Christmas is Coming!
Black Friday may have come and gone, but the shopping season is just heating up! The interesting thing is that we are in the middle of major changes in commerce that we never imagined back in the day. Shopping for Christmas gifts and/or decorations was a matter of walking downtown and wandering from store to store with hope that something would ‘catch our eye’ and we could checkoff another name on our list.
When I was growing up my granny would sometimes place some orders for Christmas an order from the Sears/Roebuck ‘Wish List’ catalogue. I vaguely remember that a small Sear’s outlet used to be on Madison somewhere between Meade’s Grocery and Land’s Sundry, but it was so long ago I can’t bring up any details other than it was a catalogue store. It was an act of faith that the gifts would show up in time for wrapping and placing under the tree. Buying this way was pretty chancy since it was much like buying ‘sight unseen.’
I was told at the time that local merchants had been faithful to us and deserved the first shot at fulfilling the family’s needs. I knew the owners as family men with kids that were in our school system. They needed our loyal support, besides, by buying local we’d be certain we had just the gift we wanted without having to wait for shipping. For the grownups finding just the right thing at an affordable price created a dilemma that added to the pressures of cooking and getting the house cleaned, decorated and ready for company. To lighten the load we made decorating a family project, each of us having areas we were responsible to handle and other things we’d do together.
At Thanksgiving it was nearing the last opportunity to send out Christmas cards to friends and family around the country. When I was in grade school I would drop by the ‘corner store’ and pick up a box or two of brightly colored, cartoonish Christmas cards to send to my classmates and a few cousins from out of town. Many ‘store-bought’ cards had pictures of Christmas trees, Santa, Reindeer, snowmen, holly, and images of the three Wisemen, or nativity scenes. The post office had rolls of 3-cent stamps with seasonal artwork depicting ‘Currier & Ives, or other wintery holiday images. It wouldn’t do to mail a Christmas card with a stamp showing FDR’s profile. It had to be Christmas related!
Only the largest stores in nearby cities had a live Santa to hear children’s wishes. I remember once crawling upon Santa’s lap and whispering my wish for a new Roy Rogers six-shooter, some cowboy boots, and maybe a shiny new bike. I don’t recall any stores in our little town that had a Santa. Other things set the season apart. The grade school and high school bands, and choruses held their annual Christmas concerts. Those were always crowded and well-received. Churches were in rehearsal to present their Christmas cantatas. The church I attended downtown held a nightly replay of the nativity, using real donkeys, sheep, and other livestock. The church broadcasted carols from the rooftop speakers. The downtown area was decorated with holly and bells, or Santa faces, and the stores were at work setting up window displays, often with images of a community blanketed with artificial snow.
Once or twice a relative would send me a dollar inside a card, or sneak one to me while avoiding the eyes of the other adults. Because it was a secret, I would not look at the windfall until I was alone. The urge would build my expectations until I felt about to burst. I knew what the words ‘burning a hole in my pocket’ meant. I was more than ready to run down to the first candy counter I could find, but in the end, I would save the bill to buy mom something special. She certainly deserved something nice and I was just the guy to make her Christmas special. It was Whitman Sampler time, or maybe some perfume, once I could collect enough to make the purchase.
The ads on radio and TV told me over and over how many days were left until Christmas. To spread the urgency of getting out to shop they would have a reminder of the postal backlog, reported to be immense. There were truckloads of cards, advertising, gift packages, and letters for those poor postal workers to sort and deliver. The movie, ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ had several examples showing how busy the postal workers were during the holidays. Extra workers were put on by the US Postal Service and the trucks ran the roads moving everything from one center to another. Even the newsreels at the theater had segments showing how hard the post office was working to satisfy the public’s needs.
In those days it was common for packages to arrive by train, the bus, or the post office. Trains, airplanes and trucks were all busy making sure that our Christmas gifts were there in time. If I remember right, we’d get a call when they had a package for us, so we’d rush right down to lay claim and take it home. I remember getting a crate of Florida oranges one year from an uncle that lived there. It was an exciting time in our household when a mysterious package arrived. It was the anticipation of discovering what was inside the box that made for an exciting time.
For years we saw signs by retailers and catalogers advertising that if they have your order by a given date, they would promise to have it delivered by Christmas. The resources for doing that today are many times greater now because of internet, widely dispersed regional delivery depots, more truckers and private delivery services, airplanes, trains and competitive package deliverers. Whether Federal Express or United Postal Service, or USPS, things are easier. Black Friday, or not, we now just satisfy that need by reaching for our smart hand-held device. Once you do that the system installs ‘cookies’ that will be added to your profile. The ads will then show up, reminding you it is time to reorder, or consider a similar product that is just now, ‘on-sale!’
We place orders faster and get better deals that are beyond the wildest dreams of yesterday. The internet and our plastic cards come together to make life every so different. We rarely shop in downtown districts today, but instead browse the internet and soon wrap up our Christmas list.
I suppose there will always be procrastinators about. Men are infamously prone to buy at the last minute. Luckily today, the internet makes that survivable. In many ways I think we miss the music, the crowds, shopping for that special gift, and all the special events that make Christmas special. Seeing people we know on the street helped us to stay a community. It was good to visit and to see those friendly faces. Interacting with the sales clerks and business owners, and spreading about Christmas cheer, the stimulation brought on by the decorations, and finding the perfect gift for someone made the season. Those opportunities will slip away along with ‘brick and mortar’ stores, unless we are careful to keep those traditions alive. Maybe saving those traditions would be a good Christmas wish. Ho-ho-ho!