© Jerry F. Couch
For those of us of “a certain age,” our childhood Christmas memories harken back to what we perceive as a simpler time. There might be one Christmas shopping trip to Bristol or Kingsport. Some gifts might be purchased via mail order from the Sears “wish book” which would soon be a frazzled wreck from much thumbing. But most Christmas shopping was done here, at the stores in St. Paul or at the Clinchfield company stores. In those days, a child from a home of average means might receive one “big” gift, a few smaller gifts, and their expectations would be fully met.
Most homes were not so elaborately decorated as today. There were more “real” Christmas trees, and fewer artificial Christmas trees. Those trees did not have nearly as many decorations and lights. A cardboard box containing Christmas tree ornaments would be taken down from the closet where it had spent the previous 48 weeks of the year. The family’s accumulated collection of baubles from years gone by would be taken out, examined, and if not too badly crushed or broken, used again – for they were part of a tradition. As a finishing touch, the Christmas tree would be liberally draped with tinsel icicles which would somehow migrate from the tree to all parts of the house.
St. Paul’s Christmas parade was something we all looked forward to. Hundreds of people attended and packed the town’s sidewalks. The marching bands of local high schools were a perennial favorite, as was the elaborate float representing Johnson’s 5 & 10. To our young eyes, the strings of colored lights that stretched across the town’s streets were indescribably beautiful at night.
As Christmas approached, there would be increasing excitement at school – both for Christmas itself, and for the eagerly anticipated holiday break we’d get to enjoy. We’d craft decorations from colored construction paper for our classrooms and their bulletin boards. We’d write our names on a slip of paper and put it in a decorated box, from which we’d draw the name of a classmate for whom we’d purchase a simple gift. Unfortunately, “have and have not” was a negative aspect of this tradition, for there were some children who did not have the means to purchase a gift. In that case, our teacher would buy a gift for the child to give – usually chocolate-covered cherry candy. In the years since then, I’m given thought to how it felt for children who could not fully participate in this custom – or any other occasion that required even the smallest outlay of cash.
Most of us attended church in those days, and there would always be a special Christmas program or pageant in which the Sunday School classes participated. It was considered an honor to be chosen for the roles of Mary and Joseph. Our parents would turn out for the program, and the church would be packed. It was a magical event because our little heads weren’t cluttered with commercial images, ideas, and desires. At the conclusion of the program, the adults would socialize for a while before heading home. We would be suffused with a warmth that can be roughly described as “total security” – if you were among the fortunate ones.
In contrast, there were also families in the community living on the rawest edge of poverty. Homes where Christmas dinner might consist of whatever was left of that month’s dwindling supply of USDA surplus food. Homes with very little heat and no possibility of gifts. To help families have a brighter Christmas, boxes packed with groceries were available upon application from the St. Paul–Dante Lions Club. The club also collected used toys and refurbished them for children who might not otherwise receive a gift. Local churches also did their part. But it takes a sober adult to prepare food, and in some homes, there was no such person. Though the donated food might sometimes be bartered for alcohol or cigarettes, who are we to judge the depths of other people’s sorrows – especially at Christmas?
Televised Christmas specials were something we youngsters (and most oldsters) looked forward to. A perennial favorite was “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” My family would trek from Couch Hill to Riverside Drive where I’d watch the program with my Bolinsky cousins. Tama and I would sit in the big brown platform rocker beside the roaring Warm Morning stove, waiting for the program to begin. Having seen it multiple times, we knew it by heart – but so what? That made it even better!
The community grocery stores on Riverside Drive would offer special “Christmas only” goodies and we’d examine them carefully before deciding how to spend the quarters we had been allotted. Mrs. Lila Hicks would have small toys, candy, and other inexpensive Christmas items to choose from, as would Grover Hillman, and “Jiggs” Rudder. One thing I recall was an ice cream novelty that looked like a snowball. It wasn’t particularly good, but it was only available once a year and its packaging screamed CHRISTMAS – so we had to have it!
Unlike today, homemakers of the 1950’s and 1960’s would have been very pleased to receive a household appliance as a Christmas. In those days, any material thing that made housework easier was most welcome.
Though few will recognize his name, Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom is the person most responsible for the way older folks still envision Santa Claus. Sundblom created artwork for Coca Cola’s iconic Christmas advertising for many years. Those wonderful ads appeared in print media as well as posters in grocery stores of years gone by. The magazine ad below dates from 1950.
When Christmas Day finally arrived, we would be at fever pitch with anticipation. I can’t think of Christmas without remembering my cousin, Joan Bolinsky. She enjoyed Christmas more than any other person I’ve known. On Christmas Eve, her eyes would be glittering, and she would almost be hyperventilating with excitement. For Joan, the “Joy of Christmas” never faded, remaining an inseparable part of her for the remainder of her life.
Some families opened their Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas Morning. On Christmas afternoon, extended families would gather for dinner, some having traveled long distances to do so. Christmas dinner was a group effort and quite a production. Whether plain or fancy, it was an element of Christmas that bonded us as families and helped make the day memorable.
Those of us who remember those days are no longer young. While we may not experience Christmas in the same way as when we were children, we can still take to heart its deeper meaning. And we can help youngsters have glowing memories to match our own.
To all our Clinch Valley Times readers, our hope is that Christmas 2022 will be a bright and joyous memory for you in days to come.