Have Yourself A Merry Skate Guard Christmas

"When the winter days are come
And Christmas carols thrill the air
And snows besiege the farmer's home,
And pallid woods stretch bleak and bare,
Ice spreads a solid glassy floor
Across the lake from shore to shore,
Then joyous troops delight to wheel
And whirl upon the glancing steel."

- Isaac McLellan, "Poems Of The Rod And Gun Or Sports By Flood And Field", 1886

Christmas is upon us and it's almost time to wrap up another year of Skate Guard stories. Pour yourself a cup of holiday cheer and take a moment to yourself to enjoy this eclectic collection of holiday-themed stories from some of history's greatest skaters! 

A young girl longingly looking at a Sonja Henie doll in a shop window at Christmas. Photo courtesy USC Digital Library. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection.


Much has been written about Sonja Henie's omnipresent father Wilhelm. The World Champion track cyclist and fur magnate has been historically caricatured as the ultimate 'skating parent' who wheeled and dealed behind the scenes to ensure his daughter's success at any cost. Wilhelm was the basis for Jean Hersholt's role in Sonja's film "One In A Million", her chaperone and manager and even the person who signed at least half of the photographs brought to her dressing rooms by fans. Though loathed by many of Sonja's rivals - and perhaps with very good reason - his devotion to his daughter was unwavering. In the December 29, 1936 issue of "The New York Sun", Sonja said, "He was always so interested. He used to always come and watch at each competition. He was always there, always so enthusiastic. That made it all so easy."

When Wilhelm Henie died suddenly at the age of sixty five on May 10, 1937 in Hollywood as the result of a blood clot in his lung, at his bedside were Sonja, his wife Selma and actor Tyrone Power. His death was a huge blow to Sonja at the very height of her success. One story that illustrates he was by no means an ogre takes us back to Norway during the Great War.

One Christmas when Sonja was a little girl, all she wanted from Julenissen was a pair of single runner skates. When she woke up on Christmas morning, the candles on the tree had been lit and she and her brother Leif began opening presents. Her parents were shocked when she showed little interest in the dolls she had been given. Suddenly, Leif gave a cry of delight when he opened a box containing a brand new pair of speed skates. After every package was opened, there were still no skates for Sonja. She retreated to her bedroom to hide her tears.

The July, 2, 1938 issue of the "Long Island Daily Press" explained how her father saved the day: "Her parents felt her pain as much as she did. Her father made a sudden decision and called out to her: 'But there is still another present for you. I don't know what can have happened to it. I'll go down to my shop and see if I left it there.' Hurriedly putting on his hat and coat, Wilhelm Henie went in search of a sporting goods store. They were all closed on Christmas Day, but he found the address of one of the proprietors whom he had once met and went to his house. The proprietor was having a gay time in the midst of his family and was not anxious to leave for the sake of one possible customer. But, when Mr. Henie explained the circumstances, he was truly sympathetic. Together they opened the store and selected a beautiful pair of skates which they wrapped in a colourful package. Hurrying home, Mr. Henie found Sonja lying in her bed, trying to stifle her sobs. She reluctantly followed him downstairs and opened the package which he had left at the foot of the tree. Immediately her attitude changed. She yelled and danced with glee when the shiny skates emerged from the box. Rushing to her room, she changed into her winter play clothes and joined Leif who was just then leaving for the skating pond with his new speed skates."

The next day, a family friend happened to pass by the pond. There was Sonja, racing around the ice like she had been at it for years! He told her parents, who came down to see what all the fuss was about. It was then and there that Wilhelm Henie decided Sonja was "a born skater".


Toller Cranston (left) and Xaviera Hollander (right)

For several years in the seventies, famed former Dutch madam Xaviera (de Vries) Hollander lived in Toronto... and the author of the bestseller "The Happy Hooker: My Own Story" once ended up spending the holidays with Toller Cranston and Mrs. Ellen Burka. In his memoir "Zero Tollerance", Toller wrote, "Some of the wildest parties on earth, the kind you read about in the 'National Enquirer', were happening almost nightly. I attended a number of them. They were quite the most exciting events that I had ever witnessed. Curiously, they were non-sexual. The guests were interesting people who danced and smoked grass. In many ways, they were the groovy who's who of Toronto. Ellen, a former Dutch skating champion, felt sorry for the poor little Dutch girl in a foreign country. Well, the poor little Dutch girl was pushing fifty, I think, although she claimed to be thirty-seven. Ellen invited Xaviera and her brother to a Christmas turkey dinner. That was all rather titillating for me. I began to compile a list of sordid questions that I wanted to ask our guest, particularly about the German shepherd that she claimed, in 'The Happy Hooker', to have seduced in South Africa. It was not to be. Xaviera was more interested in Santa Claus and the candy at the bottom of her stocking that she was in furthering my sexual education. Sex never entered the dinner conversation. She left thrilled, and I went to bed bored and disappointed... Shortly before Worlds, Xaviera, like a kind of camp mother, threw me a party in Ellen's house. The most exotic specimens in the land attended - interesting people that I normally would not have had access to. Many of the neighbours must have been glued to the windows. I'm not sure whether Xaviera's species had ever before hit the North York suburbs. At exactly twelve midnight, when Ellen and I thought that maybe things were getting slightly out of hand, Xaviera sized up the situation and announced, 'The party's over. Toller has to get some sleep.' The party and the guests vanished within two seconds."


Philadelphia's Joseph Chapman made history in 1923 when he won the first U.S. junior pairs title in history with his wife Ruth. That wasn't his only thrilling moment on the ice. In his book "Fifty Years Of Skating", he recalled, "Somewhere within this initial period of ice skating, lasting from my first venture until the year 1900, I had my unforgettable experience of being the first to skate upon an absolutely unmarked and perfect surface of black ice on the Wissahickon Creek. The setting for this great thrill could not have been more ideal because it occurred upon a Christmas morning at a time when I had just received a brand new pair of the most approved type of club skates for a Christmas present. There had been two or three days of sharp weather - sharper and more sustained than usual - but it was with only a mere hope that I hurried down to the Wissahickon Creek that Christmas morning with my new skates dangling from a strap, hoping against hope that a certain stretch of the Creek which hardly ever became frozen, might, in fact, be possible that day. Sure enough, the park guard, whom I questioned, said that I could go on, and I made the first marks upon a stretch of ice without a mark on it, and so thin and dangerous looking that it seemed I was skating upon the very surface of the water itself. This was an experience I shall never forget and one which I have only been able to repeat once or twice since then."


Dorothy Hamill (left) and a vintage Head ski jacket (right)

As we all know quite well, the costs of figure skating mean that people often have to make sacrifices... especially at Christmastime. Sometimes, however, Santa works a little magic. In her book "Dorothy Hamill: On And Off The Ice", America's sweetheart recalled, "One day I was shopping with my mom and I noticed a Head ski jacket in a store window. It was white with a beautiful fox fur collar. I showed it to my mom who assured me that she would love to buy it for me but couldn't afford it right now. I understood but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I stood and gazed longingly at it every time I passed the store. 'Could I have it for Christmas?' I asked one day. Mom shook her head. 'I wish I could say yes, Dorothy, but I can't. Not this year. It's ninety dollars.' I talked about the coat at the club and described what it looked like. My arch rival overhead the conversation and a week later she came in Skyrink wearing the coveted jacket. I was crushed. When I went home and told my mother, she was full of sympathy, knowing the kind of social pressures that existed in the club, but was unable to do anything to help... Nationals that year were held in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I was ready for them. I was third after school figures and Sonya [Dunfield] was ecstatic. I was, she felt, perfectly placed to move up. The free skating competition went smoothly. I skated as well as I knew how, and as I came off the ice Sonya gave me a hug. 'I think you did it!' she said. But it was not to be. I got my first taste of skating politics that day. In spite of a good performance I was awarded mediocre marks and finished second to Juli McKinstry... As I came out of the dressing room after the free skating, my mom came up with something draped over her arm. It was the Head ski jacket with the fox collar - the one I had coveted since the fall. She put it around my shoulders and gave me a hug. 'I didn't quite make it for Christmas,' she said, 'but I think it was worth waiting for.'"

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.