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 how we shop that we never imagined back in the day. Shopping for Christmas gifts and/or decorations was always simply a matter of walking downtown and wandering from store to store in hopes that something would ‘catch our eye’ and we could check another name off our list.
For many of us it was a time to finish up the ‘homemade’ gifts we’d started for our family and close friends. Younger kids made Christmas cards with colorful pictures and a signature. Some drew extra colored pictures in hopes that mom would love them and find a place to proudly display the artwork. Often, girls worked to knit a scarf or to make some hot pads for the kitchen. Boys made things out of wood like birdhouses, whirly gigs, or a nativity set. Moms and grannies stayed busy for months making quilts, blankets, sweaters, and Christmas mittens. Dads made rocking horses, doll houses, or a hope chest for a beloved daughter.
My granny sometimes placed some orders from the Sears/Roebuck Christmas ‘Wish List’ catalogue. I vaguely remember that a small Sear’s catalogue store was open for a short time in our little town, but I guess it didn’t meet sales expectations, so it was closed. I don’t remember much about the store or even who may have worked there. I think it was an act of faith that the gifts ordered that way would show up in time for wrapping and placing under the tree. Besides, there was no sure way to size clothing or to insure it would perfectly meet the need. Townsfolk in those days didn’t risk buying things unseen.
I remember being told that local merchants, who were friends and respected members of the community, had been faithful to us throughout the year. They were family men and women that had their kids in our school system, belonged to our churches, and supported our civic groups. To survive or prosper they needed our loyal support. Besides, 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 already huge pressures of cooking, getting the house cleaned, decorated, and ready for company. To lighten the load decorating was a family project. Each of us had areas for which we were responsible, often with the older kids helping the younger. It was a time for the whole family to do things together.
With Thanksgiving behind us it was the last opportunity to send out timely 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 some of my 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. They had more adult cards, too, with pictures of prints by Currier & Ives. The post office had rolls of 3-cent stamps with seasonal artwork depicting wintery holiday images. Some even had a picture of Santa Claus! It wouldn’t do to mail a Christmas card with a normal governmental picture. It had to be Christmas related and the postal service made sure the stamps reflected the season.
Only the largest stores in the nearby cities of Huntington, WV or Ashland, KY 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, but time sometimes takes its toll on memories. I may or may not have gotten my wish, who knows?
Other exciting events set the special holiday season apart. The grade school and high school bands, and choruses held their annual Christmas concerts during those days just before school let out for the holidays. The auditoriums were always crowded with parents, teachers, and friends, and other townsfolk. Efforts by the students were very well-received. Our churches, too, were going in full rehearsal to present their annual Christmas cantatas. The church I attended downtown scheduled several productions of the nativity of old, usually two per evening the week before Christmas. The men of the church built a stable complete with a roof, a lit star overhead and bales of straw. The church used kids from our youth group to play various parts including costumed actors representing a host of angels, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the wise men. In addition we had borrowed real animals from local farms including donkeys, sheep, and other livestock. The church broadcasted carols from the rooftop speakers that were heard all over town. Downtown was decorated with ropes of pine and holly with bells and Santa faces on the tops of telephone poles. Stores were displaying winter scenes and gift ideas to draw the customers in where gondolas were loaded with merchandise. I remember the jewelry store with cotton batting and spray artificial snow were so pretty. Even the bank had a Christmas display in its window.
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. I vowed that 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 would be a Whitman Sampler, or maybe some perfume. I remember a saleslady helping me pick out a handkerchief that mom would treasure on Christmas morning.
The ads on radio and TV told us over and over how many days were left until Christmas. To spread the urgency of getting out to shop they would also 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 hired by the US Postal Service. A fleet of 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, on the Greyhound bus, or by the post office. Trains, airplanes and trucks were all busy making sure that our Christmas gifts were safely at their destination in time for the festivities. If I remember right, we’d get a call from the depot or when a package had arrived for us. 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 any mysterious package arrived. The anticipation of discovering what was inside the box 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. Whether Federal Express (FedEx) or United Postal Service (UPS), or the US Postal Service (USPS), things are easier today. Whether its Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or some other event, we now satisfy our need by searching for the best deal ‘on-line.’ We place orders faster and get better deals that are beyond the wildest dreams of yesterday. The internet and credit/debit cards come together to make life very different. Lifestyles have changed and have done so dramatically. We rarely shop in downtown districts today, but instead browse the internet and soon wrap up our Christmas list. Cities and towns have lost income and the local merchants have sold out or simply closed their shops. There are movements today to restore the downtown experiences with specialty shops, coffee houses, and one-of-a-kind venues. Shopping in those old times was a special event long remembered and treasured. Life then was about seeing friends and greeting folks with a smile and a “Merry Christmas!” This, and finding the perfect gifts brightened our holiday spirit and added multiple layers of joy into our lives.
When it comes to Christmas shopping, I suppose there will always be procrastinators about. We men are notoriously prone to buy our gifts at the last minute. Luckily today, the internet makes that survivable. In many ways I think we miss the music, the crowds, the hunt for that special gift, and all the seasonal events that make Christmas special. It was such fun seeing people we know on the street and in the stores. That helped us to maintain a sense of community. It was good to visit and to see those friendly faces and interacting with the sales clerks and business owners. It was a time to build and spread Christmas cheer. The decorations and special events, helped stimulate sales. Some civic groups and churches put together gift packages for the poor and made a point to promote good will to all. Those opportunities will slip away along with the ‘brick and mortar’ stores, unless we are careful to keep those traditions alive. Maybe finding ways to restore those traditions would be a good Christmas wish for all of us. Ho-ho-ho!