Every Christmas season our little noses were pressed against the store windows of Delmont Village Shopping Center which was located just a couple of blocks from Byron Street. We would closely inspect every detail of the colorful, animated window displays. The mechanical elves slowly repeated their movements as they sawed, hammered, and painted the toys they were crafting. Next to them a large Santa gently nodded as he inspected their work. In other windows there were more elves, Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, large sparkly candy canes and in some windows there were moving reindeer. Hanging throughout each scene were large glittery candies and, piled high along the bottom of all the displays were hills of light fluffy snow — something we rarely saw in Louisiana. It was all so magical!
Down the road from Delmont Village on Plank Road was Tony’s Christmas Tree lot. About two weeks before Christmas, we would ride down there to buy our tree. Mr. Tony, always the entrepreneur, rented the front lot of Shopper’s Fair to sell his Christmas trees after he had sold his last pumpkin for the fall season. There were post holes dug in the ground for each tree and light bulbs hung above on wires throughout the lot for easier evening shopping. We loved to run and hide from each other in the rows of trees — except for stepping in water-filled, “treeless” post holes. Then with wet socks, we would help our parents try to find just the right tree. Our Christmas tree of choice was usually a Scotch Pine. It was known for its crooked trunk, but it also had a wonderful pine fragrance. The smell of pine lingered on our clothes until we got ready for bed that night, and it will always linger in my memory as one of my favorite Christmas smells.
My parents always bought a 5-foot tree because the taller trees were more expensive than they wanted to pay, but we improvised to make it seem taller. We placed it on a low tree table that had brick-looking paper around it — to look like a chimney, I guess. When we added the pointed, glass tree-topper, it was almost as tall as our ceiling! We decorated our tree with strands of big, colorful light bulbs, colored glass balls, gold garland, and silver icicles — a Christmas tree can never have too many icicles.
Our manger scene was often placed at the base of the tree with a yellow bulb put through a hole in the back of the stable to light up the inside. But sometimes we put it on the television set. I loved playing with the little figurines as I imagined telling the story of baby Jesus and how God sent him into the world to save us from our sins. My mom decorated dime-store ceramic figurines with real satin cloth to make them more life-like. She even added glitter to the gifts of the wise men. I arranged the little figurines — then rearranged them — then rearranged them again — everyday until Christmas.
We didn’t decorate the outside of our house very much, but we sometimes decorated our front door with big, colored lights that had silver reflectors around each bulb. My mother liked putting a decorative covering on our door that looked like Santa was opening the front door to let you inside. But sometimes she made cardboard cut-outs of choir children, or wise men, and stood them up on our front porch with a Penetray color wheel light shining on them. My bedroom which had a window that faced the front porch glowed green…blue…red…and orange…then repeated the color sequence again and again.
My family loved riding through different neighborhoods in Baton Rouge to see all the lights. Houses back in the ’60′s were often decorated with all blue lights, or green lights, or red, with an aluminum Christmas tree placed in the front picture window. The tree usually had corresponding colored balls and glowed with the light from a spinning color wheel light. Ah, the memories!
In our own neighborhood, my mom and dad took the kids on our street and went house to house singing Christmas carols. Sunbeam Bakery used to give out tabloid-size, newsprint caroling sheets that had the lyrics printed in green. We carried these papers with us as we sang at each house and, if we were lucky, we were given cookies or hot chocolate as a thank you. But we always got a smile for our efforts! When we got back home, especially if it was cold, we had a cup of our homemade spiced tea made with fresh orange, lemon, and pineapple juices that were laced with a touch of cinnamon and cloves. This spiced tea recipe is still a treasured holiday treat in my family.
On one Christmas some of the caroling kids from our block, decided to do a Christmas play in our backyard and invite the neighborhood. We worked very hard on our set and costumes — even getting Burger King crowns for the wise men. We had one attendee besides our parents. Our elderly neighbor from a few doors down, graciously came to see our play. I’ve never forgotten that. Mr. Boden was a sweet man.
When I was very young the Christmas parade in downtown Baton Rouge was a must see. I remember the large crowds that gathered on Third Street waiting for the parade to come by. It seemed like we waited forever! To pass the time, I remember watching the neon Coca-Cola sign atop one of the buildings repeat different patterns of red and white lights. I became mezmorized by that sign. To help my sister and me see the parade, my dad brought a 6-foot ladder for us to stand on. That way we were able to see the marching bands, glittering floats, beautiful ladies riding on shiny cars, and of course the biggest float of all that carried Santa Claus!
Christmas Eve evening was a very special time for our family. Traditions that were started back then are still celebrated in my own family. We all gathered together in our living room with only the lights of the Christmas tree illuminating the room. One child got to light a tall pillar candle and another one of us got to read the Christmas story by candlelight from the big old family Bible we had. We took turns each year. I still enjoy hearing that Bible story from Luke 2 read in King James English — just like Linus recites it for Charlie Brown in the well-known Christmas TV special. And like most children, we rarely slept on Christmas Eve. We were just too excited — especially if we heard a “bump, bump.” Maybe it was Santa’s reindeer on our roof!
When Christmas morning finally came, we had to go get Mom and Dad before we could go into the living room to see what Santa brought everyone. Then the room was filled with more squeals of joy and excitement than there were presents. Our stockings were also extra-special. Mom would attach a small cut out of an eventful happening in each of our lives that year. Over the years, the toe of the stocking got more and more crowded, but it also held for us more and more memories. After the room was full of torn wrapping paper and lengths of colored ribbon, we would go down to my Grandma’s house or sometimes she and my Pa-Pa would walk down the street to watch us open their presents to us, which were — more often than not — socks or underwear. My Grandma was a terribly practical lady. We now affectionately call any overly practical present a “Grandma Gift.”
Christmas was a very, very special time with many, many fond memories. I hope you have as many wonderful childhood Christmas memories as I have, but if not, you are welcome to borrow some of mine!