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Growing up in Louisa – About Christmas Gifts! 

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

Many adults know that mankind’s hope is hinged on the birth of the Christ child. Kids on the other hand cannot help but think that Christmas is about grand celebrations that end with RECEIVING and giving gifts. We all put emphases on the importance of staying on Santa’s “Good List,” (masking our real motives) so we might find wonderful presents under the tree (Incentive or bribe?)

TV ads, cartoons, and even our teachers encourage a mixture of secular and traditional activities, but they are slow to explain the reason for that nativity so long ago in Bethlehem. Our courts have literally put ‘the fear of (mentioning) God’ in them. The freedom of speech for them is cloaked in the idea of separation of church and state. Indeed, the government ought not establish or favor a religion, but to deny citizens the right to communicate religious thought is a restraint of other freedoms.

The carols, or at least many of them, tell the story of Christ’s birth, but when it is mixed with fictional stories such as the Grinch, Rudolf, and the Polar Express, the truth is watered down in favor of having ‘good feelings’ kinds of stories. They are lovely stories, but they distract rather than explain, with the possible exception of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ wherein the version in Luke 2, is presented to those who are open to hear.

Back in the forties and fifties, at least in Louisa, the Christmas season kicked off right after Thanksgiving. The stores downtown went to work putting up Christmas decorations at that time. Now that day is devoted to ‘Black Friday’ sales. Of course, we didn’t have those sales, nor did we have the following ‘Cyber Monday.’ We didn’t have anything like today’s technological advances so I’m sure we’d miss the meaning of the recently coined word, ‘cyber.’ Today, the holiday season starts much earlier in hope of creating and snagging all the Christmas dollars possible for a healthy year-ending third quarter sales. This was the season that is definitive for businesses, and would spell out a ‘life or death’ sentence for those just hanging on. Investors, storekeepers, and bankers watch the marketplace carefully, holding their breath in anticipation of the results.

Then tradition demanded that stores break out their Christmas decorations and turn on the music we loved to hear year-after-year. Like Palov’s dogs, we salivated and readied ourselves for the festive times ahead. One could watch teachers rushing to help students make Christmas cards, or gifts for parents. Annual rehearsals of Christmas pageants were begun and roles were assigned. Some told the story of that first Christmas with the shepherds and wisemen, while others, such as the classic works, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens or Clement Clarke Moore’s poem (‘T was the night before Christmas,) were common themes meant to incite good behavior and a warm feeling for the season. These took us into a joyful attitude and a time emitting a preponderance of hedonistic pleasures that have continued to grow over the years. Granted, in these events, lessons of morals are taught, but the true message of Christmas continues to be ‘watered down.’ This is caused by a focus on ‘gifts’ and marketing strategies, or perhaps out of fear of being outside of constitutional limitations. What became politically correct began its move toward what is ‘legally’ correct. Makes me wonder who’s writing the laws…

Growing up in the forties and fifties, at least in hindsight, many of our families were still suffering from having just come through the Great Depression, and two world wars. In a relatively poor economy, it had become normal for many of us to turn to making hand-made gifts for our friends and family. I remember that fathers and grandfathers often worked for weeks, if not months, to secretly produce a wooden rocking horse, a new baby’s cradle, a child’s rocking chair, or maybe some new shelving for mom. Workshops were ‘off-limits’ during the fall months. They were deep in freshly made sawdust.

Inside many homes, mothers and grandmothers would spend long hours sewing clothing, making sock-monkeys, knitting sweaters, or mittens, or gloves, or even for that special someone, an afghan. I know I was trapped more than once when Granny had me hold a skein of yarn so she could roll it into a ball. The quilting frame told me that a new quilt would soon be stitched that would make the cold spells warmer on those cold winter’s evenings. These patchwork masterpieces added a heavy weight over the sleeping child, but felt so good.

Even felt stockings that were ‘hung by the chimney with care,’ were often handmade, either by older kids or one of the adults of the household. These gifts made with loving hands were long-cherished and kept safely away in cedar chests during the summer ‘off-season.’ Fall was an especially busy time as the holidays were anticipated with a touch of dread that everything was not yet at the ready.

Some families suffered more from the results of war, the great depression, and the ups and downs of the mining industry. Many families simply lacked enough funds to give a lot of things to their children. To many, if not most, keeping up mortgage payments and feeding everyone was often difficult. The gifts pretty much had to be homemade, or were simpler things that could be afforded. Some kids looking in their stockings found gifts of fruits, nuts, penny candy, or other small things that were useful. Toys, other than the homemade variety, weren’t always possible to obtain. Sometimes things like books of fairy tales, or hand-me-downs where saved to be passed out on Christmas morn.

I knew of one family that lived on the principle that frugality would make life easier for everyone in the long-run. While they may have had resources, they elected to remain thrifty. A daughter told me later that she was shocked when her ‘poor’ father, who always dressed in ragged overalls, took her to a car dealership and paid cash for a new family car. Up to then she had no idea her family had any money. She had always assumed they were poor, but discovered finally that they were well-to-do as compared to many others. Her father explained, “I’d rather neighbors like us for who we are than because they think we have money.”

While putting together this article, I started thinking about the things I remember getting, or things that my friends received ‘under the tree’ on Christmas morning. Later, when I was older, as a parent and grandparent, I concluded that ‘noisy’ things should be avoided at all costs. Still, every year it seemed that someone got somebody a drum for Christmas. Others got kazoos and whistles, or dolls that cried, or recited a repetitious song. These distracting devices would add to the din at Christmas. Even the ‘walkie-talkies’ promoted a disruptive environment when I desired a little ‘peace on earth.’ But then, again, it only happens once a year and after a time, the toys will break or be forgotten, and quiet will prevail.

I knew folks who collected certain kinds of things that would be displayed as seasonal decorations each year. Nativity scenes are an example. I also remember a friend from Fort Gay who treasured ‘Hallmark’ ornaments, and porcelain figures. Another family friend kept Christmas dishes, or plates. Others kept little lighted villages to grace the mantle or tabletop. One lady I knew collected different kinds of snow-globes. I remember shaking one and racing to another to keep the action going. One or two also played music when the base was wound. These seemed so magical when I was a kid. It seemed like a wintery wonderland.

 Toys for the kids over the years might have included cabbage-patch dolls, or some little hairy trolls. A girl would get a toy stroller (or pram) to give her dolls a ride. Lucky girls got a new tea set (some porcelain, some of tin, or even plastic, which relatively new.) Kid’s might get a set of Lincoln Logs, an erector set, a chemistry set (bad smells), a periscope, Wheel-lo-Matic, Slinky, a toy kitchen and bake oven, toy soldiers, an electric train, airplanes, a bike, a spinning top, or sporting goods. Whew! So many things, so little room under the tree.

I remember getting several board games such as ‘Monopoly,’ or ‘Clue.’ I got a plastic chess set once, and we were given a nice ‘nutcracker’ to share as a display under the tree. I knew folks who collected ‘Coke’ items, but they especially liked trays and Christmas-related Coke ads. These were usually pretty pictures stamped on metal trays. Some had a picture of Santa, or a pretty girl dressed in a Santa outfit.

In spite of a poor economy, merchants in our little town increased their inventories and displayed the latest in toys, toiletries, tools, and tinsel. The Favorite five and dime (we called it the ten-cent store), the Corner store (under the Brunswick Hotel,) Land’s Sundry, the hardware stores, Wright Brother’s Jewelry, the Bargain Store, and the several department stores, were all primed and ready should someone come in to buy a gift. Street decorations and the storefront displays set the town hopping with customers looking for just the right thing. I remember the friendly people that met on the streets and talked under the awnings while their kids mingled with peers around the supporting posts. It seemed as if music was everywhere, while all eyes were on the heavens looking for that first fluffy snowflake to make the season right.     

 I remember those heavy ‘outdoor’ lights that some strung over the evergreen bushes around their house. These were bigger than the bulbs used in-doors. We also had those bubble lights that were in fashion for a time. In those early days colors were limited to green, red, blue, and maybe a rare yellow, or orange. It would be years later before miniature lights came in single colors, such as blue or white. These have evolved to the point that some commercial businesses use them year around to add mystique to an antrium, or lobby. Even the university near my home has the trees on the walkways lit all the time. It’s as if the campus is a fairyland.

As a family, we used to pick an evening just to walk around town and see the lights. When growing up, nearly everyone had a tree in front of a window, and some had the outdoor lights, but few had the massive displays that can be found today. I doubt circuits would have allowed the use of the required electrical amps, anyway. They didn’t have inflatables in those days, and rarely had much more than maybe a static nativity display, or a plywood snowman figure in their yards. There were some churches that sent out carolers every year. Families would have some hot chocolate and cookies to share with the cold singers if they were lucky. Our church focused on ‘shut-ins’ and the elderly, and sometimes traveled in pickup trucks to reach those further away. The temperature seemed cold, but the carolers would bunch up together to block the wind in hopes of staying warm.

All in all, families of the communities worked together to make the season delightful and magical. There were those who knew, or made it a point to know, families that might be struggling. Secret gifts would appear out of the night, as if a greater power knew the need. ‘Goodwill toward men,’ seemed possible somehow in a world that wasn’t always so nice. The Grinches of those days were few and the Scrooges, if there were any, were not intrusive. Maybe peace on earth would be possible, I wondered.      

Our little Louisa became a magical place during the Christmas season. It was be that way on other holidays, too, but it was especially so during this time of year. Over time our memories built up and continued to grow in understanding and taste. As to gifts, it wasn’t the lack of things we remember most, but rather what really mattered. The townsfolk were more than friends, they seemed to be family. More than anything, we knew we had each other. Even in the worst of years we were blessed in some way, and in our hearts, we knew it. While it was normal for some of us to have disappointments, we still had each other and were prepared to stand tall for the sake of others. Christmas was, and is, special. It had a greater meaning than just gifts. The value of the season was far greater than even we knew, and it continues for those wise enough to tend to the traditions.   

The items and events I’ve shared are of things I remember. I plan to write more next week about the spirit of the town that I remember. As I’ve grown older, it follows that I’ve seen many seasons. The first of them arising from my school years at the good old Louisa grade school, and later at LHS. As might be expected, memories are somewhat crumpled together into a montage. I can no longer easily separate some of them into a single event. Still, there is a commonality that continues to repeat year after year, to confirm the worth and real reason for the season. May you, too, find it so and do what you can to keep the faith. Being happy and sharing the reason is not wrong, so be certain to share that message with others, and do what you can also to add to the magic of the season. Let’s purpose to keep it going by repeating the good news given in Bethlehem so long ago. Proclaiming peace and goodwill and remembering the child delivered in a stable may, after all, tell some child what it is all about. If so, it will be totally worth it!  Merry Christmas, my friends.

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-1 #1 Bernard 2017-12-17 21:33
Great article Mike, Yes the times have changed since we were the younger folks caught up in the Christmas excitement. Your memories of how the town was really hit the memory button. One of my fondest memories and something I really enjoyed was playing "Santa" at the ten cent store as you correctly referred to it. Of course Mr. Van was always doing things like that around the holidays at the Favorite 5, 10 & 25 cent store. His son-in-law, Tom Hinkle managed the store for several years. I recall just about every store up & down Madison St., and the stores & restaurants on Main Cross St. A much different town now, however the current mayor is making an effort to bring it back to life and I for one really hope it happens. Here I go rattling, as always keep them coming and as Bob Hope would say, "Thanks for the memories".3z294

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