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Growing up in LouisaChristmas Seasons Past!  

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 

Who can read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and not mentally run through their own memories of Christmases Past? Hopefully, we won’t see too many things we regret, as did Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience with the ghost of Christmas Past. Perhaps more importantly, since we are still among the living, (I presume,) then perhaps we, too, can have another chance to do better. Writing this column requires that I take frequent trips into the memory-banks of the past. I’ve found that nothing is more sobering than to remember our mistakes. At the same time, there’s something kind of romantic about revisiting the warmth of pleasant times. At my age, the image is more like a fairy-tale dream. I have many Christmas memories of the town I loved. Here are some I will share so you might also recall those times during quiet, yet festive, days of winter. Certainly, times have passed, and things have changed, but our memories have a life of their own.   

Christmas brings back loads of memories. How could it not? It was the biggest event of the year. It had its own traditions, foods, celebrations, performances, and visitations. At this time of year, I picture Louisa all dressed up in its finest holiday attire. Each telephone pole and streetlight downtown had green sprigs, or ropes of pine, or holly. I think at least one year a swag of greenery was placed across the streets connecting each side with the other, creating a tunnel effect for those underneath. I remember one season, or maybe more, that a cutout of Santa’s reflected a theme that would be repeated inside the stores up and down the business district. Other years representations of Christmas bells were displayed.

 As a young person, it was very exciting to stand on tiptoes to see the window displays filled with artificial snow. I knew instinctively that it was really layers of cotton batting, but the magic of the time helped me pretend. Some storekeepers sprayed an artificial snow around the windows. This framed the display and drew the customer’s attention to the merchandise featured that day. Some stores set up tiny village scenes that reminded me of Currier and Ives pictures of fancy Victorian streetscapes. One trick was to put small mirrors underneath the cotton to show just enough to imitate a frozen pond. One used miniature figures that appeared to be ice-skating, while others watched from the side. Smart merchants would strategically place shiny new toys, sparkling jewelry, or a display of Christmas cards to further extend their decorations. They promoted certain items that would draw the customers into their stores and that would build on the excitement. Inside, they put up decorations of white, green and red crepe paper strategically in every nook. This continually reminded shoppers that it was only ‘X’ days until Christmas. Some had installed clever animated displays, or even had demonstrations of new ‘miracle’ products that hopefully would induce even more sales. Customers were excited, not only for the season, but its promises of fun and pleasures. We also looked forward to having rare guests of relatives from out of town. The list of visitors would be long in the social section of the Big Sandy News. I still have copies of some of those wherein my family was mentioned.

While every store had Christmas displays and decorations, they also added to the spirit by playing well-known traditional Christmas Carols. Favorites were sung over and over reminding even the most casual shopper of the Christmas story.  Proclamations of ‘Peace on Earth’ and ‘Goodwill Toward Men,’ directed us to exhale and allow ourselves to soften our attitudes and warm our hearts to remember the Christmas message. We listened over and over again to the stories of the shepherds of long ago and the wise-men as they called upon the Christ child found lying in a manger.

If you were outside, you could hear the carols that were also broadcasted from the rooftop of the Methodist Church just there, on the corner of Main Cross and Madison Streets. The church played both recordings, and their chimes and bells, to send a blanket of sound out over the speakers. That music traveled over the rooftops that the whole town could hear.

Close by, next to the church on the courthouse green, a drama took place. The Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) held a live nativity play for the crowds of on-lookers. A local farmer had loaned a donkey, a lamb, and perhaps other livestock for the occasion. The youth of the church dressed up in Mideastern garb to play their assigned roles while the minister read the Christmas story from Luke 2. One lucky girl played the role of Mary, while a young man stood aside as Joseph. Across the street, mom, dad and the actor’s younger siblings proudly watched the scene that would be repeated with new actors each successive year.

 The five and dime store that was across the street and a few doorways north, played a record of ‘Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer,’ as sung by its cowboy author, Gene Autry.

My friend Bernard Nelson wrote last week that he worked for Mr. Van at the ‘Ten-cent Store,’ playing Santa at least one year. I was already too big to have sat on his lap to tell him what I wanted for Christmas, but it’s possible that more than a few readers did just that.

The store also played more secular carols like ‘Jingle Bells,’ and Bing Crosby singing, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

That message wasn’t lost on many, for sure. I wanted to have a white Christmas, too. As if thinking the same thing, many anxious eyes up and down the street looked skyward trying to see the season’s first snowflake. Of course, it didn’t happen every year, but when it did, the townsfolk were filled with the Christmas spirit and a warm feeling of well-being. Later, during marketing classes in college, I was told that a light snow usually made the cash registers ring. It helped people get into the holiday spirit. I didn’t know it then, but the merchants wanted snow as much as me. Even the hardware stores benefited when their snow shovel inventories were reduced to nothing by the onrush of sales.

I remember times that my mom dragged me along downtown as she bounced from store to store buying gifts for the family. Of course, she didn’t buy anything on that trip for me or my cousins, since I would see what was being bought. That would spoil the surprise. She made me promise ‘not to tell’ and to keep what I knew to myself. I imagined that telling such a thing would bring me certain dishonor and shame. Mom knew she could depend on me to bite my lip and keep the secret. Besides, it was likely that I wasn’t sure what she’d bought, anyway. You see, mom didn’t have to worry because I rarely paid attention to what she was doing. I stayed busy watching everyone else.

 I was especially interested in watching the teen girls wrap packages, but not for the reasons you think. These girls were so good at wrapping gifts! I watched them carefully and learned just how they made them turn out so well. When I grew older, my mom was surprised at how I could do a decent job of gift-wrapping. That is a skill that very few males have. I especially loved watching the magic when the girls pulled the brightly colored ribbon from the large roll, or spindle, and then wrapped it around the package. It was amazing when they made a bow with several fast loops, but even better they would take the edge of their scissors and curl the loose ends. Wow! I know when I got home I wasted a lot of ribbon learning to repeat that trick. Mom didn’t get mad at me. She went ahead and used the ample supply of curly ribbon as best she could.

Kids learn soon enough to shake the gifts they find under the tree prior to Christmas morning. They will be certain to try and guess the contents of each package. Soft and hard items were easy for me to distinguish, but identifying anything else was harder. A rattle was pretty much a dead giveaway that it was a toy, jewelry, or broken glass. Oops! One trick mom used was to fill the box with cotton so nothing could move about, or rattle. (This was way before foam peanuts, or bubble wrap.) We figured that anything soft usually meant we were getting clothing. That isn’t what a child wants to hear. I mean, pajamas are okay, but a toy, or some sports equipment was always much better.

Every year there came a time when it was my turn to go to the store and buy mom something. I’m sure the clerk at the department stores loved it when I had them show me every scarf, or handkerchief, they had in my price range. Even then, to me those items were boring so after the demonstration, I’d shake my head and leave. I knew to not look back.

A trip to Land’s Sundry had me smelling perfume (couldn’t afford the good stuff), but they also carried Whitman’s Sampler candies. They had various sized boxes so I was sure to find one that matched my budget. I had to carefully watch them wrap it, though. When they went to wrap the box, the paper sometimes was transparent enough to allow one to read the Whitman label right through the wrapper. That meant that we had to choose a heavier print, or a darker paper, or use several more layers. Also, having watched the wrapping operations when I was with mom, I knew the ribbon had to be ‘just so.’ I know they loved waiting on me because I could tell them exactly what they were doing wrong. Upon leaving the store my mission was accomplished. That was a relief. I’d been dreading picking out something for mom. I hoped that she would like my gift to her, but maybe if she didn’t then she could share it. Yum!

We all looked forward to various holiday events around town. The hosts almost always served light snacks of homemade cookies, candy canes, or hard Christmas candies, cider, or hot chocolate. For me, making cookies was a highlight of the season. I remember once mom had this aluminum tube with a plunger that pressed the dough through various-shaped templates to make shapes like: stars, trees, Santa, Elves, and circles. When they were finally baked and hot out of the oven, we would put colored sugar on them, or sometimes icing. I always got to sample any cookies that didn’t turn out just right. I knew that the shape had little to do with taste so even a lopsided tree was good to eat. Today, I’d probably suggest the phenomenon that rejected cookies don’t have any calories. That clearly meant that more rejections were a good thing. Then, there was the three second rule, another wonder, unless the dog beat you to whatever was dropped.

 As the big day approached and school was finally let out, the adults in my family were ‘all a tither.’ They were wrapped up with talking about or making pumpkin pies, sweet potato pies, pecan pies, chocolate pies, custard pies, and cherry pies. They were busy making angel food cake, pound cake, devil’s food cake, yellow cake, and white cake. What with all those cookies, candy, pies, and cakes, I was one, real, happy kid, but wait a minute! They also talked about ham, turkey, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, greens, beans, yams, and all kinds of salads, like Waldorf, and Jell-O, and who knows what else. They might have been in a ‘tither,’ but all this talk was making me feel right hollow, as in hungry.     

What with TV specials (see my recent article), the Christmas music, the school and church programs, the decorations, and the crowds of happy shoppers running into each other in the stores and on the streets, this season became a very big thing in our young lives. Add to that the prospect of possibly getting new toys and lots of food, including sweets, this had to be like heaven. It was more than a simple break from school. It was THE time to celebrate a whole season. It was a time to visit and eat, or maybe enjoy eggnog, hot apple cider, or a steamy cup of hot chocolate. That’s always a super good idea.

Without question, we certainly heard the ‘good news’ the heavenly angels were singing about when they appeared to the shepherds of old. It would be later, perhaps during Easter, when we’d have the whole message. For some of us, discovery would be during a revival, or a church service, or another time when the ‘light bulb’ came on and we’d finally understand the real cause for celebration. Others, well, maybe not so much, but nonetheless, despite the commercialism, the good news was and continues to be spread. We had the choice to do with Christmas as we wished, but either way, I cannot help but wish for you and your friends and families, the merriest of Christmases. May you understand the reason for this joyful time, too. After all, it was created especially for all of us and is reason aplenty to celebrate. 

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Comments  

+1 #1 Bernard 2017-12-24 15:47
WOW !! does this one bring back a ton of memories. I'll keep it short, a great memory of Land's was Ed & Nancy's Hot Chocolate with a marshmallow on top. Also the small boxes of good candy that we could afford to buy as a gift for our so called girl friends. Yes the fuss about Christmas dinner, the school & church plays to celebrate his birth and receiving a small bag of candy at the church Xmas play. So Merry Christmas to you & yours my dear friend & "Thanks for the Memories".
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