who remember the exploding toilet demolitions in the Nixon High boys’ restroom, now legendary exploits that instantly elevated the perpetrators in the Juvenile Delinquent Hall of Fame, know that the explosives powerful enough to accomplish that mission had to have been acquired across the river, rather than at the fireworks stands de este lado.

All of us seemed to have a burning punk in our hands every evening from the beginning of December until after New Year’s Day. How many exploding devises were built, from the empty tin can with a single Black Cat under it to the larger projects that exploded citrus fruits and homemade paper airplane bombers!

Standing around in vacant lots with a pocket full of firecrackers and a smoking punk, or later on with a cigarette, what would a boy do? Well, wait until, say, Stuart Temple let down his guard and throw a lighted firecracker at his feet to see how high he jumps, of course! Although I heard cruel tales of Black Cats tied to neighbors’ cats’ tails, I never witnessed this atrocity first-hand.

One Christmas we took the bottle rocket to another level of weaponry by mounting a foot-long piece of copper tubing on a crude wooden pistol stock. We’d leave the end of the rocket hanging from the tube far enough to light the fuse, then quickly lift the improvised barrel in the air so it would slide back down into it and take aim. This rocket pistol was great fun, if you remembered not to take aim. Several of us had the experience of singed eyebrows and sooty faces from the burning gunpowder spewing out the back of the barrel we aimed too carefully. We soon learned to turn our faces away when firing the rocket pistol. Accuracy was never the most important thing anyway.

This ingenious contraption was primarily used to shock and awe holiday-spirited motorists driving up and down Arkansas, as we fired across the busy avenue just ahead of or behind them. There were any number of quick retreats out the back of the vacant lot pursued by “bah, humbug!” drivers upset by our Christmas exuberance, and we scurried to safety laughing around to darkness at the back of Chic-E-Lin’s.

There were gifts from distant relatives and local friends for me and my parents under the pitifully bedraggled month’s old fir tree trucked in all the way from Oregon and set up in the living room. We opened these gifts on Christmas Eve. For Christmas morning and the Santa Claus conspiracy, I did have a decorated, large red felt sock my grandmother made for me, which was hung from the mantel in the living room every night before Christmas “when not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Waking up early on Christmas morning, I’d find smaller things left by Santa in the stocking during the night. Once I found a tiny spy camera made in Japan in the stocking, but after exposing the little roll of film that came with it in a rush on Christmas Day, I discovered that Studer’s in San Antonio wouldn’t develop it. It was my first single-use camera. Maybe if I’d had an address for the CIA in Virginia, I could have mailed the film off to them for developing.

One year, probably 1952, when I was three years old, my indulgent grandfather, Dan Coleman, went overboard and had Santa Claus bring me a pair of red cowboy boots and a little pedal-powered car someone my size could sit in and ‘drive.’ Obviously, they were not in the stocking hung from the mantel, but I didn’t mind the myth-busting logistical compromise.

The car was a semi-success. After two out-of-control roller coaster rides down the slope of the driveway and out into the street, my mother had the car impounded in the back yard, where, since there was no paved surface, and I had to find alternative ways to enjoy a car that just sat there motionless.

The red boots were an unmitigated disaster. The first problem was that I took such a fancy to them, no one could get them off my feet, even at bedtime. The second was that the next day I woke up sick with the boots still on. Dr. Malakoff made one of his famous house calls, and when the boots were pulled off, and the red-stained socks and feet were revealed, the beloved, cigar-chewing doctor diagnosed the illness as an allergic reaction to red leather dye. He was right: an hour after getting those boots off and washing my red feet clean, I was cured. Even in the fashion victim 60s and 70s I’ve never again worn red shoes or boots.

Those Christmas trees would be dismantled soon after December 25th, and they were collected by the Garfield-Mier Gang to make forts in vacant lots. Those piles of trees desiccated from weeks of travel and standing in warm, dry houses, were quite a fire hazard. Especially with all the fireworks and pilfered cigarettes we were puffing. At least once the LFD had to race over, sirens blaring, to douse the burning forts. Our parents had frank discussions with us about the new permanent ban on Christmas tree forts.

Looking back from the Olympian perspective of fifty-five years later, the most memorable Christmas gift of my childhood was a portable record player in a wood box that I got in 1962. Unlike the twenty-year-old cabinet console in the living room we’d had forever, my little record player played all three speeds: 78, 45, and 33.3 rpm. My parents had ancient — in both technology and fashion!— ten-inch 78 records in their unlabeled brown paper sleeves, Tommy Dorsey and WWII Big Band antiquities, Perry Como, Christian music by George Beverly Shea, and so forth, that could be played on the multifunction furniture-sized radio-record player in the living room, but why?

The new record player would play the pop music 45’s that were playing on KTSA.

My new record player had a small plastic adapter to put on the spindle, so the 7” vinyl record with the 1-1/2” center hole would stay centered. Once I misplaced the adapter and tried to center the record on the turntable without it. It was what we would now call an epic fail. The record immediately swerved off center, with the needle yawing off the track, scratching the record, and ruining the needle.

But those 45 records were the vehicle for our generation’s music throughout the 60s. Their 4-1/2 minute maximum playing time forced musicians to concentrate their genius in creating those short Top-40 classics. It was those seven-inch 45’s that filled the jukeboxes we listened to at Lamar Jr. High Noon Dancing and at restaurants like Town N’ Country. The airwaves rocked with their quick tracks beginning with a hook and racing through three verses.

When Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” came out just three years later, in the summer of ‘65, its six-minute length was an unprecedented innovation. The longer track took rock n’ roll into completely new musical forms. There were beautiful innovations and an equal —or greater, alas— number of self-indulgent, druggy long tracks that many of us in our generation would prefer to forget, as for example, how many times we listened to Crimes Against Music like the 17 minutes of  “Inna Gadda Da Vida.”

There was no way to imagine that the little record player, which started out playing the three 45’s I bought at ABC Music Store with Christmas money my grandfather gave me, “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Telstar,” would have a serviceable life long enough to play The Byrds’ “8 Miles High,” and The White Album.

Music changed very quickly between Christmas of 1962 and Christmas of 1968.

As we all did.

Even if, like Dylan Thomas, we can’t remember exactly which Christmas was the one when… (you fill in the blank,) the Christmases of our childhood are memories, now perhaps sentimentalized by nostalgia for all that has vanished, memories that we can’t seem to avoid revisiting whenever we watch a child open a present or unwrap with anticipated delight a proper – that is to say, made in Laredo — tamale.

Merry Christmas, amigos.

Feliz Navidad, old friends.

One thought on “A bolillo’s memory of Christmas in Laredo: tamales, fireworks, red cowboy boots, and my own record player

  1. Danny,

    I love reading your stories of our childhood in Laredo. My sisters and I also enjoyed lighting black cats (even though we were expected to be satisfied with sparklers). And the tamaladas were always a part of the Christmas tradition that I remember with nostalgia.
    Thanks for reminding us all where we came from. 🙂