Herriott Christmas

My role as circus man took me to tropical climates each winter. Warm weather and palm trees made the holiday experience feel different. Without blood family to share this festive time with, the notion of Christmas became watered down since I was on my own. I gave carrots to the livestock on this special day but the magical notion of the Christmas of my youth was over.

In the midst of preparing for my season and taking care of my livestock, I enjoyed being with and observing a special family as they prepared for the holiday. The Herriott family grew up in the active lifestyle of the circus and, like many circus families, worked and lived together in this close-knit situation. They made strong connections and built respect for one another while dedicated to specific traditions passed down from generation to generation, all of which insured they would succeed together and that the show would go on.

The regard freely exchanged in the Herriott home reflected their dedication and connection to each other and all animals. As a guest on their farm, a warm welcome was extended to me. I was invited to feast with them on special dishes prepared in abundance, join in the fun, and get to know all members of the family.

Christmas morning was another sunshiny day with ideal temperatures. Though the chores went on as usual, our customary routine was interrupted by the festive morning ritual to which I was privy. As the driveway filled with the cars and trucks of family members, warm greetings were exchanged and they gathered in the living room. In the middle of the family room was a table made from an old circus wooden spoke sunburst wagon wheel with a round piece of glass on top.

Although the gift giving didn’t involve me, in the midst of the packed living room, I witnessed the expression of joy that occurred as each gift was given and was opened. This prompted squeals of delight and feelings of elation. I enjoyed this glimpse into the life of this loving family and seeing them all behave like little children. 

Soon, torn wrapping paper, ribbons and stacks of unneeded boxes littered the room. Individual attentions paired up or individuals became immersed with objects at hand. Later in the morning a meal was in order.

My favorite part of this unique Christmas experience occurred after the gifts had been exchanged, and everyone had a belly full of good food. One at a time, the daughters began to beg Johnny to “open the trunk.”

Previously unnoticed, an old trunk had a reverent location in the family room. It had been used until then as a coffee table. I had no idea what was inside but guessing from the expression on their faces, the girls all knew. They kept up their vigil. They relentlessly begged their dad to open it. 

After some careful timing and using show biz suspense, John paused to make sure his decision to comply was visible to everyone. Drawn into the anticipation, I, too, became ready for whatever was in that trunk.

                As John unlatched the lid, the daughters drew in close. I too had an opportunity to peer over them and see what was inside. Like a chest filled with treasure, the entire trunk was filled with old 8×10 black and white photographs of circus performers and circus scenes from long ago. The old photos, collected for generations, were the one-time standard of publicity in the circus industry since the advent of photography. Through countless contacts with hundreds of their peers this accumulation of incredible photographs became possible.

As Johnny reached inside and selected one of the old contact prints, the image sparked reminiscence and prompted a story from the archives of his memory. As the accounts unfolded, the bright reflection of glee in the eyes of the members of his family, who hung onto his every word, created in me another reason to be grateful to be included here.

We savored his anecdotes about distant relatives, performers from other famous circus families and the fantastic feats of aerialists, animal trainers, musicians, athletes, clowns and other showmen. His tales involved funny anecdotes that could only occur on a circus, or situations that evolved into gossip about so-and-so, crazy behavior, tragedy, historic moments and the amazing things that animals do. John also told us about humorous situations that occurred during the routine of performing on a daily basis on an old tent show, and the stories about the pranks these dedicated people often pulled on each other.

                The afternoon slipped by all too quickly. Our attention remained filled with story after story until evening finally arrived. With great reluctance, the collective resigned to our regular duties.

As I recall the indelible sight of children gathered around this master story teller and the privilege to witness this unique and intimate peek into the life of one of America’s favorite circus families, the experience easily remains one of my all-time favorite and happiest Christmas holidays of all.

Whether you are alone this year or surrounded by the abundance of those you love, may you enjoy this special time of year and be blessed with the happiest holiday season and most special Christmas of all.

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