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.

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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.)

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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.”

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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.