Back Story

Christmas in the mid-1950s was a magical time full of beauty, wonder and suspense, and like most American children, I enjoyed the traditions of the season. One, however, stands out in my memory: the annual Oak Cliff Woman’s Club Christmas Pilgrimage.

Being young, I naturally correlated the word “pilgrimage” with, obviously, the Pilgrims. You know, those guys from Thanksgiving. The Mayflower. Turkeys. November stuff. Christmas was Jesus, Santa Claus, decorated trees, stockings and presents! Why we went on a “pilgrimage” at Christmas was always a point of confusion. But I was only a kid, and in those days kids didn’t ask questions. We just followed orders.

A member of the Oak Cliff Woman’s Club, Mom was always excited about this annual event where she and the other members created, well, I guess they would be called holiday “arrangements”, along with tablecloths, stockings, napkins and potholders — Christmas anything. Judges awarded ribbons in the different categories, the most coveted being the “Grand Prize”.
Several club members, normally in Kessler Park, Stevens Park or Wynnewood North, volunteered their homes each December for the “pilgrimage”. Other members, guests and community folk purchased tickets for the event, and then drove around visiting the different homes displaying the entries. (Now I understand. This is where the “pilgrimage” thing came in.)

Mom and I would arrive at the first home shortly after dinner, greeted by the homeowner wearing a holiday dress or suit (often adorned with one of those then-popular artificial Christmas corsages), along with high heels, hose with seams down the back, and every hair in place. Visitors would roam from room to room, enjoying the entries and searching for the award ribbons. Then, it was on to the next house on the “pilgrimage”.

There was every sort of glitz and glam that one could imagine, using every size of Styrofoam ball manufactured — most covered with sequins and beads, and many encompassed within silver and gold sprayed branches, candles, containers, poinsettias, greenery, felt and angel hair. You name it; they used it. Almost any flat surface in these houses was adorned with one of the various creations. Believe me, no available spot went unused.

There was, however, one place in the house that, to this day, I still scratch my head about. And every year I would drive to the event with my mother, wondering if this particular spot would again hold one of the beautiful arrangements or crafts. That place, you ask? The top of the toilet tank!

Bathroom vanity tops, normally with mirrors behind them, were ideal. The reflections showed the back of the arrangements beautifully, doubling the effect. Perfectly sensible. But the toilet tank? Even as a child I didn’t understand it. Christmas décor on top of the toilet? It just didn’t make sense. 

The home of Donna Gaffney Libby’s parents, at 1438 Alaska, was one of the host houses around 1955. “I don’t remember how many days prior to the event that decorations had to be in place,” Libby says, “but it seemed to go on forever, and every new decoration [that arrived] was more beautiful than the previous one.”

“With only one small bathroom in the house, I think Mother mentioned bathing at a neighbor’s when it was really necessary,” says Libby, South Oak Cliff class of ’65.  “And I remember Daddy muttering under his breath at times about hoping we didn’t ever have to do this again.”

According to Libby, a mirror was cut to fit down into their bathtub in order to create a frozen pond with ice skaters and a village scene. “Another decoration had three eggshells that represented my folks and me,” Libby adds. “Mine had my ponytail; Mother, her chignon; and Daddy, his bald head.”

Donna Libby and I recently had lunch. We reminisced about the bygone days and wholeheartedly agreed, and laughed, about those toilet tank decorations. Neither of us, however, decided to rush home and whip up something similar for our own bathrooms this Christmas. Somehow, it still just doesn’t seem quite right.

We hope our mothers would understand.

The Oak Cliff Woman’s Club Clubhouse is located at 3555 W. Kiest.   

Gayla Brooks Kokel can date her neighborhood heritage back to 1918, when her father was born in what was then called Eagle Ford. She was born at Methodist Hospital and graduated from Kimball High School. Kokel is one of three co-authors of the recently published book, “Images of America: Oak Cliff”, and writes a monthly history column for the Oak Cliff Advocate. Send her feedback and ideas to gkokel@advocatemag.com.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.
  • Billie

    Does anyone know Ruth McCaffrey or Joan Stefanki. I think they went to Adamson. I met them when I moved to Dallas in 1949 and lived with my sister in an apartment at 1245 N. Bishop.

  • Gwen Thompson Taylor

    Gayle,
    Great article. It brings back wonderful memories. I too was born at Methodist and graduated from Kimball. You have a great memory and you can bring back those memories I cherish.
    Thanks for the article.
    Gwen

  • Amy Cloninger Cunningham

    I remember those Pilgrimages! My mother and my aunt, and most of their friends belonged to the Women’s Club and the Christmas event was a must for us. My cousin and I loved poking into the bathrooms you describe. When she and I cleaned out my aunt’s house after her death we found, in a back corner of her attic, a 2 foot tall wooden Christmas tree still decorated with pink bunches of ragged net and silver balls (well, mostly still silver) that was part of her contribution to an annual pilgrimage. It may have, unnoticed, just gotten shoved further and further toward the back behind the dolls and old National Geographics – but I think she saved it for the memories. Thanks for the article.
    Amy

  • Joanna (Barrett) Robertson

    Gayla…
    Your article was priceless, as was your book that I ran all over town looking for!! I love how you sweep up the memories and share them with us who have them tied up in cobwebs of the brain. Yes, we too had the red & green crochet toilet tank & lid covers. Was it was necessary to decorate the toilet was always beyond me. The crochet angel took a dive one year into the bowl..bless her soul. Thanks again for sharing your wonderful, warm memories. And may you continue to make memories for years to cherish.
    Merry Christmas..Joanna (Barrett) JFKimball Class of ’66

  • Bitsey Ker Loy

    Gayla, Jon sent this to me and oh how familiar all of that is. Mom decorated everything. Nothing was left uncovered. Whenever she would sit down she had a abox of sequins, beads, braid and felt making Christmas decorations. We always had something on the back of the toilet. As do I today and so do my four children. Ah, tradition. Thanks for the memories. Bitsey

  • Paula Craig

    Dear Gayla, I didn’t just laugh. I cackled. I remember Mother’s energy and enthusiasm. She had a big round glass bowl as a centerpiece full of water and moth balls into which she put epsom salts? or something and it made the moth balls go up and down like tiny snowballs. We were very impressed.
    We didn’t have Rooms to Go. We had Rooms to Stay (and be loved in). May you have a Christmas ’09 full of joy and wonderful memories, Paula Craig

  • Susan Jones

    Gayla,

    You are so talented and gifted and have such a wonderful memory. I appreciate your writings and look forward to many more. Have a Blessed Christmas! May you New Year be full of Blessings and surprises!

    Love to you,
    Susan Jones

  • Vicki Porter

    Gayla,
    What a wonderful stroll down memory lane with you. Having grown up in West Texas, I still remember when my mother and my aunts would spray tumble weeds with artificial snow and make snowmen out of them or decorate them with ornaments. We were so lucky to grow up in such a special time. I enjoyed your article so much and I am so proud of you. You’re a very talented writer.

    I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas and a bright New Year.

    Raider Babe,
    Vicki Porter

  • Jon R. Ker

    Gayla,

    I love the trips with you down Memory Lane! Now that I have grandkids, I count it unfortunate that the children of today will not have these kind of fond memories we enjoy from our own childhood. Times were different then and I miss them.

  • Peggy Laster Samford

    You definitely made me think about the decorations that we enjoyed every Christmas. Before the days of flocked trees, Mother whipped up some “snow” with soap flakes and painted it on the tips of the tree. She still has decorations that have little bits of yellowed “soap snow” on them. Henry’s aunts were the queens of crochet and had the crochet toilet paper doll covers sitting on their toilet tank lid. They, of course, changed with the seasons, but there was definitely a red and green doll for the holidays. Complete with the “pre-Barbie” plastic doll head.
    Good memories! Makes me wonder what our kids will remember about growing up in the commercialized 70’s and 80’s.

  • Suanne Carr Blalock

    Great work Gayla! I remember my mother always decorated the bathroom. A Santa on the sink or a jolly old elf on the toilet tank. I never thought it was strange either but , hey, I STILL decorate my bathrooms today! I may put something on the toilet tank! You may have started a new trend!!!

  • Cookie Rowe

    Gayla-

    As always you have a nack for good things remembered.

    I too remember those pilgrimages. Tank top covers. My Mom had an angel that was always the center. She was covered with white feathers and I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen! Aprons, potholders, towels,etc were always part of Christmas.

    My sister-in-law reminds me alot of those days. She decorates for days and that includes every room. Toilet tank top included. What a joy to visit their home at Christmas. No apron, but towels, potholders, and of course Christmas dishes.

    Thanks for all the memories and have a Happy Holiday.

    Cookie Rowe

  • mickey

    Gayla-This is wonderful! Your article tweaked lots of memories associated with Christmas decorations while I was growing up. Have a wonderful, Merry Christmas!

  • Mark Smythe

    Hey Gayla, great article! I talked to my sister Susan after I read your article and we both remember well going to those homes for the Christmas Pilgrimage. Susan enjoyed them and I was always in wonder of how we knew all of those “rich people”. I also remember very well being told by my mother ” Don’t touch anything!!!” I also remember on one “pilgrimage” being quite upset cause I was missing an episode of Cheyenne. Oh well, again, great article and like the great Bob Hope would say—Thanks For The Memories. Mark Smythe

  • Linda Wells Nelson

    I still put out one of mother’s decorations that she made – “hidden” in a corner in our bedroom. Helps to remember those good times.

    Of course if she is with me for Christmas, she always wants to know why it isn’t in a more prominent place!!

    Enjoyed the article.

    Have a happy holiday.

  • Lynda Kokel

    Gayla, you have such a gift with words!!! Your words take me back to a time when glitter and sequins was glam to the max!!! Now, we buy everything at Hobby Lobby already made and all we have to do is plop it down and feel so proud of our great accomplishments. I know our home ends up looking like the green and red fairies flew thru our home and waved their little wands until every surface was completely covered in those 2 colors!!! Any other time of the year I would think it totally tacky…but during the Christmas season…it looks just perfect to me!!! I do believe our home gives Hobby Lobby a run for their money!!! Of course, a lot of our money went to Hobby Lobby!!! The amazing thing is that each year we still go there and add new items to our home…where we put it is beyond me. It seems we always use what we had the year before and we thought at that time that we couldn’t possible stick another red or green item into another place. When Terry asks me where I am going to put our newest purchase…I just smile and tell him “DON’T WORRY…I WILL FIND A PLACE”. And I always do!!!

  • sue benson

    So cute, Gayla. Thanks for sending that. Now that I think about it, I do believe my Mom was also guilty of creating a toilet tank Christmas decoration or two!!!!

  • Julia Laxson

    Gayla – Another great article. I used to think those glittery styrofoam balls with toothpicks sticking out of them were the most beautiful decorations in the world.

  • Roiannna Grigsby

    My mother made candles every year at Christmas time. She would take a 1/2 gallon milk carton and cut the top off. Then she would place chipped ice cubes in the carton. Next she poured melted candle wax into the carton. It quickly “set” around the ice. After cutting off the carton, and whipping more candle wax, she would pat on the whipped wax and have a beautiful candle. When the wick was lit, the light filtered through the holes left by the ice.

    Thanks for your article. It brought back great memories.

    Roianna

  • Vivian

    Gayla,

    Your story reminded me of so many things — none of which I ever saw in my own home! My mom was a working mom when working moms weren’t common, and she was definitely not in to crafting. But my next door neighbor had the knack. She had a Santa Claus apron, covered in sequins, which she had made herself. Do you remember fish made of soap bars? The oval shaped bars were covered in tulle, which was gathered at one end to make a tail. Eyes were, of course, large sequins. Somehow these could be mounted on the bathroom wall! You needed a “school” of at least three. And then there were molded sugar eggs at Easter, with the little scenes inside.

    Here’s the question: how did these women have so much TIME, in the pre-dishwasher, pre-microwave age???

    Viv

  • Virginia Mehaffie

    Gayla,
    Although you were not one of “mine” during the days I was teaching English at Kimball in the 1960’s, I was pleased to see samples of your writing when I ran across the Oak Cliff Advocate. I do remember you as a pretty and poised young woman, and I am always happy to see the successes of a Kimball Knight. I also remember Eagle Ford, as I grew up in Cockrell Hill, another lower-income area of southwest Oak Cliff/Dallas. Keep up the good work, and my best to you.