Building the Mood
Last week Fred Jones had a photo posted that hits right on one of my memories for this time of year. How exciting it used to be when Harry Matney climbed the light poles and strung Christmas lights with bells or Santa’s image, along with ropes of pine and holly all around the downtown area. In those days, downtown was a big deal. In my mind it ran from Clay Street 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 or more to travel its length, and that was without really going into the many stores. There’s no doubt that part of the reason was that the streets were busy with folks out shopping and stopping for a chat when friends were encountered.
The display windows were all decorated with fake snow made of cotton during those days. Even the bank put out some little village replicas with white cotton batting to look like snow. Some sparkly garlands were wrapped around the little scenes of towns. They were certain to show displays of the gifts we could buy to put under our trees. Wright Brothers Jewelry had diamond rings, necklaces, and charm bracelets laid out on black felt, just under a bright spot light. The corner store had all kinds of decorations in those many windows and had a ‘spray on’ snow in each corner to attract those walking to feel the spirit of the upcoming holiday. On one gondola they had boxes of cellophane ice sickles for decorating our Christmas trees. Western Auto had a display of bicycles and sold strains of lights. In those days the outdoor lights were large and had thick glass. But the indoor lights were a little lighter. They also had the newest feature, bubble lights, which added excitement to the tree.
Down at the ten-cent store they were playing records including Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” Business was good because it seemed that everyone coming out of the stores was carrying gift-wrapped packages. In the dime store they had a teenaged girl employed just to wrap gifts. 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.
The spirit of the people seemed happier for some reason and laughter was everywhere. Everybody spoke to one another and often stopped for a brief exchange about families, shopping, or food that was to be prepared. There were hugs and I usually 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. One caught me once but I told her I was rubbing it in. 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. Who knows? I could have ended up with grey hair just like her!
I had to stop and dream after passing the flower shop and sneaking a peek at the Western Auto bike display. That red one would really fit the bill, if I was very, very lucky. Think of the hills I could coast down and how quickly I could cross town. 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 closer. Back then every neighbor and every person around knew who we were and would step in and correct any misbehavior observed. There were a few secret spots to carry out evil, but the kids were generally safe compared to the risks today.
I remember once going all over town in and out of stores trying to come up with enough artificial icicles to decorate the family tree. It was the style back then to carefully place each icicle, one at a time, so it hung in sheets as straight as possible. A few wasn’t enough. Each branch had to have several to the point that it drooped at the tip. When the lights were turned on they reflected colorful images on the icicles.
The big old tree lights I mentioned earlier were later were sold as ‘outside’ lights, but they were the first kind we had. A couple of years later the glass bulbs were slightly smaller, but still thicker than any you will see today. They also had a problem in that when one bulb burned out the whole string would not illuminate. I spent a lot of time testing bulbs to find the bad one. Once found, I was a hero!
I remember when mom bought a set of the fancy ‘bubble-lights.’ Over the years we added one or two more strings of those. When we first got them I would sit in wonder and watched the liquid bubble up from the stem to the point. It would be decades before we’d see a tree with only white lights, or blue ones. As lights have become smaller, they also transverse the season and show up at the strangest times/places. At a nearby university in my current neighborhood, the entrance to the school is always lit up with white mini-lights strung through 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 not as magical and romantic as were the old days downtown.
How much better it was on those years when we were treated with a light flurry of snow while we were out shopping and hearing the carolers? The Methodist Church on the corner had their living nativity 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. As I grew older I would be allowed to play the roles of the shepherds, innkeeper, Joseph, or a Wiseman. Once of the girls would play the Virgin Mary. Each year there would be an effort put out 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. I read in the Lazer the other day that there were plans to do a nativity at Main Street Park, near the library. If you can, check it out.
I remember once seeing and hearing a group of adults, perhaps from a local church, that would go building to building and in the neighborhoods singing carols. Sometimes they would be invited in for ‘hot chocolate,’ or ‘coffee.’ I think they especially focused on homes with shut-ins, or elderly. I know later, when I was older, I sang in some of these choirs. We performed for the troops at the veteran’s hospital, and to some of the local retirement homes. Afterward, they often shared their memories of Christmases past. This, and the appreciation we saw on their faces encouraged us to return the next year.
Well, the season is upon us again. Today the big box stores have their promotional events planned out. The main streets downtown are a bit barren when compared to the past, but the traffic is good at the outlying shopping centers. We can still find the spirit if we look, but it isn’t nearly as magic as it was for us when each storefront not only displayed their wares, but wanted to meet and greet, 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. Worthwhile living is about the people we love. Christmas is about the One who loves us.