I woke up this morning with thoughts of old-time Christmas's on my mind. The days before malls and Amazon.com. Simpler times. So I'm going to take the next few posts to share with you what Christmas was like in the late '50s and early 60s. So put on your scarf and mittens; we're going to an old school Christmas-Tree-Lighting...Bellingham style!
Christmas in Bellingham always began with the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. I'd sit in the back seat of our old blue and white Ford Fairlane as we drove downtown to see the Christmas tree, and listen reverently as Dad retold the story of how in 1949 we had the tallest Christmas tree in the whole wide-world, right here in Bellingham! It was 153 feet high.
"Why that's as tall as a 15 story building!" he'd exclaim with pride.
And shouldn't we be proud? After all, Dad was a lumberman; so to my way of thinking that connected MY DAD to that mammoth tree...and every Christmas tree thereafter. Plus we're from Washington--the Evergreen State. It's just natural that we'd have the tallest trees--and Daddy's too! Now if my Dad had been a tree, he'd have been an old-growth cedar. He towered above me with those long, lanky legs and angular body. His grey eyes were quiet and kind. Even his woolen plaid shirts smelled of cedar and pine. Folks often said he looked like Abe Lincoln. So naturally Honest Abe was my favorite president!
Everybody came out for the tree lighting. It was hard to find a good parking spot. We'd drive around and around the loop on Railroad Avenue, looking for tail-lights, hoping in vain that someone would be backing out. It never happened, so as usual, Dad would park in some restricted area, like in front of a fire hydrant or in a loading zone out front of Clarks Feed and Seed. (Railroad Avenue is really two streets with train-tracks that run between them. Back in those days the train actually drove right through the middle of town via Railroad Avenue. Not fast, mind you...in fact, it shuffled through the center of town so slowly that one time my Grandma got exasperated waiting for the train to pass. So she closed her eyes, grabbed the steering wheel real tight, and put the pedal to the metal on her little blue sedan. She sideswiped the train! Didn't get hurt...but I think they took her license away after that. But I mustn't get sidetracked...Grandma Cline is a story all her own!)
"Ray, you can't park here...your gonna get us a ticket, or worse yet--towed!" Mom would chide.
But Dad was never one to worry about warning signs, tickets or towaway zones.
"Aw, Simmer down, Ruby," he'd grin as he backed right up against the "Loading/Unloading" sign in front of Clarks. "This is a good spot; besides, I know old man Clark!"
Once we were properly illegally parked, I'd scramble from the back seat and fidget as mom tied my white rabbit fur cap about my chin and buttoned my winter coat. Then off we'd go; Mom's high heels clickety-clacking on the cobblestones and me running to keep in stride with Dad's long legs. (I think that Mom was in as big a hurry to get away from our illegally parked car--hoping not to see anyone we knew-- as she was to see the Christmas tree!)
Finally we reached the tree. As we stood there in the chilly night, waiting for the tree to light up, my folks invariably saw old friends or family. They'd laugh and chat about the holidays, and everyone always remarked about how I was growing like a weed. I politely tolerated their remarks, but kept my eyes on the tree. I didn't want to be looking at Marge or Al Haynes when the lights went on--no, I was waiting for the magic.
And just when I thought that my fingers had frozen solid, and that my neck was broken from gaping up to the top of that tree, and when my knees were about to buckle from standing around for an eternity...at that precise moment- the tree would become ablaze with a million-jillion Christmas lights. Not with your hoity-toity Macy's/Goldman Sachs/Pottery Barn white boring lights; but with lights of every color...like the fresh box of Crayolas I received every Christmas morning kind of colored!
Yes, the magic had happened! The tree was lit and now Christmas would come. Christmas...with carolers singing Silent Night and friends stopping over for coffee and a slice of Mom's home-made pumpkin pie. There would be fine dinners on white linen tablecloths at Grandma's house and an ever-so-carefully placed star atop our Christmas tree. A time when, though our life was sometimes hard, Mom and Dad smiled at one another more and even hummed a carol or two. And a time to hear the stories of angels visiting shepherds and about how a sweet little baby, lying in a manger would somehow change the world.
That Christmas Tree was the start of it all.
Next post we'll talk about shopping downtown; an experience I fear has been lost to a generation.