A New Kind of Christmas

I am not a Christmas kind of guy. I suspect that there is a touch of the Grinch in my DNA because all the Christmas carols and the commercial frenzy has driven me crazy enough to sit out a few Christmases entirely.


Of course, it has not always been that way. In the 1950’s and early sixties, when I grew up, there wasn’t nearly so much stuff to make me nuts. Don’t misunderstand, compared to most 1950s families we had plenty. There was always an abundance of food, cookies, candy, a few lights on the shrubs in front of the house, and a carefully decorated tree. The presents under that tree were more than adequate but not ridiculous. Most things were practical. There were always things like socks, a warm sweater, school supplies. But there was also something that was fun, like a bicycle, a skateboard, a hula-hoop, or the latest toy from Mattel. I don’t really remember any of those toys. What I remember is a steam turbine engine that my father built for us.

I had somehow found an advertisement for a working model steam engine. In the catalogue photograph you could see that the engine was black iron with a shiny brass piston and trim. It was built on a hardwood base and sported a fire box rigged to burn lighter fluid. My brothers and I really wanted that engine but, when my dad looked at the price, he inhaled through clenched teeth. He began to shake his head and I could see that it hurt him to have to say, no.

Christmas was still two weeks off and instead of falling into the mania of most children I spent a lot of time staring at that picture in the catalogue and puzzling over how that darn thing worked. My dad hovered over me and tried to explain that when water turned from a liquid to a gas that its volume expands by 1100 times. The steam that is produced pushes the piston out and turns the shaft were the power is transferred to whatever work you want the engine to perform. I could see that Dad was enjoying the fact that I was fascinated by his explanation. His face lit up when I asked questions. He would chuckle as he disappeared into the back of our garage where he fiddled with household repairs.


I have a workshop on the ranch that my dad would have loved. When I work out there, I often wish he was still around so we could build something together. My grandsons, Lincoln and Barrett like to hang out in the shop with me. They sit on the concrete floor and play with the scraps of wood left over from one of many projects. I can’t help myself and crawl down there with them and we build towers with the scrapes and knock them over with joy and laughter. Barrett can’t say much yet but Lincoln has started wondering about Christmas. Jilian and Colton understand the commercial pressure on their children and I do my best to support them in that struggle.

I think back to the Christmases of my childhood and my mind settles on that Christmas when I was fascinated by steam engines. I remember coming down the stairs early that morning and seeing the lighted tree and the colorful packages scattered below. My brothers and I dug into those presents with gusto and I’m sure that the gifts were wonderful, but I remember only one. It was about the size of a shoe box, wrapped in the brown paper of a grocery bag, and taped clumsily, in a way my mother would never have done. The names of all three of us boys were written in pencil and, though we knew it was from our dad, we had no idea what it was. When we stripped the paper away, we found a crudely built, but absolutely marvelous, steam engine. 

The boiler was made from an old coffee percolator and the plumbing was small copper piping soldered by my father’s steady hands. The pipes necked down to a pinhole that concentrated the stem and pushed it out with enough force to turn a tiny turbine attached to the shaft where the power could be utilized for whatever three small boys could imagine. I’ll never forget that Christmas gift and I will never forget the look of joy on my father’s face. It is the way I want my grandchildren to remember me and this Christmas. As I sand and paint the wooden blocks that I’m making for my grandson’s, I sense that my smile is as radiant as the one I remember.

Merry Christmas Everyone. Dan

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  • I pledge to do what I can to slow it all down. Just unsubscribed to 17 companies that have been sending not just one but 2 or 3 email solicitations every day since before Thanksday. “Enough already yet” as my grandmother used to say. Time to refocus on our families and our planet and its inhabitants. Thank you Dan for a great Christmas story. Be well and be warm and take care of one another. Merry Christmas.

    Daryl Peterson
  • Merry Christmas to you and Jill and the family – which is beautiful we are sure as is shown in the faces of your grandsons. Faces that we are sure will light up as yours did when you opened that special gift from your dad. It’s a generational Man thing it seems….. May it continue.

    Jerry and Norma Reynolds
  • One of the most memorable and used Christmas gifts of my childhood was a set of wooden block made by my dad, I had not thought about the blocks in many years until I saw your project photo. Beautiful article, Thankyou!

    Emil Stockton
  • isn’t it wonderful to live in the simple truth that love has no limits?

    thank you for sharing.

  • First all the science, then straight to the heart.

    Kathy Antonen
  • The gifts my Dad made me are the ones I still treasure 50 years later. Merry Christmas, Dan, and to the entire WIB family.

    Chuck Beatty
  • Ha ha. Appears that Dan is somewhat of a Christmas fan after all. Thanks for sharing your awesome experiences with us.


    Bruce Green
  • The box I remember was a big red box with a few air holes secretly in the back, and it was tipsy and had a few scratchy noises… out came a black and white cocker spaniel pup! Only my dad would try to put something like our dog, Peggy, under the tree! Thanks for the memories, Dan, and Merry Christmas to all of you out at Wild Idea. You have good ideas.

    Beth Waterhouse
  • Thank you for the heart warming memories.

    Lan Evenson
  • Thank you for sharing this sweet story that took me back in time. Sometimes I wish we could turn back the clock and live our lives at a much slower pace, with a lot less distraction from what’s truly important. Have a Blessed and Merry Christmas.

  • I absolutely LOVE this! Lovely trip down memory lane, thank you. Wishing you all much health and happiness in the New Year.

    Linda R Smith
  • Wonderful piece, Dan. And it seems you’ve been able to tamp down the Grinch and find the joy that underlies what a true Christmas can be. It doesn’t come from the stuff our materialistic, consumerist culture insists we need to be happy. It comes from sharing connections with those we love and care about and from expanding that circle to so many others who have so much less than we have. From a recent piece on NPR’s “On Point” show, people called in to say how they were making Christmas much simpler with far fewer gifts and more time to spend with those they love and care about. One grandparent shared that she and her husband give three $20 bills to each grandchild—one to spend, one to save, and one to share/give away. I’m keeping that idea for when my two grandkids get older. Right now I’m lucky that my son and daughter-in-law have given a one gift limit for me to give my two grandchildren. And they are lucky that they live in a community of like-minded parents who share their simple lifestyle and values—makes it much easier to resist the pressures of the market! Tell Jillian and Colton to hold fast! The greatest gifts that Barrett and Lincoln could ever get they already have—living in the circle with the parents and grandparents they have who epitomize the best of values. And living on a splendid piece of our much beleaguered planet Earth is just one more gift of incalculable value they have been given. Lucky, lucky kids!

    Linda Clark
  • A lovely memory for you and a wonderful story to read. Handmade gifts have a person’s heart written all over them. As I read about your family and your work, I see so much heart.

    Diane Mercier
  • Very sweet, thank you, Dan!

  • Always the boy in us. I peruse that photo of the shop and I see all my toys. The biggest and best, of course, is the Miller Bob Cat welder/generator sitting on the back wall. It is a very good welder, one that works like butter with stick. We have one also. Dan probably justified this big purchase (toy) the same as I, all those months of welding to construct our “new, improved” buffalo corrals 20 years ago. The other toys, the grinder, the bench vise, the pad sander to go with other shop essentials, rat (mouse bait). And that short steel ladder behind the Bob Cat means there are other areas of the shop that hold "goodies’ higher than one can reach. But what is in that row of military ammo boxes? Secrets to any boy.
    I equipped some of my Yellowstone back country cabins (with barns) the same way … with the basics. No electricity and no welder of course. Vises for holding chain saw bars while sharpening. And all the hand wood working tools placed in the hand made fold out doors cabinets over the work bench. Your taxes paid for them. Where is Dan’s anvil Up front next to the door? Looks like a spool of black and white thread on a top shelf also? So where is the leather sewing machine? I have a couple, the smaller one, a Singer Patcher, I still use to repair leather gloves, blue jeans and coveralls. Blue jeans? yes, mostly to add the V patches to both sides of the waist band. Yes, to make them fit as the jeans “shrink” through the years. Ya, that’s it.
    Such are a boys toys. And we always can buy or make more because we know we will put them to good use. Especially all the black smith tools I have still stashed in an out building just waiting to have that black smith shop built, brick floor and all, so the winter days stay warmer.
    But what about that speaker box I see on that top shelf? Country music? For me tens of thousands of miles on a horse, but I never could get into that stuff. Now give me Billy Idol, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Green Onion, Pipeline, “…Cadillac doing about 95, oh Maybelline…”. Ya!! But to each his own. The dude abides.

    bob jackson

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