As old age takes hold and I watch Christmas after Christmas slip by, I remember and cherish a special Christmas in 1950. Back then we were among the poorest families in a small Central Texas community five miles from Waco. While we had no indoor plumbing or heating in the family home, we had one another. I was 10 and my brothers were 9, 8 and 2. My sister was 6.

Our mother was loving and caring, though her life was hard. Without complaint, she washed clothes by hand with water we drew from a well. Our father was not with us much. He worked 180 miles away in Houston, coming home by bus every other weekend. What a thrill it was. Fridays became very special to me.

As Christmas approached, Mother told us Santa would not bring many gifts that year. Times were hard, she explained. Money was scarce. We children understood. We wanted only to help her more than ever. We hated to see her so sad.

Daddy came home from Houston just before Christmas Eve that year. I could sense he didn’t have money to buy a tree. I asked if we could cut one down and decorate it. At first he hesitated, but we showed him, with great enthusiasm, the field next to our property. It offered many suitable trees.

The field belonged to a wealthy farmer who also owned a grocery store. I had been in that store a few months earlier when the store owner told Daddy that he would no longer allow us to buy groceries on credit: “Only cash, period!” My daddy was humiliated. I felt so badly for him.

In spite of this, Daddy and I walked to the store and Daddy asked the man if we might cut down one of his small trees for our Christmas tree. Daddy even nervously asked how much he might charge for the tree. I suppose it was the spirit of Christmas that led the man to say, with a smile, that we could take a tree without paying a cent. I still recall my elation, racing up the hill to tell my brothers and sister that we would have a Christmas tree after all!

Even the weather was special that year — cold, close to freezing, on Christmas Eve. Usually in Central Texas, December is warm enough to go about without a coat. Not this year.

Daddy found an old and very dull ax. Off we went while Mother stayed home to cook supper. Not only was it cold, it was cloudy as we crawled through the barbed wire and onto our neighbor’s spread. We knew it was too much to wish for snow.

After a joyous search, we found a tree about 6 feet tall and deemed it the best. It was our treasure and, after it had fallen to us, each of us grabbed a branch and helped Daddy drag the tree home, there to raise it in personal triumph and seasonal glorification.

Suddenly, on the way home, I felt a tiny tingle on my cheek. Looking up, I saw snowflakes drifting to the ground. What a wonderful sight. It was only a flurry of snow, but to us it was a blizzard. Snow! Real snow!

Before long we had the tree in our home. How it smelled like Christmas. We had no tree stand, so Daddy found a piece of wood, nailed it to the trunk and we stood it up. We hugged one another, sharing our joy with our mother. She smiled broadly.

Come nightfall, Mother told us to go to bed. After all, we were not to see Santa when he slipped into our home under cover of darkness. Mother told us that every Christmas Santa would pause in his labors long enough to eat a cookie or piece of cake left out for him. Santa would even talk with her a few minutes. How jealous we were!

Before joining my brothers in the bed we shared, I stole out onto the front porch. The sky by now was full of stars. It was so quiet and still across Central Texas.

I wished with all my might I might now hear the bells on Santa’s sleigh. I looked into the sky but only saw the stars twinkling in the cold night, spectacle enough surely. Yet I closed my eyes and strained hard to listen. Did I hear something? Yes, a faint tinkling of bells — sleigh bells. I was certain I heard the bells on Santa’s sleigh!

When I crawled into bed that night, my brothers were asleep. As I drifted off, I felt a sense of joy and wonder. What a Christmas!

As an old man long familiar with the ways of the world, I yet remember the magic of that Christmas. When I set up our tree these days, I think of the one we resurrected in our home so many decades ago. When our three children were young and savoring Christmas, I saw my brothers and sister. And when I look into the cold night sky, I remember the faint sound I heard way back in 1950. At times I even hear a sleigh bell.

Former administrative assistant to former Congressman W.R. Poage and onetime staff director of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, attorney Fowler West is president of West & West in Alexandria, Virginia, devoted to preservation of the Everglades ecosystem. A Baylor University alumnus, he is co-chair of the standing committee of Baylor’s W.R. Poage Legislative Library.