There’s a saying that every Texan has two hometowns: their own, and San Antonio. I was blessed to have been born and raised in my beloved city of San Antonio. To witness so many SA Christmases as a child was magical.
Herewith are my memories of a San Antonio, Texas Christmas….
You knew Christmas was coming 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 a thick green Christmas tree. Huge colored foil boxes of gifts and balls would be hung as ornaments & colorful strands of Christmas lights would flow from the top to bottom of the tree. It was crowned with a huge white blinking 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 & Commerce streets & its thoroughfares large white snowflakes hung above the streets from the utility poles with green garland. The streets would twinkle at night.
The Transit Tower crown was lit in green & red announcing Christmas was near. That was my favorite building, reminded me of Gotham City in the Superman comics. During the preparation for Hemisfair 68′ after school I’d go on the open air observation deck and watch the construction of our city’s world’s fair.
The huge jolly red cheeked Santa sitting on a chimney sat atop the roof of Joske’s waving at every boy & girl in Alamo plaza. That was my personal Santa waving just at me! Joske’s Santa was this kid’s official trademark of a San Antonio Christmas. Joske’s window displays were all aglow in the Christmas spirit. The window facing Alamo plaza had a running model train inviting everyone to Fantasyland. Imaginations came alive in Fantasyland, it was the Christmas Disneyland of San Antonio. And the thrill to get in line and sit on Santa’s lap & taking a picture with him!
St. Michael’s, St. Mary’s, St. Joseph’s & San Fernando Cathedral with the aroma of fresh cut evergreens all had a side altar adorned with Christmas trees and at the base was the stable of Bethlehem. Statues of Blessed Mother, Joseph, angels, shepherds, the three wise guys, sheep, camels & cows were in place, all facing the manger, awaiting the Child that would be born on Christmas day.
All the stores downtown had their best merchandise displayed with Christmas themes. National Shirt Shops would display what seemed to me, to be the world’s largest bottle of English Leather cologne, atop it’s wooden box. I wanted the box for my toy soldiers! The mysterious angelic lady playing the organ at Frost’s Bros, was she from heaven? Even the facade of Tony’s Mirror Shine was framed with blinking Christmas lights with the strong scent of shoe polish and Solox as you passed by.
I loved the five & dime stores, walking in from the cold as you caught the scent of fresh hot popcorn. Kress had a table with small boxes of colorful tin wind up Japanese Santas riding on a bike with a bell. Although I could never afford one, I would play with them in the store. I’d wind them up and see how many I could get going till the sales clerk would run me off. Eighteen Santas going at the same time in circles with bells ringing was my record!
The jukebox at the Coney Island played “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” by Bing Crosby as I would munch on a steaming 15 cent Coney Island hot dog and a bottled Dr. Pepper. I’d always sit at the table by the foggy window, I had a clear shot of the sidewalk and the Empire theater. I’d people watch. So many men and women of the armed forces would pass by. Downtown San Antonio was their Christmas.
There was one store I just can’t remember its name, they had a lifesize mechanical Santa outside it’s doors welcoming everybody. As a young child I thought he was real and would just gaze up at him from his kneecaps and talk to him and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. I think it may have been Penners on West Commerce St., with those shiny orange Stacy Adams in their display window.
If it was too cold, Mom & I would hop the San Antonio Transit System’s “Shoppers Special” bus for only a nickle. Mom knew where all the sales were and besides she had to take her summer layaways out. She was the Queen of layaways!
Every year Mom and I would add to our humble Christmas ornament collection. At Solo Serve on Soledad St., 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 calzónes (underwear) and socks for 10 cents each. She had clipped the coupon from Wednesday’s 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 the world’s smallest machine made tamale and a Coca Cola in a paper cone cup for only 15 cents. You could smell the steamy tamales as the lady opened the table top porcelain steamer oven. It was a delicious appetizer before we went home on the Nolan bus with all our Christmas goodies.
We received Christmas cards, many in Spanish, printed in bold letters — “Feliz Navidad”. I always wondered who this guy Felix Navidad was and why he sent us so many cards. Was he Mom’s secret friend?
On Christmas Eve, Dad & I would go to Handy Andy on East Houston street. The Christmas tree lot would be nearly empty and bare. Dad would offer 75 cents for a 4 ft Christmas tree that was priced for $2. That’s all that was in his humble budget. Rather than to chunk it, the tree vendor would agree to Dad’s offer. I was so proud to have gone with my Dad and helped pick out our tree. On the way home I’d sit in the back seat of our 1956 Dodge Coronet holding and smelling our treasured Christmas tree.
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 12 Christmas lights and a finishing touch of last years foil icicles that Mom had saved. With the tree decorated & lit, Mom would then take out the stable & I would carefully place the Bethlehem action figures in place.
We lived in a strip mall at the corner of Nolan & Pine streets, half the rented space was Dad’s barbershop & the back half was our tiny humble two room home, not even a studio. On the night before Christmas I would go into the barbershop and 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 the cork lined bottle cap and cookie crumbs were left on the plate. One Christmas, Santa left me a Mosler toy steel safe complete with combination & alarm that Mom got with 2 1/2 books of Top Value stamps that she had collected that year. Proudly, I still have that metal safe.
Christmas day I would serve Mass at St. Mary’s Church. Fr. Isidore Garcia, OMI, a baby priest fresh out of the Oblate seminary would preside. Fr. Garcia was a dedicated priest, everyone thought the world of him, he was this kid’s best friend. I always wondered what priests got for Christmas, black shirts?
Fr. Garcia was ordained a priest on December 21,1964. Through the years, Fr. Garcia and I have kept in touch. He is in San Antonio, retired, still active and serves Mass throughout the city where he is needed. He resides in a cottage at the Oblate School of Theology. Thank you Father Garcia for being my friend and a wonderful priest.
We were poor growing up, but somehow Mom and Dad sacrificed to send my brother Sonny and I to Catholic schools. I now realize our 24/7 Christmas presents were our parents; Joseph and Carmen Melendrez.
Thank you Mom & Dad for all the San Antonio Christmases you gave to your sons.
Merry Christmas my beloved San Antonio. Cherish your family.
And Feliz Navidad to Felix Navidad!
A San Antonio Christmas forever in my heart.
Rick Melendrez, is a native of San Antonian. Melendrez considers himself fortunate to have been born in San Antonio, just 3 blocks from the San Antonio de Valero mission (the Alamo) at the former Nix hospital on the riverwalk and to have attended Catholic grade school on the southside and on the riverwalk.
Catholic education is very close to his heart. Melendrez attended St. Michaels for five years (1960-65) and then attended St. Mary’s School on the riverwalk (1965-68) and onto Cathedral high school in El Paso, Texas.
He is the former publisher of the El Paso Citizen newspaper and former chairman of the El Paso County Democratic Party. He writes a page on Facebook titled “Sister Mary Ruler, Growing Up Catholic In San Antonio”. Everyone is invited to read about the San Antonio of the 1960’s.
Melendrez resides in El Paso, Texas and forever carries wonderful memories of San Antonio.