A Disney Family Christmas

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Walt Disney wrote in Reader's Digest (December 1941) that "One reason the Christmas season appeals to me is that it makes us suspend business-as-usual routine and let our minds soar for a while. It is a time when the imagination is more sprightly than at other periods of the year; Christmas seems to release even the most solemn of us from the Scrooge realism that occasionally besets all of us. It is natural, of course, that I should think of Christmas in terms of imagination, for imagination is my business."

December is really Disney family month.

Walt was born December 5, 1901. His older brother Herb was born December 8, 1888. His older brother Ray was born December 30, 1890. His younger sister Ruth was born December 6, 1903. Walt's daughter Diane was born December 18, 1933. His other daughter Sharon was born December 31, 1935. Diane's first child, Christopher, was born December 10, 1954.

However, Walt passed away December 15, 1966 and his other older brother, Roy, passed away December 20, 1971.

Walt didn't care much for the holiday season because he couldn't go into the studio to work. His wife Lillian noted in Time magazine (December 27, 1937), that at Christmas "when he got through with the festivities, he went to his room and read."

Walt's daughter Diane, when she was interviewed by writer Pete Martin for Walt's biography that was published in the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, said that "(Dad's) not sentimental about Christmas. He's more sentimental about family relationships like birthdays... about his own birthday. He feels very sentimental about that and you don't dare slight him or forget because he would be very deeply hurt. If you mention it, he's fairly assured you will remember. But if he thinks that you don't remember, when it has arrived he just feels a little bit slighted."

However, that is not to say that Walt disliked Christmas. The joy of Christmas for Walt was in giving to others, especially his family. Many of his live action productions like Swiss Family Robinson and Those Calloways contain touching Christmas moments with family. One of Walt's personal favorites was in Those Calloways, in which the mother, Vera Miles, is given a cape made from ermine tails by her trapper husband, Brian Keith, and son, Brandon deWilde. This scene was too much for Walt, who confessed after viewing it for the first time, "I cried like a baby."

Traditionally on Christmas morning, a huge tree appeared in the Disney's two-story living room. Walt would have spent much of the night decorating it while Lilly filled the stockings and laid out the multitude of gifts. Many of them were toys of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. Aside from the children's toys, there was no evidence of Walt's studio life in the Disney house. He didn't have framed cels on the wall nor had a Mickey Mouse toy by his phone nor wore a Donald Duck tie.

Walt strove to maintain the Santa Claus myth as long as possible. One Christmas morning when Diane was 8, she and Sharon awoke to find a beautiful playhouse on the backyard lawn. It was very reminiscent of the dwarfs' cottage from Snow White, with tiny leaded-glass windows and a mushroom chimney. It had a Dutch door for the front door and there are family home movies of one of the girls leaning too far out and falling out the top of the door with a smiling Walt coming to comfort the crying child.

The playhouse had running water and a fully equipped kitchen, even a telephone. While Diane was admiring the house, the telephone rang. A jolly voice announced himself as Santa Claus. Diane suspected later that he was their rotund butler. The voice asked how she liked the place. "I love it, Santa," she said.

Later she was telling a neighbor boy how Santa Claus had brought her the lovely playhouse. "Santa Claus!" the boy snorted in disgust, "There were men from your dad's studio putting up that house all day." She adamantly refused to believe him.

From the same unedited transcript of that Pete Martin interview, Diane Disney recalled, "What I think is so wonderful now that I've thought back over it, is that we had to want things terribly before we got them and we never got everything we wanted. And that's always good. When we were tiny, we were too young to enjoy a lot of toys. Like I see pictures of our first Christmas and I was surrounded by toys. Mechanical toys, dolls and stuffed animals of a towering size and all things like that. But when it came to the time when we really wanted things... when we were about 5 or 6... when you want rollerskates or you want a bicycle or a dog or a house or a doll. And we had to want them a long, long time. (Dad's) always been generous. But I think he realized after a time that you mustn't spoil children and that because it's an age when the more you want things, the more you like them better while you're wanting them before you get them. When you get them, you're crazy about it for a few days or weeks and then it's old.

"There was a huge tree that went to the top of our two-story living room. It was covered with a myriad of ornaments and around the tree were toys of every conceivable shape and kind. And there I was sitting, surrounded by the mechanical ones, and hitting at them as they moved and performed.

"He gave us (Diane and Sharon) each a watch when we were 7 years old that was inscribed on the back with his name and the date. Other Christmases, it was antique jewelry, which he liked. My sister and I were talking about dad. When he gives gifts he wants to give gifts you can remember him by. He's afraid that he's going to be gone and forgotten. He loves to give us jewelry. And every Christmas he's given us a little piece of jewelry. One Christmas it was usually something antique. He loves antique jewelry. Nothing expensive or elaborate but a little pair of antique gold earrings. He gave Mother once some seals in the forms of a necklace and then at a later Christmas there were some seals hanging from a bracelet. Seals used for sealing wax and things like that."

After opening his own gifts, Walt would often grumble, "I don't need that" and retreat to his room to read. Walt found more delight in the simplest of gifts than in the lavish presents from his peers in the motion picture industry. It was a philosophy that came from his financially challenged childhood. "My parents were conservative people and there were few extra dollars for such frivolities in those days. I always got some sensible, modest present for Christmas. One time Roy bought me a shiny gyroscopic top with its wonderful spinning ability," Walt once told an interviewer.

Every December over a 25-year period, Walt Disney wrote a newsy letter to his sister, Ruth Beecher, in Portland, Oregon, detailing the family events and what was going on at the studio.

On December 8, 1947, he wrote: "I bought myself a birthday-Christmas present—something I've wanted all my life—an electric train. Being a girl, you probably can't understand how much I wanted one when I was a kid, but I've got one now and what fun I'm having. I have it set up in one of the outer rooms adjoining my office so I can play with it in my spare moments. It's a freight train with a whistle, and real smoke comes out of the smokestack—there are switches, semaphores, station and everything. It's just wonderful!"

Walt was so excited that he also asked to see whether her son, Ted, might like a train set for Christmas. He made the same offer to his niece, Marjorie Davis and her son Geoffrey and his brother Herbert's grandson, David Puder.

Walt checked into St. Joseph's Hospital on November 30, 1966, and during much of the time was heavily sedated and in pain. Every year for decades as I mentioned, Walt had sent his sister Ruth a Christmas letter, accompanied by a check.

In 1966, the letter was written by Walt's secretary, Tommie Wilck. After a little small talk, she wrote: "When Walt is back in his office, I'm sure you'll get a more up-to-date and personal note from him. In the meantime, he sends his love."

Walt's last filmed introduction to his television program was filmed on October 6, 1966. It was for "A Salute to Alaska" that was to be shown in February. Walt barely moves during the introduction and looks pale. The "Epcot film" was filmed roughly three weeks later on October 27, 1966.

Walt passed away December 15, 1966, 10 days after his 65th birthday and 10 days before Christmas.

For years, I wondered what Walt might have liked on that final Christmas and reviewing my interviews with his family and friends over the years, I think the thing he really wanted was more time. More time to enjoy his grandchildren. More time to complete Epcot.

One person told me that Walt had told him that all he needed was another 10 years to make all his dreams come true. I doubt whether 10 years would have been enough to make all his dreams come true.

However, for all of us, we still have time. Time to enjoy our friends and families. Time to try and make that special dream come true.

In 1959, Walt said, "People often ask me if I could tell others how to make their dreams come true. My answer is you do it by working." That is why we still call Walt a dreamer and a "do-er."

So this holiday season, Walt has given his final Christmas gift to all of us. The thing that will make all our dreams come true is if we go out there and work to make them come true.

Happy holidays to all of you and your families and friends and may the coming year be filled with lots of Disney magic for all of us.