Growing up in Louisa – Christmas Downtown
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
How exciting it used to be! I remember ladders leaning against light poles and strings of lights, or fake bells tied with red ribbon, and ropes garlands of pine and holly, being tied to the streetlights in our little downtown. Poinsettias were displayed in shop windows and women and girls were pinning on broaches depicting the theme. Red wool scarves wrapped around the necks of men and women to block out the cold, but more likely to display their wearers participation of holiday spirit.
In those days downtown Louisa seemed big to me. After all, it went down Madison, across the tracks and on down to Main Cross where it turned the corner and went as far as City Hall and the fire station. What with looking in the windows and greeting folks, it could take 30 or 40 minutes to travel its length, and that was without really going into the many stores.
The windows were all decorated with fake snow made of cotton during those days. It was rare to see a white spray on the window glass, but some was imported to dress up displays. Sparkly garlands would be wrapped around little scenes of towns, electric trains. Displays of all kinds of gifts were shown to suggest what we might consider as a gift to put under our trees. I recall that Wright Brothers Jewelry had diamond rings, necklaces, and charm bracelets lay out on black felt, just under a bright light with bright cutout snowflakes and glass globe decorations suitable to hang on any tree. The corner store had all kinds of decorations in those many windows and had a ‘spray on’ snow in each corner of the glass to attract those walking by to feel the spirit of the upcoming holiday.
Somewhere along the street a store was playing Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” Everyone coming out of stores seemed to be carrying gift-wrapped packages instead of the usual plan cardboard box, or one with the store’s name printed on the top. In the dime store they had a teenaged girl employed just to wrap. Instead of string, the boxes were fancied up with ribbon. I remember watching the girl take a pair of scissors and pull the ribbon across the blade making it curl and dangle from the bow. It looked like magic. She was so talented!
Back then, the spirit of the people seemed happier for some reason and laughter was everywhere. Everybody spoke to one another and stopped for brief visits to exchange news or updates about families, shopping, or food that was to be prepared. There were hugs and I got my pat on the head, too. Occasionally some lady would plant a wet kiss on my cheek and it was all I could do to not wipe it off in front of her. The sentiment was not lost, but a cold, wet cheek wasn’t at all what I wanted. Besides, I had just heard about germs and shuttered to think about which decease I would soon contract.
Western Auto had this wonderful red bike! Wow! Think of the hills I could coast down next summer and how quickly I could cross town to visit with my friends. In those days, going across town was not an issue. Today, of course, we hardly let a kid off the block and prefer they stay even closer. Back then every neighbor, every person knew who we were and would step in and correct any misbehavior observed. Our parents would soon get a phone call, too. There were few secret spots for either kids or adults to carry out evil, and generally the kids were safe. Yes, there were minor exceptions, but none such as happens today.
I remember once going all over town trying to come up with enough artificial icicles to decorate the family tree. It was the style back then to place each icicle, one at a time, so it hung in sheets as far down as possible. A few wasn’t enough. Each branch had to have several to the point that it drooped.
The big old light that later were sold as ‘outside’ lights, were the first we had. The glass in those early bulbs was thicker than any you see today and the colors flat by today’s standards. It was later that the fancy ‘bubble-light’ became available. We added one or two strings of those on our trees. We kids would sit in wonder as we watched the liquid bubble up the shank to the point and another would follow. It would be decades before we’d see a tree with only white lights, or blue ones. As light have become smaller, they also transverse the season and show up at the strangest times/places. At a nearby university in my neighborhood, the entrance to the school is always lit up with white micro-lights strung in the branches of the trees. Restaurants, hotels and conference centers now leave them up all year. It does make things feel like a ‘fairy land,’ but still it’s not so magical as were the old days downtown.
How much better was it on those years when we were treated with a light flurry or two while out shopping and hearing the carolers? The Methodist Church on the corner had their living naivety scene and between shows played carols from the big speakers on the roof. “Oh, Come, all ye faithful,” and “Joy to the Worlds,” was a welcome sound and brought our minds back to the purpose of the celebration. We could see, and later play the roles of, the shepherds, the Wise men, Mary and Joseph.
Each year there would be an effort to find the perfect baby to play the role of Christ, and to find sheep, a donkey, or other appropriate livestock. In the end, a rough stable was created and straw spread about and the play went on with a reading of the scripture.
I remember once seeing and hearing a group of adults, perhaps from a local church, that would go house to house throughout the neighborhoods singing carols. Sometimes they would be invited in for ‘hot chocolate,’ or ‘coffee,’ I was told. I think they especially focused on homes with shut-ins, or the elderly. I know later, after coming to Virginia, I sang in some of these groups. We also went to the veteran’s hospital, and retirement homes. We were blessed by seeing the appreciation on their faces and the feeling we may have cheered some of the patients.
Let’s not forget about all those various Christmas Concerts and parades that came at us from every direction. As someone involved in the band, as well as the school chorus, and my church choir, it was a busy season. First, learning all the music and practicing it for hours, then the big event. I remember grade-school concerts, too as well as those at the high school, and one down at the bandstand next to the courthouse. Cantatas were at most of the churches and drew pretty good crowds. Nearly everyone was exposed to the words and events of Luke 2, and left knowing this was what got the whole thing going. What better gift to mankind could be than the birth of the Christ child?
Well, the season is upon again. Today the big box stores have their ‘Black Friday’ events going and the follow-up sales to keep the shoppers in the stores. The downtown main streets are barren when compared to the past, but the traffic is immense at the outlying shopping centers. We can still find the spirit if we look, but for me it isn’t nearly as magic as it was when each storefront not only displayed their wares, but sought to meet and greet, and to share and to participate in the lives of the community.
Like Scrooge, maybe it’s time to leave Christmas past and look to how we can make a better Christmas future. He came to realize in the epic story, that life is more than things. Worthwhile living is about the people we love and Christmas is about the One who loves us.