Xmas

How We Celebrated Christmas in the 1950’s

Earlier this week, President-Elect Donald Trump finished a victory tour speech in Wisconsin.  At the end of his speech, he said, “Merry Christmas.  God Bless America.”

It did not hit me at the time, but then I began thinking, ‘when was the last time we heard that from an elected official?  From a president?’  I know we haven’t heard it in the last 8 years and I finally quit straining my brain to remember if we heard it from George ‘Dubya’ Bush.

Then I began reminiscing about Christmas when I was growing up in the 50s.  About our small town.  About our family.

I grew up in a small Midwestern farming town with a population of less than a thousand.  Within a 10 mile radius, there were probably another thousand people.  (Our town was so small, we had to take turns being the town drunk!)   As I was growing up, that time after Thanksgiving always, always got you greeted with a hardy “MERRY CHRISTMAS!”  Before Thanksgiving it was always, “Happy Thanksgiving!”  After Christmas it was, “Happy New Year!”  I really don’t believe I heard anyone greeted with “Happy Holidays” until I left to attend college in the big city.

Our little town tried to keep it simple with the standard, stock greeting of Merry Christmas.  We had three churches in our town; a Methodist, a Lutheran, and a Catholic church.  They all did special programs and services for their parishioners.  But the best program was put on by the high school music department.  It involved both the choir and the band playing the traditional Christmas songs. When I was in high school, I was a participant in this program.  Everyone in the audience knew the words to every traditional number that was presented.  Our town kept it simple.  No modern, hippy-crap music for us, by God!

Santa made his annual appearance…at the local movie theater.  Every child got a bag of candy and a chance to sit on Santa’s lap.  For a small town, it was a very big deal!

The merchants went out of their way to make Christmas special.  We had two big events a year in our town, the first was a Midsummer celebration that is still held on the third weekend of June.  And, coincidentally, Christmas is always around the third week in December, exactly 6 months apart. The local newspaper would have a Santa with reindeer picture, which was the foundation of a coloring contest.  Every kid would color the picture, submit it to the paper, and then wait to see if they were one of the top three finishers in their age group. I believe the age groups were 5 to 12 years old.  Even if you were not the winner in your age group, it was a big deal to see your name in print.  (The big prize was seeing your name in print.  There were no participation trophies!)  The winners got prizes.  Some of these prizes were cash!  The winner would get two whole dollars! Today, two dollars would not get you two candy bars; but in the 50s, that would get you four trips to the movie theater with soda and popcorn!

Each merchant would place ads in the newspaper with entry forms for a drawing that they were having in their store.  There were about a dozen entry forms taking up a whole page in the paper. Our paper was a weekly, so these entry forms appeared three times before Christmas.  Everyone, including my family, would meticulously fill out each entry form and deliver it to the sponsoring merchant.  For a small community, these drawings generated a lot of ‘buzz,’ and a whole bunch of local sales for the merchants.

Our town had about a dozen pair of street lights through the commercial area.  These lights were the old mercury-vapor lights which always had a slight orange tinge to the otherwise bright light.  At Christmas, the local electric company would string cable across the street from one street light to its corresponding partner across the street.  They would then run green garland and lights up each lamp pole to the top.  Then, they ran green garland across the street draped from the cable.  This garland was not lit.  The crowning touch was the face of a big illuminated jolly Santa right in the middle of the street.  The same decorations were on a dozen pair of poles, about 50 feet apart.  One night, I drove into town.  The streets were empty.   There was  light fluffy snow falling to the ground on a windless night. The street lights were casting their ‘orangish’ hue on the falling snow.  Between that, and the lit posts, the lit Santa faces and the store front decorations….it was magical.  Not bad for a town so small that the city limit signs could have been located on the same post.

Here is a big change between today and the 50s; Christmas did not begin until after Thanksgiving! Even in the big city, no Christmas merchandise or decorations were displayed until the day after Thanksgiving.  Our small town followed that unofficial rule diligently.  Now, I am seeing Christmas decorations and merchandise in October.  There is nothing quite as sobering as hearing Christmas carols on Musak on October 1.  I know this has been done for commercial reasons, but don’t you think it detracts from the holiday and the purpose of the holiday itself?  Its the same principle as the last election campaign season. Too long.  Its over.  Good riddance.

Christmas was very special for our family.  The biggest focus was on our Christmas tree, and we had some really beautiful trees.  By trade, my dad, Big Daddy G, was an automobile body work repairman.   Dents, dings and crashes were his specialty.  Big Daddy G was a Picasso when it came to painting cars.  He carried this talent to our Christmas.  He would flock our fresh cut trees in his paint spray booth.  When he flocked a tree, it looked like snow had fallen on it.  He got creative for many years, but I remember one year and one tree in particular.  He bought a Norway pine tree with the long needles, took it to the shop, and flocked the whole tree in a very light blue color.  It was gorgeous!  Then, it was decorated with red and green ‘bubbler’ lights.  Bubbler lights were about three inches long and the thickness of a pencil.  Once plugged in, they would heat up and create bubbles that gently ran from the bottom to the top in some kind of liquid.  With the addition of silver tinsel, the customary glass bulbs and the crowning expensive glass ornament……….this tree was spectacular!  I would pay $200 to have a color photo of that tree today. Unfortunately, all photos were black and white and I have not seen any bubbler lights for over 50 years.  Maybe they were radioactive or cancer producing, but they sure were pretty.  When the tree came down, the ornaments, especially the crowning ornament, were all carefully packed and stored as they were not only expensive, but were all very fragile glass.

Of course our family had Christmas gifts.  And I, being a hellion in training, would search out the aforementioned gifts, find them, open them, play with them, and then wrap them up again.  All of this without anyone being any the wiser.  I was really good at expressing surprise while opening the gifts at the family gathering.  I started all this larceny at the ripe old age of 6 years old, and continued until my teens.

The two worst ‘Christmas snoops’ in the family were by mother and my grandmother.  In retrospect, they were both worse than the kids when it came to wanting to open the presents early.  The anticipation of what they got almost became an obsession.  They would both pick up a package, look at it to see if they could see through the wrapping paper for a clue to the contents, and then shake the package to see if there would be a ‘tell-tale’ sound.  This procedure was begun about two weeks before Christmas, but generally about a week after I had already played with and re-wrapped my gifts.  One year, Big Daddy G bought my mom a very expensive coat.  It was what she needed and what she wanted.  Before wrapping the gift, Big Daddy G placed a small bell into the box.  It drove my mother crazy!  She picked up that package and gently shook it at least 50 times before Christmas trying to figure out what it was.   It was hilarious and provided the rest of the family with much entertainment.  Not to be outdone, the following year my uncle and I decided that grandma needed a lesson, too. I had gotten Lincoln logs for Christmas a previous year.  The Lincoln log container was a round cardboard cylinder with a metal screw top.  So we took this container, filled it with broken glass, wrapped it,  put a tag on it saying it was from Santa for Grandma, marked it ‘extremely fragile’, and put it under the tree.  We knew the ‘extremely fragile’ marking was not going to stop Grandma from shaking that present, and we were right!  Both of us perpetrators were in the room when she picked it up and shook it for the first time!  The sound of the broken glass and the corresponding look on her face was priceless!  It was funny as hell and my uncle and I had to leave the house.  We were both suffering from a very strong fit of laughter to the point of producing tears in our eyes.

Our family was small.  We all got together, aunts. uncles, cousins, grandparents on Christmas eve for food, eggnog and other liquid libations.  Christmas day was for each individual family.  Even though our family and our town enjoyed the ‘Santa’ tradition of Christmas, it was never forgotten that the purpose of the holiday was the name of, and the birth of Christ.

I miss those days.  My small town is no longer small.  We don’t have the flocked trees with bubbler lights and fragile ornaments anymore.  Two dollars doesn’t get you into four movies.  The older relatives are gone.  My, how things have changed.

But there is one thing that I can do that immediately puts a smile on my face and reminds me of  the Christmases of my youth……………

“MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!”   “MAY GOD BLESS YOU, YOUR FAMILY, AND AMERICA!”

Grandpa T

 

 

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