I noticed the first Christmas decorations popping up around the Fox Valley in October well before Halloween. Then the Hallmark Channels started their Christmas made-for-TV movie blitzkrieg, a seemingly never-ending bombardment of saccharine mono-plotted programming that became annoying for its monotony and the Canadian accents of its actors after the first week.
But now, the retail ball is really getting rolling, as well, even in the midst of the depressing Covid-19 pandemic. Communities have been trying to drum up holiday spirit for their generally dispirited populace with a variety of socially-distanced and masked events. It seems to have worked, at least a bit, although the general lack of snow has so far put a bit of a damper on the season as have the effects of sheltering in place. Some have decided not to do any home decorating for the holidays, while others have gone ahead in an effort to brighten up the end of a particularly dismal year.
When we were kids, we were told by adults, in serious tones, that Christmas was all about giving. Which was silly. We knew that Christmas was all about getting Christmas gifts. Besides, we didn’t have money to buy gifts for anybody anyway.
In preparation for Christmas pageants at school and at church, we began cramming our lines along about the first of December. At school, especially during my early elementary years, the approach of Christmas meant a daily practice at Church School out in Wheatland Township, singing with Mrs. Eleanor Stewart at the piano helping our teacher, Mrs. Comerford, out. It also meant on-stage practices down in the basement of the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Not only was the church basement the biggest space in the neighborhood, but it was right across the road from the school. Conveniently, Mrs. Stewart also provided the piano accompaniment for our Sunday School Christmas program so we were all comfortable with each other during those seemingly endless practices.
It wasn’t until we moved to town, though, that the true and full force of Christmas hit me. Of course, I was a bit older then and able to grasp the full import of things like television commercials for the latest Mattel six-shooter, a replica Winchester lever action rifle, or Schwinn bike. For years, my greatest ambition was to visit Amling’s Flowerland, drawn to it because of the wonderful commercials on “Elmer the Elephant,” “Uncle Johnny Coons,” and other similarly culturally uplifting children’s television programs. There on the small screen were kids that looked just like me flying real gasoline powered model airplanes and wearing neat looking military uniforms—with helmets!—all available at Amlings.
The nearest big department stores to little Oswego were in downtown Aurora, but kids couldn’t get there on their own. So for most of the year we had to make do with the tiny toy departments at Shuler’s Drug Store and at Carr’s Department Store in downtown Oswego. Granted, Shuler’s had a pretty good comic book selection that was updated regularly, but their toy section left a lot to be desired.
But once a year after Thanksgiving, Shuler’s would offer a special and commodious toy selection in the old meeting hall above their drug store, staffed by the folks from Carr’s Department Store. On the way home from school, bundled up in our scratchy woolen coats with those silly attached half-belts that were always coming unhooked in front, hats with earflaps, and five-buckle rubber boots we’d trudge up the stairs off Main Street and enter a different world. Games from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley were stacked along with six-guns from Marx (cheap) and Mattel (much better), trucks by Tootsie Toy and Tonka, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, dolls and a wide selection of accessories, and even an occasional Gilbert Chemistry Set. We all looked longingly at the chemistry sets with the happy kid on the front of the box mixing wonderful looking chemicals in a test tube while a retort on a Bunsen burner bubbled in the background.
We all knew that extraordinary explosives could be created with a chemistry set because we had all heard the rumor about the kid that blew up his garage by “accidentally” mixing chemicals “the wrong way.” But when one of us finally actually got a genuine Gilbert Chemistry Set—the big one with the steel case that folded out in four sections—we found that instead of truly cool stuff like the makings for gunpowder or nitroglycerine, the case was full of little glass tubes and bottles containing substances labeled “Xylan” and “Diatomaceous Earth” that didn’t explode worth a darn. In fact, it slowly dawned on us budding mad scientists that ingredients of chemistry sets are designed so they won’t explode no matter how they are mixed, and in fact are designed to be so maddingly safe that one of them would probably stop a nuclear chain reaction in its tracks if it was close enough.
So we spent lots of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas looking longingly at toys both live and on TV, and then, every once in a while, our parents would have to go to downtown Aurora to replenish supplies of things that grownups figured they needed. That gave us a chance to visit the stores that had the neatest toys, mainly Fagerholm’s Toy Store on South Broadway, The Book Shop over on Stolp Avenue, and May Electric where you could go upstairs and see the latest Lionel train equipment. The Book Shop, was the “educational” toy store in downtown Aurora, and had wonderful things in its window, educational or not, things like shiny miniature steam engines that actually worked to drive working toy machines, and plastic planetariums that were guaranteed to project the heavens on your bedroom ceiling as long as the lights were turned off. Fagerholm’s had the marvelous British-made Dinky Toys and the best selection of model plane and car kits in Aurora, while the Lionel equipment at May Electric was first-rate.
Actually, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized that it really is better to give than receive at Christmas. The looks on the faces of our kids when they found some wished-for treasure under the tree Christmas morning brought home the fact like no amount of preaching did years before.
Actually, I’ve found, the season seems to be mostly about joy, and the satisfaction derived by doing good things for other people. This Christmas, little kids won’t remember a thing about the recent election or whether traffic signals have been installed down the street, although they might retain some memories of this crazy pandemic year. For sure, however, they definitely will remember the warm feelings the holidays bring them long after they have children and grandchildren of their own.