Christmas at Watoga State Park meant always receiving a special present from my Mom. I still cherish that gift all these years later.
Of course, the park unwrapped presents for me to enjoy year-round, especially at Christmas. Watoga appeared to hibernate, but it was alive with life. White-tailed deer still foraged for food in the snow-covered hillsides. Otter, fox, and racoon tracks could still be seen in the freshly fallen snow. The male and female cardinals still landed with ease in the nearby white oak trees.
While growing up at the state’s largest park, I loved all the seasons. Winter at Watoga arrived early, usually in late November, and it snowed a lot – like by the foot!
But first, a little background about my family.
In the 1930s, Dad and Granddad (Pap) were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They helped with various projects at Watoga. A few months before the park opened in 1937, Dad wed my Mom, Devada Goldie Scott from nearby Lobelia.
Dad was promoted to maintenance foreman at Watoga in the spring of 1960, which meant on-site housing at the park. Dad, Mom and five of my siblings moved into a three-bedroom, one-bath cabin near the Beaver Creek Campground. Mom was pregnant with me.
Later that year, I was born — on Christmas night. For years, and even to this day, many people lament that I must not have received many birthday gifts. Although this may be true, I proudly tell them that I need neither Christmas nor birthday gifts. Soon, the reason why is explained.
Christmas at Watoga
Leading up to Christmas, my older brother, Ronnie, and I ventured to nearby hillsides to sleigh ride. We built many snowmen with rocks for eyes, large carrots for a nose, and a curved twig for a smile. Snowball fights lasting hours then ensued. Later, we ventured to nearby Calvin Price State Forest to be the architects of secret passageways in the snow drifts. When we returned home, four-foot icicle daggers frozen on our home’s gutters entranced us.
Coming in from the cold, we sat next to the warmth from dancing flames in the native stone fireplace. In the small kitchen, the aroma of Mom’s homemade hot chocolate wafted throughout. The smells, sights, and sounds of Christmas at Watoga filled the air.
And then came the day to select our Christmas tree. Dad would take Ronnie and I to Pap’s nearby farm. Each year, we took turns picking out the pine tree to grace our living room at the park.
By 1968, my “baby” sister, Vicki was five. She, Ronnie and I would decorate the tree. Mom had a collection of large ornaments with a family story behind each one. Regardless of the year, Mom always made homemade popcorn for us as we used needle and thread to string festive garlands around the tree. I usually ate more popcorn than what ended up on the tree.
Growing Up Poor
I did not realize it until my teenage years that we were poor.
Mom and Dad provided us with the necessities to survive. Dad used to say, “be thankful that you have a roof over your head, some food on the table, and clothes on your back.”
On Granddad’s nearby farm, Mom worked in the fields like a man, planting, hoeing, clearing rocks from the soil, and harvesting the fruits of that labor. Later, in the fall, colorful vegetables, juices and jellies in Mason jars lined the shelves in Grandma and Granddad’s cellar.
The Deans shared that bounty to get through the winter as a family. Mom always made sure that we had something to eat throughout the year.
In 1966, Mom joined the cabin cleaning crew at Watoga to help the family financially. Della, my older sister, watched me, Ronnie, and my younger sister, Vicki, while Mom worked. A warm evening meal as a family was never missed. Christmas at Watoga arrived in many splendid ways throughout the year.
A Christmas Story Like No Other
Every Christmas Eve though, Mom would tell me her Christmas Story at Watoga.
With Christmas just hours away, Mom would ask me to sit beside her on the couch. The fire’s embers still glowed. The 13-inch black and white TV had been turned off for the night.
“Johnny, when I was pregnant with you,” Mom began, “I had a craving for popcorn.”
During Mom’s pregnancy, she and my older brother, Gilbert, would eat bowl after bowl of popcorn. It had been perfected in a well-worn, time-scarred, aluminum clad kettle bearing black marks on its bottom. Gilbert was six.
On Christmas Day, Gilbert and Mom continued the popcorn tradition they both loved so much. Unbeknownst to either Gilbert or Mom, something got in the way of that day’s plans to eat more popcorn. It was me! Just as Mom and Gilbert savored a few bites out of that big ole bowl of warm popcorn, Mom’s labor pains began. And they would not stop.
Not known for his patience, Dad sprang into action. He quickly started the blue Chevy Impala to transport Mom to the hospital in Marlinton, 16 miles away. Before Mom left, she opened the screen door and glanced at Gilbert, who was still clutching that big bowl of popcorn.
“Mom, mom, here, want some more popcorn?” asked Gilbert.
After my birth, Mom never enjoyed popcorn the same way again like she had with Gilbert.
Every Christmas Eve, Mom always ended the story the same way.
“Johnny, you’re the best Christmas present I ever received. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom. Merry Christmas.”
About the Author
John Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. He lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. You can contact John at