Memories of Christmas
. . . by Mike Coburn
While it is true that I have retired from writing weekly articles for the Lazer, I have been encouraged by Mark and several readers to submit ‘replays’ of some of those stories, time permitting. I’m thinking I may well write entirely new stories that do not restrict the time-lines with only those befitting the title of ‘Growing Up in Louisa.’ This will allow me to write of other memories perhaps outside of that parameter. The following is a first attempt to keep those memories alive.
I will always remember the excitement of the Christmas season. How exciting it used to be! I remember tall ladders leaning against light poles to enable workmen to install strings of lights on the main streets of our little town. Some years they added fake bells that were tied up with red ribbon with ropes of pine and holly. I remember the poinsettias that were displayed in churches, schoolrooms, and shop windows. When we went out shopping the women and girls pinned on broaches that depicted the spirit. Even the men wrapped red wool scarves around their necks to block out the cold. We kids liked to display the Christmas colors to show our participation of holiday spirit.
In those days downtown Louisa seemed big to me. After all, it 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 to travel its length, and that was without really going into the many very busy stores.
The windows were all decorated with fake snow made of cotton during those early days. It was rare to see a white spray on snow on the window glass, but some gradually was used to dress up displays. Sparkly garlands would be wrapped around little scenes of towns. Some had toy electric trains darting around displays of potential gifts in hopes of the customers considering buying one to put under their trees. I recall that Wright Brothers Jewelry had diamond rings, necklaces, and charm bracelets laid out on black felt. That made the highly polished stones sparkle. I remember seeing many glass snow globes. Smaller ones were to hang on a tree. Toy soldiers wore bright red and blue uniforms while our minds envisioned ‘The Night before Christmas’ playing out on the screens of our minds. The corner store had all kinds of decorations in those many windows and ‘sprayed’ snow in each corner of the glass panes. We could feel the spirit of the upcoming holiday.
Somewhere along the street a store was playing Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Everyone coming out of stores seemed to be carrying gift-wrapped packages instead of the usual plain cardboard box, or one with the store’s name printed on the top. In the dime store they had a teenaged girl employed just to wrap. 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. She was so talented!
Back then, the spirit of the people seemed happier for some reason and laughter was everywhere. Everybody said “Merry Christmas” to one another and often stopped for brief sidewalk visits to exchange news or updates about families, shopping, or food that was to be prepared. There were hugs and I 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. 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 disease I would soon contract.
Western Auto had this wonderful red bike! Wow! Think of the hills I could coast down next summer and how quickly I could cross town to visit with my friends. 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 even closer. Back then every neighbor, every person knew who we were and would step in and correct any misbehavior observed. Our parents would soon get a phone call, too. There were few secret spots for either kids or adults to carry out evil, and generally the kids were safe. Yes, there were minor exceptions, but none such as happens today.
I remember once going all over town trying to come up with enough artificial icicles to decorate the family tree. It was the style back then to place each icicle, one at a time, so it hung in sheets as far down as possible. A few wasn’t enough. Each branch had to have several to the point that it drooped.
The big old lights that later were sold as ‘outside’ lights, were the first we had. The glass in those early bulbs was thicker than any you see today and the colors flat by today’s standards. It was later that the fancy ‘bubble-light’ became available. We added one or two strings of those on our trees. We kids would sit in wonder as we watched the liquid bubble up the shank to the point and another would follow. It was decades before we saw 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 neighborhood, the entrance to the school is always lit up with white micro-lights strung in 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 still it’s not so magical as were the old days downtown.
How much better was it on those years when we were treated with a light flurry or two while 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 World,” was a welcome sound and brought our minds back to the purpose of the celebration. We could see, and later play the roles of, the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph. Each year there was be an effort 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 and the play went on with a reading of the scripture.
I remember once seeing and hearing a group of adults, perhaps from a local church, that would go house to house throughout the neighborhoods singing carols. Sometimes they would be invited in for ‘hot chocolate,’ or ‘coffee,’ I was told. I think they especially focused on homes with shut-ins, or the elderly. I know later, after coming to Virginia, I sang in some of these groups. We also went to the veteran’s hospital, and retirement homes. We were blessed by seeing the appreciation on their faces and the feeling we may have cheered some of the patients.
Let’s not forget about all those various Christmas Concerts and parades that came at us from every direction. As someone involved in the band, as well as the school chorus, and my church choir, it was a busy season. First, learning all the music and practicing it for hours, then the big event. I remember grade-school concerts, too as well as those at the high school, and one down at the bandstand next to the courthouse. Cantatas were at most of the churches and drew pretty good crowds. Nearly everyone was exposed to the words and events of Luke 2, and left knowing this was what got the whole thing going. What better gift to mankind could be than the birth of the Christ child?
Well, the season is upon again. Today the big box stores have had their ‘Black Friday’ events and hold follow-up sales to keep the shoppers in the stores. The downtown main streets are barren when compared to the past, but the traffic is immense at the outlying shopping centers. We can still find the spirit if we look, but for me it isn’t nearly as magical as it was when each storefront not only displayed their wares, but sought to meet and greet, and to share and to participate in the lives of the community.
Schools and colleges around here are busy with recitals, plays, concerts, and toy drives for those needing assistance. There is still excitement about but it seems more as a celebration of the season and not the true reason. It is becoming unpopular to mention Christian ideas. Some may be offended and shout ‘Ba Humbug!’ Not me, and hopefully, not you. We have reason to have joy and peace.
Like Scrooge, maybe it’s time to leave Christmas past and look to how we can make a better Christmas future. He came to realize in the epic story that life is more than things. Worthwhile living is about the people we love and Christmas is about the One who loves us.
Editor’s note: Mike Coburn has written a column about Louisa’s past for more than ten years each week for The Lazer but had to step back due to age and illness a few months ago. But he is a trooper and is back for another stint of two stories most months and some will be re-posted from past articles. We sure are glad to have him back and we know you are, too!
Yes! Glad to see Mike back.
I missed you, Brother. I would always check the obituaries first to make sure I wasn’t in them, then I would read your articles.
It started out my day with memories of times past. I no longer live in Louisa but still have family there.
May you have health and wealth in the coming year.
Glad to see you back Yogi. It will be like reading our funny books over. Thanks for the memories, your friend Teeni