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She really did ride in a one-horse open sleigh
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From left, Joyce Shiffler and Joan Nixon, both residents of the Merrill Garden retirement community, shared memories of their Christmas past. - photo by VINCE REMBULAT

To borrow a few lyrics from ‘Jingle Bells,’ Joan Nixon took a ride “on a one-horse open sleigh” one Christmas season.

That was part of her glorious past. Nixon, 81, has been a resident of Merrill Gardens retirement community for the past three years. She and 87-year-old Joyce Shiffler reminisced about Christmas of yesteryear on Friday.

It’s here at Merrill Gardens that holidays today are often celebrated with the residents singing of carols, listening to music, and visiting nearby Dell’Osso Farms’ winter wonderland.

Both women are products of the Great Depression and World War II, two significant times in U.S. history. During the war effort, Nixon and Shiffler remembered relying on food stamp as part of their rations.

They were also happy just to receive small gifts of any kind in the 1930s during the Depression era.

“I once got a coloring book and crayons for Christmas, and I was happy,” said Nixon. “Of course, I was so young back then so it didn’t matter.”

O’er the fields we go, for her, was Lovelock, Nev., and the Lassen County town of Westwood.

“I miss the snow come this time of year” she said.

So does Shiffler, who has been at Merrill Garden since August. She grew up in Iowa, bouncing back and forth between the college town of Ames and the capital city of Des Moines. Shiffler, who recently called Colorado Springs home, became friends with Nixon following a recent field trip to San Francisco.

Prior to coming to the Manteca retirement community, she endured a tough year. Shiffler’s husband of many years passed away and she totaled her vehicle in a traffic mishap.

Her favorite memories come from time of year involved her three children.

They’re her reason for relocating to California.

Shiffler’s eldest daughter Debbie is at nearby Woodbridge at Del Webb, with a son, Sammy, in San Rafael and a 47-year-old daughter in Oakland.

Debbie, who is three years older than Sammy, was about 7 when she claimed to have seen Santa Claus riding in his sleigh. “Debbie had been looking out the car window during our drive (from Ames) to Des Moines,” Shiffler recalled.

Sammy, who was 5, believed otherwise. “He had been told by other kids that there was no Santa,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nixon is aware of the elaborate gifts that children receive today. “It’s really gotten out of control,” she said.

But one thing about Christmas that hasn’t changed over the years is the meals.

“Back then, we had turkey with all of the fixings, ham, and pie for dessert,” said Shiffler, who plans this year to be with family in Orangevale and Oakland and taking part in the holiday meals.

She added: “I’ve always had happy and delicious memories.”

Nixon is looking forward to joining family in Oakhurst and Santa Cruz.

“A few years ago, we started a new tradition (in Santa Cruz) of getting together for Cioppino,” she said of the tasty fish stew meal.


209 staff reporter