There have been a lot of “best of” posts and stories lately. Best Christmas album. Best movies. Best hamburger. They can be fun, and useful.
There’s nothing remotely useful about this “best of” list except maybe to make some people smile and remember a time that we like to think was simpler, even though it probably wasn’t.
Downtown Store Windows. The big department stores downtown went all-out to decorate their store windows. Walking along 19th and 20th Streets and Third and Fourth Avenues was like taking a ride through Disney’s Small World. Blach’s, Loveman’s, Burger-Phillips and Parisian displayed window after window of little scenes, with animated mannequins, dollhouses, trains running around tracks. If there was any magic in Christmas, it was in those store windows.
Bubble lights. Most of the lights on our tree were little bulbs that screwed in. But the bubble lights were a lot more fun. Each was about four inches long, made of a glass tube filled with colored liquid. When it heated up, little bubbles began to move about inside. (Think tiny little lava lamps.) The were supposed to resemble candles, so the correct way to put them on the tree was vertically, with the pointed (flame shaped) end pointed upward. We didn’t worry about that. As long as the pointy end was generally pointed upward, the bubbles would flow, and that’s all we cared about. I could watch them for hours.
Lighted homes in Crestwood. Our neighborhood (Crestwood and Woodlawn) had an annual contest for the best decorated home, and people took it seriously. Everybody strung lights along the eaves of the house – that was just basic, and hardly anybody stopped there. Many filled the yards with elaborate decorations. The only real no-no was mixing manger scenes and stars with Santa and reindeer. Both were entirely acceptable, but you were expected to choose between Jesus and Rudolph. For reasons that escaped me at the same time (and still do, for that matter), a lot of people went with all-blue lighting. One night during the holidays – usually a couple of days before Christmas – we’d ride up and down each street enjoying the decorations. When we passed an all-blue house, Mother would just shake her head in disapproval and say “oh, another blue one,” and we’d move on. People who had a suitable window were expected to have their tree in it. Trees were all about tacky in those days. Flocked white trees and tinsel trees (lighted by rotating color wheels) were popular, because they showed up best in the windows. When our kids were growing up, we had a tradition of riding out to the tree farm and cutting our own. But there was no such thing in 1963. Most trees came out of a box, and if you wanted a real one, you bought it from the Optimist Club or the Boy Scouts.
Santa at Crestwood Park. There was a Santa at all the department stores downtown, but the one that was most fun was the one who came to Crestwood Park. I don’t know who arranged it, but I think he seemed to know everybody who came to sit in his lap. He’d call them by name, and sometimes he’d mention something that reminded you he really had been watching, and he knew for sure if you’d been bad or good.
The Cousins. My mother, her sister and her brother had all settled within a few blocks in Crestwood, so nearly all of our cousins were easy walking distance. At our home – a big spooky house on 8th Court South across from Crestwood Park – were Linda, Anne and me. Two blocks up the street were the Schmicks, with our cousins Johnny and Jane. A few blocks to the north were Bert and Jim Harwell. Even though we saw each other constantly (pretty much daily, in the case of the Schmicks), Christmas was a big deal. We gathered at one of the homes, had the traditional meal, and opened presents. And before the kids got too old for such things, all the kids would huddle in a back room to cobble together some sort of little Christmas play, which we’d announce with some fanfare and force the poor adults to sit and watch as we performed.