“Okay everybody, it’s time to go into the closet.”
No, Arnita Montiel and her brothers and sisters weren’t in trouble.
Quite the contrary.
It was just the place that the kids had to wait while her father had his brief conversation with Santa Claus – the only place in the house where they could hear him without being able to see him.
They heard the bells jingle. They knew that it was his sleigh landing right out in the front of their very own home. They heard the laugh of the man they’d spent sleepless nights waiting for. They heard his goodbye and knew that there was something special for them under the tree.
For Montiel, these were the days before iPads and Playstation 4s and, well, anything electronic. She can’t remember what her brothers got, but the girls in the family always got the same present – dolls.
“It was the same thing every year and we were always satisfied,” she said. “It’s so different today. Kids make lists and they know what they’re going to get and there are so many presents – and everything is so expensive.
“It’s just not what I remember.”
And that closet tradition carried on.
While it’s not something that her grandchildren – or 16 great-grandchildren – can remember, her kids would invite their grandparents to the house every year so that they could pack the youngsters into the closet, ring the bells, and let them hear Santa as he crept into the house, chatted with the patriarch, and left a bag full of gifts under the tree for everybody to enjoy.
She seldom saw any of the shopping.
When it came time to actually purchase something of size, Montiel said that the department stores in Manteca were often too small and it would require a trip to Stockton for Sears Roebuck and Co. or JC Penney’s. The stores, she said, were as different as the times are.
Montiel looks back on those memories favorably. They were happy times, she said, and it was all about the family getting together and spending time together and there wasn’t the crush of commercialism that she says has overshadowed the better parts of Christmas.
But it’s been a tough December for the longtime Lathrop resident and community champion. She recently lost her husband Jim, and since hasn’t seen much of a reason to do any decorating or pull out the tree that they would enjoy together when the holiday season rolled around.
That funk, however, might have just been ended by one of her younger great-grandchildren.
When Montiel told the child that “Papa Jim” wouldn’t be at Christmas this year, he responded – “that’s okay because we’ll all be together. It didn’t take away the hole in her heart, but it helped fill it a little bit. And it reshaped the focus on what the holiday is all about.
“It’s going to be a chance for everybody to gather around the tree,” Montiel said. “That’ll always be something that I look forward to.”