Christmas with Jesse James

Jesse James, jesse jamesChristmas can be a stressful time. In fact, statistics show that you’re more likely to have a heart attack on Christmas than any other day of the year. Hanging out with family too much can be hazardous to your health.

Some families, of course, are more hazardous than others. Most people don’t have the emotional baggage that Jesse James, Jr., did. He was the son of the famous outlaw but didn’t even know it until his dad was assassinated. He thought his name was Charlie Howard and his father was named Thomas.

Despite living under aliases, the James family couldn’t give Jesse Jr. or his sister Mary a normal upbringing. Junior’s earliest memory was of a gangmember shooting through the front door at a suspected prowler. They also moved a lot and were discouraged from playing with neighborhood children.

Junior was accustomed to his father going around heavily armed at all times. One Christmas while living in his father’s final home, which is now the Jesse James House Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, Jesse decided to dress up like Santa Claus to surprise his children.

The outlaw came into the house dressed in a costume he had borrowed (not stolen) from a local church. Giving a cheery “ho ho ho” and bearing gifts and candy, he delighted his son and daughter. He asked if they had been good and Junior and Mary said they had. Santa then opened up the bag of goodies and the kids rummaged around inside. Junior felt a gun under the cloth and exclaimed that this wasn’t the real Saint Nick, but his father dressed up as Santa! Their mother then explained that Santa was very busy that year and Dad was helping him out.

So next time a family member embarrasses you at Christmas, at least be grateful they’re not packing heat.

For more stories of Jesse’s hijinks, check out my series: On the Trail of Jesse James.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

Santa Claus to seals: 5 California sights worth visiting

You already know the Southern California’s top tourist attractions by heart. Disneyland. Hollywood. Hearst Castle. Ever wonder what else is out there? Here are five great lesser-known attractions to check out on your next visit to the Golden State.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Wildlife is often entertaining, and you will get more than your money’s worth (it’s free) by making a stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Located about seven miles north of San Simeon (site of Hearst Castle) along Highway 1 on the scenic central California coast, the rookery is home to an estimated 15,000 animals, according to Friends of the Elephant Seal.

The seals travel in the open ocean for 8 to 10 months a year, but they head to land at the Rookery to give birth, breed and rest. The site is typically a hive of activity as the animals bark, scratch, crawl, fight, sleep and care for their young. They are funny, sweet and fascinating creatures to watch any time of the year. Parking and entrance to the Rookery are free, and there are plenty of viewpoints from which to enjoy the antics of these strange but wonderful creatures.

Santa Claus Statue
Did you know it’s Christmas all year long in Nyeland Acres, California? You might just miss the area’s very own jolly old St. Nick, unless you know where to look. While cruising down Highway 101 through this area of Ventura County north of Los Angeles you’ll encounter a giant 22-foot-tall statue of Santa Claus resting behind wrought-iron gates off the Rice Avenue exit on South Ventura Boulevard.

For more than 50 years, this SoCal Santa stood atop a candy store in what was then Santa Claus Lane off Highway 101, nearly 30 miles away. After the Christmas-themed attraction closed down, Santa’s future was in jeopardy. In 2003, Mike Barber, president of Garden Acres Mutual Water Co. in Nyeland Acres, took possession of him, and the 5-ton Saint Nick moved to his new digs. The custom wrought-iron gate has Santa’s initials (an “S” and a “C”) in it, and he now has company: a snowman and two soldiers. Although the site is opened by appointment only and on special occasions, you can still come to peer at him behind the gates any day of the year for free.

Santa Paula Murals
The quaint Ventura County town of Santa Paula holds a treasure trove of artwork — all on walls of buildings in the city’s downtown. As the city says, you can “enjoy a Walk Through History” by viewing the nine colorful murals as you stroll through town. Santa Paula’s rich history in aviation, “black gold,” citrus, Chumash Indians, Latino culture and more is represented on the various murals. Best of all: It’s free. Visit SantaPaulaMurals.org for more information, including a map with the murals’ locations.

Nitt Witt House

Chances are you know about Hearst Castle, the opulent mansion built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst in the central California coast town of San Simeon. But have you ever heard of the “Poor Man’s Hearst Castle?” That’s the nickname given to the Nitt Witt Ridge home at 881 Hillcrest Drive in Cambria, about 15 minutes away from Hearst’s fancy digs.

The Nitt Witt home, built lovingly out of junk, is the product of Arthur Harold Beal, aka “Captain Nitt Witt” or “Der Tinkerpaw.” Beginning in 1928, Beal spent 50 years building his “castle,” out of such items as toilet bowls, tires, tile, rocks and beer cans. In 1986, the home was named California Historical Landmark No. 939. Today’s owners, Michael and Stacey O’Malley, offer tours of the folk art home. Call 805-927-2690.

Fillmore & Western Railway
Residing in the rural town of Fillmore, north of Los Angeles, is a star of huge proportions. He’s been in more than 400 TV shows, movies and commercials. “He” is the Fillmore & Western Railway, also known as “The Movie Trains.” Just a few of his credits: “Monk,” “Seabiscuit,” “Criminal Minds,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Walk in the Clouds,” “City Slickers II,” “Bugsy” and “Fatal Instinct.” You can ride the rails on this famous train year-round for a myriad of special excursions, such as murder mystery dinner train rides, the Pumpkinliner Halloween journey and the North Pole Express trip. Visit Fillmore & Western’s Web site or call 1-800-773-8724 for ticket reservations. All aboard!

Turkey wants Santa’s bones back

A Turkish archaeologist is campaigning to have the bones of St. Nicholas, the model for the legend of Santa Claus, returned to the saint’s hometown in Turkey.

Saint Nicholas was the bishop of the Roman town of Myra, modern Demre in what is now Turkey, in the 4th century. He came from a rich family and was famous for giving money to the poor. People would leave their shoes out for him to put money in. This tradition is still kept in many Christmas celebrations today. In Spain it’s the Three Wise Men who bring presents, but they leave them in shoes. Another story has Saint Nicholas throwing gifts down the chimneys of poor young women so they would have enough dowry to get married.

He was buried in a local church, pictured here, but Italian sailors took his bones away when the Arabs invaded in the 11th century. Now the Turkish Ministry of Culture is considering the archaeologist’s request to put political pressure on Italy.

Do we now have a Turkish Zahi Hawass, fighting to get archaeological treasures returned to their native land? It’s too early to tell, but I bet that archaeologist got some nice presents in his shoes this year.

Photo of the Day (12/23/09)

When I saw this photo last week while looking for Santas from around the world, I knew I’d found today’s Photo of the Day. Although this fellow appears among the other Santas, here he is again– center stage.

The cultural mix of this Santa shot is superb. Taken by Carpetblogger in Azerbaijan, this is an excellent look at how elements of culture travel. As Carpetblogger explains, although the country is predominately Muslim, some aspects of secular Christian culture are celebrated. Santa is one of those boundary crossers.

If you have an interesting shot of cultural boundary crossing, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr Photo Pool. It could be chosen as Photo of the Day.