A Simple Christmas
Twelve Stories That Celebrate the True Holiday Spirit
The New York Times bestseller by the former governor and presidential candidate-an instant classic, reissued for 2010.
Christmas has become synonymous with shopping, overindulging, and stress. But according to Mike Huckabee, that was never God's intention. Going back to the Nativity, Christmas is supposed to be about simple things: faith, love, family, and hope. The hard part, in today's crazy world, is remembering that those simple things are the most precious.
Huckabee recounts twelve Christmas memories that range from his childhood in Arkansas to his years as a young husband and father to his time as a governor and then a presidential candidate. These true stories will help you smile, take a deep breath, and maybe slow down your own holiday treadmill.
For instance, as kids, Mike and his sister would sneak open their gifts before Christmas, play with them, then rewrap them so their parents wouldn't notice. The plan worked great until one Christmas when young Mike unwrapped a brand-new football...that was covered in mud. That led to a powerful lesson about patience and a reminder that the best Christmases are the simple ones.
On February 9, 1964, I was one of seventy-three million Americans watching The Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles made their first appearance in the United States. My family usually watched Ed Sullivan anyway, but that night was something special.
Like many kids who saw this quartet of long-haired Brits with electric guitars and drums, I realized their music was something very different, and I immediately knew that I wanted a guitar so I could become one of the Beatles. So what if I was only eight years old at the time and had never played a guitar in my life? I wasn't concerned with minor details like that, and playing a guitar real loud and having girls scream for me seemed like a great goal in life. I was hooked.
The kids in my neighborhood were just as stricken as I was, and we started gathering Coke bottles that we found discarded on the side of the road and turning them in for their two-cent deposit value. Eventually we earned enough to buy the 45 rpm record of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," with "I Saw Her Standing There" on the B side of the record. It was the first record I ever bought. Before that, I only had little 78 rpm recordings of children's stories with songs, like "The Poky Little Puppy" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Coke bottles (in the South, we call all soda Coke even if it's actually a different brand) were the great equalizer of economic disparity among kids where I came from. Some kids automatically got money from their parents as an allowance, which seemed pretty terrific, but the rest of us could take our little red wagons (everyone had one) and pull them around town and pick up enough empty bottles to get some easy money, even if it did require some serious scavenging around tall weeds and ditches.
The little record player I had was better suited for "Poky Little Puppy" records, but it would play a 45, although I had to turn the volume all the way up to get anywhere near the "rock and roll" level I wanted. The little two-inch speaker distorted horribly when pushed up to ten on the dial, but I didn't care. The louder the better. Unfortunately, the louder-the-better mind-set stayed with me after I advanced to larger speakers backed up by an amplifier that emitted 120 decibels—enough to take paint off the wall! Yes, I know that I shouldn't have played music that loudly, and yes, it has affected my hearing somewhat, and yes, I regret it. I have already had the lectures from my parents when I was a kid and from doctors as an adult, so please spare me another one!
Playing the 45s and later the LP albums of the Beatles was great, but that really wasn't enough to fulfill my passion for rock and roll. That summer, several kids in the neighborhood decided we would produce a Beatles show for our parents and all the neighbors. Of course, we didn't have real instruments and none of us knew how to play, but those were minor details. We would make our own instruments and pantomime the songs played by the record player.
Every kid in the neighborhood had a job. My sister Pat ran the record player. Amelia Leverett from down the street sold tickets and Cokes. The "Beatles" consisted of Tom Frazier as George Harrison (he would later give up being a Beatle to become a prominent hand surgeon); Carol Frazier (Tom's sister, who is now married and works as a community-affairs specialist at a pediatric hospital) as Ringo; Betty Rodden (who, last I heard, was a basketball coach) as John Lennon; and me as Paul McCartney, the bass player (I'm still one today). Bob "Bo" Frazier, the little brother of Tom and Carol (now a CPA), was the opening act and entertained the audience by wearing a bedsheet and singing a song called "Ghostly Solo." It had absolutely nothing to do with the Beatles, but Mr. and Mrs. Frazier wouldn't let us use their back patio as a stage unless we included Bo in the show.
Our guitars were cardboard cutouts taped and glued to yardsticks, and the drums were made from round patio tables turned upside down. The larger tables were used for the bass drums, and the smaller tables were for the other drums. Cymbals were cardboard cutouts attached to mop handles.
Our families and the other neighbors were quite charitable and paid twenty-five cents each for a ticket to watch us lip-synch as many Beatles records as we had been able to purchase with the money earned from collecting Coke bottles. I'm sure they were all glad we hadn't found more bottles!
The Fraziers were better off than most of us in the neighborhood and owned an 8 mm movie camera. Somewhere the movies that were made of this momentous event probably still exist, but I pray daily that no amount of coercion ever forces anyone to cough them up for public consumption.
Playacting the Beatles with cardboard and yardsticks was okay, but I wanted a real guitar. It shouldn't have surprised anyone who knew me back then. As young as age five, I was banging away at an old Gene Autry cowboy guitar that my dad had and would play occasionally. At the time, I thought I was Elvis or at least figured I would replace him as soon as I got old enough or he retired. (The photo on the cover of this book is in fact one of me at five years old with that old Gene Autry guitar, striking my best Elvis pose.)
Most of the other kids in our "band" moved on to other things after that night on the "stage." Not me. I was hooked, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my life lip-synching songs with a cardboard guitar (Milli Vanilli would do that just fine several years later). I wanted to "do the real thing." (Sounds almost like a book I think you ought to read called Do the Right Thing.)
I decided I wanted an electric guitar. I asked for but didn't get one for Christmas of 1964. Ditto for 1965. By 1966, when I was the ripe old age of eleven, I decided that I had to change my strategy. Each year until then, I had made a Christmas list of things I wanted. I knew the list had a lot more on it than could ever be expected, but I wanted to cover all the bases. As I "ma-tured," and got wiser, it occurred to me that while I had included the electric guitar on the list, there were other things on that list as well, and I was in effect giving my parents a way out of giving me an electric guitar, which was all I really wanted anyway.
In 1966, my Christmas list was very simple. An electric guitar. That's it. The whole list. Nothing else on it. No more negotiating and compromising. It was all or nothing.
They said, "Son, don't you want to put something else on that list in case Santa can't come up with a guitar?" Not that I still believed in Santa or anything, but heck no, I didn't want to put something else on that list! Been there, done that, and still no guitar. I dug in my heels.
"All I want is the guitar. Nothing else," I told them. "I promise I'll practice and learn how to play it. If I don't, you can take it away from me." Of course, I knew that if I ever really got that guitar, I would practice it. and anyone taking it away was probably as likely as someone going up to Chuck Norris and taking away his chest hair. Ain't happening.
Of course, I had no idea what my parents could actually afford to buy me. I certainly was old enough and observant enough to know that we always drove a used car, didn't have air-conditioning like some families, never went on nice vacations like the Fraziers, and didn't get Eskimo Pies anytime we wanted like Amelia Leverett. But it never really occurred to me that we were that much different. I never asked to see my parents' checkbook or examine their tax returns to better assess their financial capacity. That stuff wasn't my problem anyway. I was concerned with one thing—getting that electric guitar.
I found one that seemed perfect in the J. C. Penney Christmas catalog. It was a red and black model with a white pick guard, and it came complete with a little amp, a carrying case, and an instruction book. The whole package was featured in the catalog at the special low price of ninety-nine dollars. I cut out the page and attached it to the piece of paper on which I had written my Christmas "list."
My parents asked me several times if I wouldn't mind giving them some "other ideas." I knew what that meant—"You aren't getting the guitar."
"Nothing doing!" I said. "You guys asked me what I wanted, and this is it. I want this or nothing." I was fully prepared to get nothing, and only years later did I find out how close I came to getting just that.
Was I being totally unreasonable, selfish, and ungrateful? Absolutely. But I honestly didn't realize it. At eleven, I really didn't know what my parents could or couldn't afford, and they hadn't asked me what I wanted within their budget. They had just asked what I wanted. Of course, through the years I asked for stuff I knew I wasn't going to get, like a pony, a chimpanzee, and a trip to Disneyland, but the guitar wouldn't poop all over the floor like a chimp, so I thought it might be a realistic request. And I really, truly wanted it.
Because of my previously confessed habit of opening up my gifts before Christmas, my parents had resorted to hiding things in places where I couldn't find them—apparently at the homes of people they worked with or at the fire station where my dad worked as a fireman. I guess they figured my sister and I couldn't go rummaging around places like that.
So as we gathered for the ritual of Christmas gift opening (which we did on the night of Christmas Eve most years because my dad usually worked on Christmas Day), nothing was under the tree for me. I had rolled the dice and gone for broke, and it was looking like I had crapped out. Nothing. Nada. I had said, "If I can't have the electric guitar, I don't want anything." For once, it looked like I was going to get exactly what I had asked for and most certainly what I deserved. My sister was all too happy about the entire thing—she was tearing into her stuff and holding each gift up and waving it about as if to say to me, "Sucker! You got nothing."
While I tried to do as my dad often told me and "take it like a man" (which translated to "Don't cry like a little girl"), I fought back tears and thought I was the biggest idiot in America for being so stubborn and not giving my parents any other options on my Christmas list.
After I had been made to feel thoroughly miserable at my situation, my dad excused himself from the gift giving and returned with a box. "Oh, I almost forgot that I have this one last thing for you," he said. The box didn't look like it would hold a pony or a chimpanzee, and I had no idea what it could be. Getting anything was somewhat comforting, just knowing that at least I was still considered family and wouldn't be sold into slavery or shipped off to China.
The box didn't look like a guitar, unless it was a guitar that was square and about eighteen inches high. I took it, opened it, and was truly bewildered. It was a small amplifier that looked very much like the one from the J. C. Penney Christmas catalog. But what a cruel joke—buy me an amplifier, but no guitar! As I was opening the box, my mother had quietly slipped out of the room, and as I examined the amplifier, she returned and said, "You might find this to be useful to go with that." I looked up and saw that she held in her hand that very red and black electric guitar whose image I had memorized from staring at its picture in the catalog.
Move over Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton! Mike Huckabee has a guitar now! For all the taunting my sister had given me, this was the "game over" moment in my mind. It turned out she was actually excited for me and had known all along what my parents were up to but, amazingly, had kept it secret. (Remember, she became an acting teacher!) The taunting she had put me through earlier as she unwrapped her stuff was all part of the conspiracy that my family had contrived to make me truly think that I was about to have the lousiest Christmas a kid could have. It's a good thing that I didn't get anything else that year, because it would have been ignored anyway. I don't think that guitar left my hands for hours or even minutes. I held it and looked over every inch of it, carefully inspecting what I had only seen in the catalog picture before. The catalog hadn't done it justice. It was far more beautiful in person. I even held it in front of a mirror to see how I looked as a young rock star. Unquestionably, I looked like a complete dork, but at the time I thought I was the coolest kid around. (This was before I got glasses.)
Over the coming weeks, months, and years, I would play that guitar for hours. In those early weeks, when my fingers were not yet used to pushing the thin strings hard against the fret board, I played until my fingertips almost bled. I think even my parents were impressed—not that I was playing well, but that I truly was spending the hours practicing as I had promised.
That guitar my parents bought from J. C. Penney's Christmas catalog was more than just a Christmas gift; it was a key that unlocked many doors for me through the years. Believe it or not, I was actually a very shy person, and the thought of being in front of people was terrifying to me. Once I started playing, of course, I wanted to form a band. In the sixth grade, a few of my classmates and I formed a band. In the seventh grade, we played in public for the first time and performed what was surely a very powerful rendition of Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour." I'm sure there were maybe two hundred people in the audience, but it might as well have been Shea Stadium as far as I was concerned. As frightened as I was of a crowd, my desire to play music trumped any fear I had about being onstage. Somehow, I realized that I couldn't be a rock star and remain a recluse. Music did more than help me break out of my bashfulness. Unconsciously, music taught me teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and patience. I learned how to persevere through all of those hours of hard practice, and I came to understand what every musician knows—that for every minute onstage, there are hours of lonely practice that no one sees or appreciates. That is a lesson that served me well in speaking, writing, and every endeavor of which I've since been a part.
I played in several local rock and country bands through high school. I mostly played bass (an instrument that I would take up at age twelve because it became apparent that a lot more guys were playing guitar than bass, and if I learned bass, I figured my chances to be in a band were better). I also played drums for a while, but the guitar was my first and greatest love when it came to music.
A few years later, after I got married and found out that my wife, Janet, was pregnant with our first child, I was forced to make a very tough decision. Janet and I were hanging on by a thin thread financially, since I was trying to go to graduate school and work part time. Paying our rent each month was a challenge. We paid things on time, but only by being disgustingly frugal and never going into debt. When John Mark, our first son, was born, Janet had to quit her job to take care of him, and we were forced to take things day by day just to keep food in the house. The only things of value we had were my two guitars and the two amplifiers that powered them. I had been able to trade up through the years thanks to working at the local radio station and getting a few bucks from time to time for playing gigs, and now I owned a 1967 Gretsch Tennessean and a 1968 Fender Jazz Bass. They were valuable then, but years later they would have been worth enough to send my son to college. But at that moment in 1976, we were just trying to feed the boy and would worry about college later.
There was really only one option—I needed to sell the guitars. I put an ad in the local free "shopper" paper in Fort Worth, Texas, where we lived at the time. Calls came immediately for both, and within days, I found myself without any guitars for the first time since I was eleven. I cannot describe the pain of seeing someone gather up my prized equipment and take it away. I didn't ever let on to Janet how much it hurt letting go of those guitars; I knew that my priority was taking care of my family, and I never looked back, knowing I had made the right decision. A few years later, I was able to buy an old Yamaha acoustic at a pawnshop and would pick around on it and play it at church youth camp occasionally, but I knew that one day I'd like to have a bass guitar like the one I'd once had. Exactly twenty years later, Janet called me one day while I was in my office at the Capitol. I had been governor only a few weeks, and Janet and I were settling into the Governor's Mansion. She said she had been driving down the street and seen a bass that looked a lot like my old one, just a different color. She had gone in to ask about it and was calling to see if I thought it might be a good deal. She told me the year model—a 1967 Fender Jazz Bass. When she told me the asking price, I was sure she was mistaken. She repeated it to me. That's when I said, "Go back in there and write them a check for that amount and get out of there before they realize what that guitar could be worth." I was back in the bass business!
There were others on my staff at the Capitol who played instruments, and for the fun of it, we would gather in the basement of the Governor's Mansion to have jam sessions and blow off steam with music. We played a couple of songs for our staff at the 1996 Christmas party, and the fact that no one threw food at us was all the encouragement we needed. Capitol Offense, the band I still play in today, was born! The band developed, changed some personnel from time to time, but became fairly proficient, and over the years we played as an opening act for Willie Nelson, Grand Funk Railroad, the Charlie Daniels Band, Dionne Warwick, Percy Sledge, and 38 Special just to name a few. We played at two presidential inaugurations, two Republican National Conventions, and such venues as House of Blues in New Orleans and Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver. I'm often asked if we were that good, and I answer honestly that we didn't have to be—we were the only band in America that was fronted by a sitting governor, so we got some nice gigs!
In 2008, when I started my show on the Fox News Channel, I wanted to make homegrown music a part of it, using amateur, behind-the-scenes workers at the channel whose day jobs were in lighting, graphics, videography, engineering, and writing, but who, like me, had never given up the dream or the joy of playing. The music segment of our show is almost always the highest-rated segment and the audience favorite. Legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Ray Price, James Burton, Neil Sedaka, and Dion are just a few of the guests who have played with the Fox News Channel house band, the Little Rockers. Country greats like Aaron Tippin, Neal McCoy, Tracy Lawrence, Collin Raye, Clay Walker, the Bellamy Brothers, and many others have come on the show to share the stage with amateurs like us.
But if it hadn't been for my parents giving in to the demand of my stubborn eleven-year-old self and buying me that guitar for Christmas, none of this would have happened. Without that guitar, I probably never would have gained the confidence to be onstage and make speeches and run for office, and I certainly never would have gained the valuable tools of discipline, practice, and performance that music has taught me.
The real heroes of this story are Dorsey and Mae Huckabee, my hardworking and loving parents, who really did want to make my dream come true but weren't sure how they could do it.
I didn't know until years later, after I had kids of my own, just how much money ninety-nine dollars was to my parents back in 1966. It was a lot of money and a lot of money that they didn't have. They could have and should have told me no, but they gave up having a Christmas for themselves and bought me the guitar for which I had begged and pleaded for so long. They couldn't pay the ninety-nine dollars all at once, so they arranged to make monthly payments to J. C. Penney for a little over a year until they paid it off.
I wanted a simple Christmas that year. I didn't ask for a lot of things—just one that meant more to me than anything else I had ever asked for. But what was simple to me was anything but simple to my parents, who had to make a really major sacrifice to give it to me. The best Christmas gifts we get are the ones that represent a sacrifice on the part of the giver. That's because nothing so reflects what Christmas is all about as does sacrifice. God, who owed us nothing, gave us everything. He gave up more than His comfort and His crown—He gave His life, and it all started right there in a simple manger in Bethlehem.
It took years before the depth of my parents' sacrifice really sank in. By then, they were both gone. While they surely had some satisfaction in seeing me play onstage as a teenager and were comforted that as long as the noise of the guitar rang through our little house, they knew where I was, they probably never knew the impact that ninety-nine-dollar guitar had on me. I want to believe that if heaven is a place where all the good things are remembered and the bad things are forgotten, my parents are allowed to watch my show each week and see me playing music with not only my musical idols but theirs as well. They might actually believe that ninety-nine-dollar investment paid off!
Every Christmas, I still think about that guitar and the sacrifice that it represented. And I hope I don't forget to think about the greatest sacrifice of all, God's gift of Himself . . . a simple gift. After all, it was a simple Christmas.
P.S. I'll bet you're wondering whatever happened to the guitar from J. C. Penney. After a few years, I wanted to upgrade to a better guitar and sold it to a gentleman named Norman Gilbey in my hometown of Hope, Arkansas, for fifty dollars. In 1998, thirty years later, Capitol Offense was playing at the annual Watermelon Festival in Hope. Norman was there and came up to me and said, "You remember the guitar you sold me?"
"I sure do! Whatever happened to it? I later regretted selling it," I remarked.
"I still have it. It's been sitting in a closet most of these years. I didn't get to play it that much, so it's still in good shape," Norman revealed. He then asked if I'd like it back. I told him that he could name his price—I would love to have that first guitar back. He argued with me about payment and insisted that I just take it. I finally agreed, but on the condition that I would send him a collection of souvenirs from the governor's office (non- taxpayer-funded, of course!). After thirty years, the little guitar from J. C. Penney was back home. When the Old State House Museum in Little Rock wanted personal items of governors for display, I loaned them the guitar, and if you are ever in Little Rock, you can stop by and see it. And as for the Gretsch Tennessean and Jazz Bass that I sold, after my kids were grown, I scoured Internet sites and looked in every music store and pawnshop I could find whenever I was in a new town to try to find guitars like those. Though I spent a lot more than I got for the originals, I now own a 1964 Gretsch Tennessean (even more valuable than the one I had) and had Fender build a Jazz Bass exactly like the one I had when I was a teenager. They sit side by side next to my desk now, and seeing them makes me feel seventeen all over again. Then I stand up and realize I'm not seventeen again!
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