The weather is cold enough now to muster the red cheeks and nose required for the season. When mariner was growing up in Baltimore, his parents would take him to the downtown shopping district where there were a dozen large department stores with the store windows converted to animated Christmas displays. Outdoor speakers wafted Christmas carols on the streets. Shopping was a joyous hands-on experience – especially in the large toy departments which went all out for a Santa-centered carnival.
Mariner remembers the hands-on shopping of his parents, touching, holding up, and talking with the clerk. At the end of the day, we would pile onto the streetcar to head home with bags and bags of gifts but not before a hotdog and orange juice at Neddick’s.
In mariner’s household, decorating did not occur until mariner was asleep on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning mariner awakened to a different home with a Christmas tree, every room with decorations and yes! Santa had come with presents.
In the afternoon aunts uncles and cousins would gather for a family Christmas. This tradition was passed around each year between four families; two aunts lived twenty miles south of Baltimore so we had to take a train to get there. What more excitement could there be? Another gathering was had at maternal grandma’s. As the New Year approached, the festivities shifted to friends and neighbors. The salubrious mood remained in high gear into January.
These were years that occurred during and immediately after the Second World War. Gifts weren’t extravagant; holiday food didn’t always look like the Saturday Evening Post magazine cover, a sumptuous Norman Rockwell interpretation of Christmas dinner. The impact of the war was far, far more devastating than Covid. Most everyday things like meat and gasoline were rationed, thereby limiting amounts and options. The supply chain during the war was focused entirely on military requirements. Automobiles weren’t made in those times, only tanks and airplanes. Air raid black outs were common.
Mariner remembers those times as intensely focused on people and human participation in every aspect of daily life. Without leaving the front door he remembers greeting the milkman, the breadman, the iceman, the paperboy, out the back in the alley, several produce hucksters replete with horse drawn wagons; he remembers running through the neighborhood with playmates. At the corner of his block there was a confectionery store with ice cream delights and candy of every description where once a week or so his family would walk up the block and have an ice cream cone.
It is true that our memories often remember just the good times and forget the bad. Certainly this is true for the war years. But there was restoration of life to be had if only by sharing daily life with other people whether working, dealing with the war or mingling with everyone in the retail sector. Churches then still were a center point for an orderly culture. Many families had basement parties for enlisted men who were in port.
It is different today. As fully united as American citizens were in supporting ‘the war’ with losses of loved ones, meager salaries and limited supplies, today the populism and rancor looms like a war on our own streets. Further, ordering online via Amazon or whoever has permanently diminished, if not eliminated, a cultural holiday high point in American society – storefront, hands-on shopping.
How can we celebrate a truly salubrious holiday today, Facebook – with Zoom?
This is a great glimpse into the life of a bygone era. Who would ever have thought that department stores would be bygone? It makes me wish that I had been a city child with hucksters (and Hutzlers!) and street cars and family all around. Thank you for sharing this!
I find your memories a lot like the movie,” A Christmas Story” with Ralphie. I am amazed at how different your Christmas was from mine growing up even though we had the same father. My memories of Dad are him buying the Christmas tree way too big. Dragging it home on the top of the car. Realizing after we were home that the tree was 3 feet too tall. Dad trying to trim 3 feet off the tree with a hacksaw because he didn’t own a wood saw, which never went well, and attempting to fit a 3 inch trunk in a two inch tree stand.
What were you saying about only remembering the good memories and forgetting the bad? If you’re right, I’m glad I did.