By Bob Trapani, Jr.
Nestled quietly along the south end of Bayview Beach, Delaware, the red and white, 4-square home known as Liston Range Front Lighthouse had everything lightkeeper Harry Spencer Sr., his wife Sophia and their children could desire from life in the 1920s and ‘30s. A spacious house, sprawling green yard and the bounty of the Delaware River and nearby marshland enabled the Spencer family to enjoy aspects of the ideal lighthouse life not readily found at other light stations along the river and bay.
Each year as summer fun, swimming and crabbing gave way to falling leaves and chilly temperatures at Liston Range Front Light, the Spencer children allowed their attention to naturally gravitate toward visions of year-end holidays like Thanksgiving — and especially Christmas. But was the Christmas holiday any different at a lighthouse? “Not really,” says Harry Spencer Jr., who lived at Liston Range Front Light from the age of 7 to 22 years from 1927 to 1942. “Christmas Day was normal. There wasn’t a lot of activity, just enjoying the family gathering.”
The simplicity of the Christmas holiday at Liston Range Front Light does not mean that the Spencer family did not forge many warm memories. In fact, Keeper Harry and his wife Sophia weaved such love and care into their family’s joyous celebration of the Yuletide season that Harry Jr. still carries those memories with him at 85 years of age. Harry Jr. recalls that with the approach of each Christmas holiday, finding the perfect fresh tree to adorn the interior of Liston Range Front Light became one of the first of the family’s preparations. “Our tree consisted of a specially selected cedar tree — not pine,” says Spencer. “It was removed with permission from a farmer’s hedgerow.”
The selection process was just the beginning though. From there, the Spencer family worked together in order to ensure their special tree stood elegantly trimmed in the main hallway of the lighthouse. “After we hauled the tree home and set it aside until the proper time for placement, dad would build a wooden frame tree stand, with a little help from me,” says Spencer. “From there, the tree was placed in the hallway the day of Christmas Eve and decorated that evening with the help of all, which included mom and dad, my dad’s mother, my three sisters who were at home and myself.”
Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, elaborate Christmas decorations for hanging on the tree were not readily available. But no sparkling tree adorned with the shiniest and most expensive ornaments ever looked better than the Spencer tree if you asked each family member. For their Christmas ornaments were made priceless by the love that went into creating each one of them for this special occasion. Harry Jr. remembers decorating the tree, saying, “The Christmas ornaments for the tree consisted of a few very precious glass balls, but most of the decorations were made by my mom who would make cut-out figures of material or knitted items such as a tree shape, a cross and camel cradles. In those days, it looked great!”
Some things about Christmas transcend time and place for children — including kids living at a lighthouse. Which child doesn’t allow their imagination to race with visions of a jolly Santa and his flying reindeer preparing to deliver that special gift on Christmas Eve? The most difficult task for any parent is to get their children tucked snugly away in bed as the clock on Christmas Eve climbs closer to that midnight hour, before surrendering to Father Time with the official arrival of Christmas Day. “We were sent to bed early so that mom and dad could locate the gifts which were hidden,” says Spencer. With the children up in their bedrooms, his parents would then wrap the presents, which Harry says was “no fancy wraps —mostly just plain paper. Whatever was available.”
The occupation of a lighthouse keeper did not pay that much better than many of the other family incomes of the 1920s and ‘30s. Though Keeper Spencer’s job was secure as long as he maintained an acceptable light station, he and his family were forced to watch their pennies and stretch each dollar to the limit, especially with a large family. These typical family financial restraints naturally governed the amount of gifts and what types of presents were selected for each member of the family. Harry Jr. remarks that, “Our gifts generally consisted of clothing, more needful than toys and much appreciated. That being said, I would usually get some small toy. I can remember receiving a metal truck with a separate cab and a trailer. I enjoyed playing with it on the beach in front of the lighthouse and making roads for the truck in the sand. Was I happy? You bet!”
After the last Christmas gift was removed from under the tree and opened, Harry’s parents would then focus their attention on preparing the festive Christmas Day meal. With the children busy giving their new gifts all the love and attention one could imagine on this exciting day, Sophia Spencer ensured that the building aromas of wonderful food being prepared in the kitchen permeated each room of the lighthouse. As mid-morning gave way to dinnertime, the family was ready to sit down and enjoy a superb holiday meal together. Harry Jr. still recalls his mother’s tantalizing food creations, saying, “Dinner was the usual festive type. My mom could make anything taste good. Yes, we had a turkey if it was available. If not, one of our large chickens that we raised at the lighthouse became a make-believe turkey. We couldn’t tell the difference though.”
What would a Christmas holiday be without family and friends paying a Yuletide visit? The Spencer family entertained their share of visitors at Liston Range Front Light over the holiday season, though not as many as other families might have due to the challenges of wintertime travel to their riverside location in Bayview Beach. Harry Sr. and Sophia would welcome their family and friends into their warm home and provide them with a homemade treat to help celebrate the festive occasion.
“We made homemade Hires Root Beer and served it to our visitors with a piece of mom’s fruitcake,” says Spencer. “I loved the taste of the root beer as long as it didn’t get too old.” Harry Jr. remembers a humorous moment involving the serving of the Hires Root Beer, saying, “One time, we opened a bottle not realizing it was too old — the age of the soda making it much stronger. Once the cap was popped, the liquid shot straight up into the air and hit the ceiling.” Knowing the pride that Keeper Spencer and his wife Sophia applied to maintaining an impeccable light station, one can imagine they weren’t laughing at that time when the root beer became more of a scientific experiment gone mad rather than a refreshing holiday beverage.
Looking back on the collective Christmases at Liston Range Front Light, Harry Spencer Jr. recalls his fondest memory — the Christmas stocking. The stockings were neither colorful nor filled with elaborate gifts, but their contents made a lasting impression on Harry. “The usual surprise on Christmas morning was our stockings,” says Spencer. “They were not the pretty red ones — just a regular stocking or sock, but it was filled with many pieces of hard crystal candy shaped like a lion, tiger or some other animal, an orange and a switch. A switch was a branch from a tree that warned us that if we weren’t good, it would be used. That never happened but it was a warning to remember. In addition, we also found a few lumps of coal in the bottom. For what reason, I don’t recall though.”
Christmas Day for the Spencer family could have surely taken place at any home, in any town across America during the 1920s and ‘30s, but the one thing that made their holidays unique was the fact that the festive season took place in a lighthouse during the golden era of keeping a good light. Though the days of lighthouse keepers tending to the mariners’ guiding light are over, the memories of Christmas at Liston Range Front Light still burn brightly in the heart of Harry Spencer Jr. He sums up those memories, saying, “I may have been fortunate to have lived in a lighthouse but I enjoyed the Christmas holiday like every other youngster of the time. It was really Christmas without the fanfare, but it was perfectly acceptable. At my age today, Christmas is still the most acceptable holiday.”