Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Child's Christmas In Whittier

Richard Nixon wasn't always a master diplomat. Thankfully, no one ever went to war over mincemeat pie.

Nixon himself would tell the story of the festive holiday dinner in Whittier, perhaps at Christmas, when as a little boy he proclaimed to his aunt Rose Olive, Hannah's youngest sister, that she made the best pie in the world. "You should never say that," Rose Olive said gently, "because your mother's is always the best pie in the world."

Diplomacy aside, Rose Olive's view probably had the additional advantage of being true. Visitors to the President's restored birthplace in Yorba Linda learn that Hannah Milhous Nixon was a master baker. As expenses mounted from the illness of Richard's elder brother, Harold, Hannah would get up at four in the morning to make all the pies and cakes for the family market, and they always sold out early.

At Christmastime, after services at Yorba Linda Friends Church she and her husband Frank would load up pies and sons and presents for the ride from Yorba Linda to the Whittier home of her parents, Franklin and Almira Milhous. (The Nixons moved to Whittier themselves in 1922.) Some of Hannah's siblings, and later their children, still lived at home. They got to open their stockings Christmas morning, but Mrs. Milhous insisted that gifts not be exchanged until family members arrived from Yorba Linda, Riverside, and Lindsay, a Quaker community in central California.

Richard looked forward to hearing echoes of his Quaker heritage during these family reunions. Hannah and her sisters didn't use the plain speech in their own homes -- "Is thee going today?"; "Is this thine?" -- but their mother did. At Christmas, she and her daughters would slip back into the plain speech, which Richard loved.

Rose Olive, who raised her own family in her parents' house, liked to open gifts only after someone had played "Joy to the World" and everyone had sung along. Perhaps the pianist was the Nixon boys' Aunt Jane Beeson, just in from Lindsay, or in later years her pupil Richard. At least two other aunts were pianists as well. Nixon remembered that "Joy to the World" was the first song he picked out by ear on the family's Crown piano, still on display in the birthplace.

Writing in the late 1970s, Nixon recalled that his grandmother, wearing her best red velvet dress, would sit in the parlor near the Christmas tree, which was festooned with tinsel, garlands, paper chains, and glass figurines, while her grandchildren brought their modest presents to her. "She praised them all equally," he wrote, "remarking that each was something she had particularly wanted."

Ham or turkey dinner was served in the dining room, with kids at a separate table. It was family style at first; as the family grew, the food was set out in a buffet. After some of that great pie, as neighborhood fires scented the chill evening air, the grandchildren were sometimes called upon to read verses of Scripture in turn. One wonders if anyone in that jovial and peace-worshiping Quaker family, even Richard himself, was ever asked to read Isaiah 2:4, God's great call to beat swords into plowshares and make war no more.

The Bible they probably used those evenings is also in the Nixon museum, a powerful link to successions of California Christmases and sturdy forebears. It was given to Richard's grandfather Franklin and his wife Emily in the 1870s, as they started their life together in Jennings County, Indiana. Emily died when her husband was 28. Eighteen years later, in 1897, he brought his second wife Almira, their nine children (including Hannah), most of the wood from their farmhouse, and the Bible to Whittier. Those Indiana planks are thought to buttress the Whittier house, which stands to this day. And when Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969 during a time of war and violent dissent, Pat Nixon held Franklin and Emily's Bible, opened to Isaiah 2:4, as he took the oath of office.

Whatever passages Richard may have read in long-ago Whittier with his family gathered around, Almira Milhous must have sensed something fateful about him. On his 13th birthday she gave him a present he treasured all his life and that is still in the birthplace, over his parents' bed. It was a framed picture of Abraham Lincoln, whom she revered for his abolitionist views, with a passage from Longfellow:

Lives of great men oft remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

First published on the Nixon Foundation web site in December 2000.

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