A Downtown Christmas

By Marsha Tennant

When I was a child Christmas presented itself two weeks before the big day. Not one day sooner. My parents would bundle up the family in the green Packard, and we would head downtown Portsmouth, Virginia, for the lighting of the tree and illuminating of the lights. The arrival of Santa was the highlight at the end of the evening. Compared to the extravaganza we experience now, those decorations were pitiful, but the 1950s are the most magical in my Christmas memories.

The multi-colored lights were strung across High Street on the utility poles that stood stiff like soldiers who understood the importance of their duty. Some of the lights swayed and sagged in the air. This was not a high tech production. Fresh wreaths with green and red shiny ribbons adorned the poles. Leggett’s Department Store windows glowed with stenciled winter scenes. The Buster Brown shoe store had a mechanical snowman that waved to the loyal customers. My brother and I were wide-eyed with amazement. We waited all year for this production.

There were no malls or QVC shopping marathons with easy pay. Sears catalogue offered a few pages of toys for us to consider and dream about. Our Christmas season centered around one city street. The holidays glitz was a community experience. It didn’t come to us. We went downtown.

A tiny angel with a bell tucked under her rounded skirt is chipped and the paint on her wings and face faded. The Woolworths box holds the heirloom dime store ornaments that I have carefully moved through four states and many moves. These ornaments have become the link for me to remember that Christmas is for children…at any age. Just as the Salvation Army bell still signals the season, the angel’s bell beckons the Christmas of 1958 when I was ten years old.

When the season arrived that year, my mother went downtown to work at Leggett’s. For the two weeks before the 25th my dad would come home from work, and we would all ride to take mom to her seasonal employment. My brother and I loved the idea of seeing the lights and decorations on those nights. We thought it was exciting that she was part of the holiday festivities. What we didn’t know was that our parents made this arrangement so that on Christmas morning we would each have a special present under the tree.

For me it was a rhinestone and silver heart-shaped necklace. Several of my girlfriends had one and it was the pre-teen glitter of the season. This creation was worn with a soft knit sweater. I had to have it. I had seen it on a trip to the department store right after Thanksgiving. It was in a velveteen red square jewelry box that illuminated its beauty. To my eyes it looked like it was worth a million dollars. It might as well have cost that much. We could not afford it if my mom had not worked at the store for those two weeks.

In spite of my mom working at a paying job that Christmas, we did not miss any of the family traditions that we knew and loved. The multi-colored lighted tree was magnificent with the tinsel and bubbling exotic electric ornaments. Our fireplace mantel held the musical snowmen and twirling animals on a bed of mica snow. The fruitcakes were made and wrapped for special friends and our minister. Cookies and fudge were made and stored in repurposed tins from previous years. Although those two weeks were a sacrifice for our parents, my brother and I sensed no changes in our routine.

Christmas morning arrived. I nudged my brother out of bed early to survey the bounty under the tree. Our parents joined us a few minutes later. I am sure they heard our laughter filled with anticipation. There were the usual gifts of socks and underwear as well as one piece of special clothing. I always looked forward to the “doll of the season.” After the excitement and noise settled down, my mother reached under the tree and handed me a small bright red velveteen box. It was adorned with a gold bow that covered the entire surface of the box. I recognized it immediately. I would not let myself believe what I wanted it to be…but it was.

Yes, Virginia….there is a Santa Claus.

About this writer

  • Marsha Tennant Marsha Tennant is the author of the children’s book, Margaret, Pirate Queen. She was recently published in AARP Bulletin and Mary Jane’s Farm. She and her husband retired and moved to the beach from Calabash in an attempt to downsize and spend time with their new grandson. A second Pirate Queen book is circling while porch sitting these days!

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