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One couple, two Christmas memories
Victor and Maria Gully share a light moment in front of the fireplace decorated with more modern tole-painted Christmas items, all made by Maria. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Victor Gully’s mother died in 1942 when he was seven years old. His family did not have Christmas that year.  It was not a time of celebration. It was a time of grief. His mother was not the only one who died in the fire that reduced their home to ashes. An older brother, the oldest of eight siblings, also lost his life. He was just eight-and-a-half years old.

The world was engulfed in the Second World War. Everybody was having a hard time, some more so than others. With eight children in the family, a father who farmed for other people, and a stay-at-home mother, Victor Gully does not have any memories of his family doing anything special at all during the holidays.

 “I don’t remember celebrating Christmas” growing up, he said, his forehead wrinkling with the effort to bring to mind – unsuccessfully – any iota of childhood memory during this time of the year.

“We didn’t have any money for shopping. But then, a lot of people were the same way,” said the retired merchant marine who spent nearly three decades of his life working as a seaman, sailing the seven seas and visiting countries all over the world in the process. The Manteca High graduate is also a Coast Guard veteran.

Life was so hard for the Gully household “we moved 18 times in 18 years,” recalled the active Manteca Historical Museum volunteer. As a consequence, he attended 11 different schools during that time.

“I went to one school twice,” he recalled.

The first home that he remembered living in was located on Fishback Road off West Yosemite Avenue. Of course, at that time, Fishback was “in the boondocks,” he said.

After the fire tragedy, his three younger sisters were adopted by families in the Bay Area. The oldest sister, who was 11 years old, stayed with the family to take care of the home and her father and remaining siblings.

“She took care of us,” Gully said.

Celebrating Christmas and growing up in Madrid, Spain

Around the same time, during the war years, half-way around the globe in the city of Madrid in Spain, a young Maria Gully was growing up surrounded by a close-knit family that celebrated Christmas with elaborate nacimiento displays  – the equivalent of posadas in Mexico, she explained – as well as visiting the homes of relatives and friends, and sharing a feast at the dining table.

“No (Christmas) presents, only eating with the family,” said Maria who came to the United States in the 1960s.

“We didn’t know what Santa Claus was,” she added with a wide grin.

There was, however, gift giving but that took place days after Dec. 25. That happened on January 6 during the feast of the Epiphany or the Three Kings. That’s when parents bought gifts for their children, just as the Three Kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the child Jesus, Maria explained.

She may have left her old home to live in Manteca with her husband of some three decades, but Maria has continued to observe the Christmas tradition she grew up with in Madrid. Every year, she sets up a nacimiento, or nativity scene, in the most prominent area in her living room. It’s a recreation of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The backdrop, which is a picture of the town where Jesus was born, is tacked onto the wall. In front of this panoramic picture, Maria set up a four-foot-by-six-foot table upon which she built a miniature town with the Nativity scene as the main focus. She built everything in the Christmas diorama – the houses, a church, a pair of bridges, the stable and the rolling hills in the background. The houses were made out of cork. The hills were procured from old cork trees that were felled by some property owners she happened to know. The figurines and some of the plastic greenery were purchased commercially. Some, such as the mural-sized painting backdrop, was bought in Madrid where many of her relatives still live and whom she visits at least once every two years.

While the nacimiento was – and still is – the spiritual focus of the Christmas observance in Madrid, said Maria, her grandchildren view it as simply a holiday piece of decoration. She smiled, with just a tiny bit of annoyance, as she recalled the few times when her young grandchildren would surreptitiously replace the figure of the baby Jesus in the manger with some other plastic (she found a toy monkey at one time) or some other figurine just to humor their grandmother. One time, someone slipped a miniature plastic Volkswagen in the white sand, purchased at Home Depot, which covers the entire table.

Husband and wife create new Christmas memories

Victor and Maria Gully have also  created Christmas memories of their own through the years. The couple — longtime volunteers at the historical museum — have added modern touches to their holiday decorations. In the foyer just inside the front door is a nativity scene consisting of delicate china figurines. The fireplace and mantel are decorated with a collection of tole-painted Christmas figures which are also the handiwork of Maria. She learned tole painting at the Manteca Senior Center.

And while Victor’s memories of Christmas past as a young boy growing up in Manteca are marred by tragedies, he has turned all that into something positive. The scraper that his father used when he was “farming for other people” is now part of the agricultural display in the Memorial Annex of the museum.

“He did a lot of work for people around the county,” Victor said.

The people he worked for “had tractors, but he didn’t want a tractor,” he said. Instead, he used the horses that he owned to cut and rake hay. He used the scraper “to make ditches,” he said.

His father lived to the ripe old age of 89. He died in 1979.