Every year, with Christmas near, I travel on a train of thought – back through decades of time – to Dallas and my childhood home, Buckner Orphans Home. If only in memory, I rejoin a family of 600 brothers and sisters and relive a season of yuletide joy. From toddlers to teenagers, we were happy, fortunate kids all year long, blissfully rich orphans when Buckner hosted Christmas.
Age old traditions at Buckner made one Christmas resemble another, yet all were delightfully different. Dinner in the Manna Hall on Christmas Day was delicious and filling, but less thrilling than a Christmas Eve ceremony in the auditorium. A merry celebration was crowned by the grand onstage arrival of Santa Claus who brought a uniquely bound package of presents for every child in the audience.
Santa was known as the giver of gifts, but truth being more marvelous than myth, the real Santa was a composite entity of benevolent Baptist groups, individuals, and businesses. Thanks to those kind and caring donors, storage areas were filled with toys, clothing, books, sporting goods, packaged food, and other acceptable items.
Preparation for Christmas Eve began early in December under the watchful eyes of the deans of boys and girls. Dormitory matrons had the rewarding task of choosing an assortment of presents for the children in their charge. Selected items – without wrappings, ribbons, bows, or cards – were securely tied to a long, name tagged string. The package thus formed was fondly known as a Christmas String. This quaint custom, its origin lost in the Home’s long history, minimized litter on campus and simplified assembly, storage, and distribution of presents. Strings were personalized by carefully selecting items that satisfied a child’s needs, hobbies, and interests. Matrons of the younger grade schoolers had the added pleasure of granting wishes expressed in Dear Santa letters. With hundreds of children to please, the time consuming process resulted in a race to beat calendar and clock.
At last, a giant fir tree was erected on the auditorium stage and decorated with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. Christmas Strings were then arranged in orderly groups on stage, in wings, and dressing rooms. Deadlines met and stage set, the curtains were closed. Young clock watchers eagerly monitored the final hour of countdown. Anxious kids lined up two abreast outside their dorms and moved in sequential formations to the auditorium. Girls and boys filed into the huge meeting place through opposite side doors and took their seats on hardwood pews. Activities began with an opening prayer and Christmas message. Seasonal songs were sung by the church choir, soon joined by the audience. A reverent blessing ended formalities, then a hungry hush fell upon the room. On cue, house lights dimmed. All eyes focused on the dark stage.
Suddenly, Shazam! A bearded fat man wearing a red flannel suit materialized center stage in the beam of a bright spotlight shouting Ho-Ho-Ho! He waved to a multitude of screaming children. Adding to that exciting moment, the long curtains slowly opened. Wide-eyed, breathless kids beheld the dazzling beauty of a sparkling tree and colorful pyramids of wonderful things. Santa Claus and dozens of helpers delivered Christmas Strings. Youthful hands tore at a maze of twine, untangling gifts. Santa slipped away to his dressing room, removing his beard and red suit. The jolly fat man was transformed into the paternal dean of boys who returned to a throng of happy children.
Written by Mack Greathouse.
About the Picture: The above photo was taken in the late 1950s at Buckner Orphans Home in Dallas. The setting is the chapel on the campus of the home, where church services were held each week and where Christmas was celebrated with traditions that included the arrival of Santa Claus and the “Christmas String,” a collection of gifts tied together by a string. Christmas also included the Buckner Orphans Home children’s choir singing carols and favorite songs of the season.