Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gifts of Christmas Past

Every time I hear the opening line of Silver Bells – “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks” – my mind goes back to a time when there actually were busy sidewalks at Christmastime… back to The Time Before Malls!

I have vivid memories of family shopping excursions on the streets of Downtown Columbia during the holiday season. Looking back, it’s likely that they were not “family shopping excursions” at all… just the kids tagging along because the adults didn’t have anywhere else to park the kids.

Main Street in Columbia was dressed in holiday style every December. There were decorations strung across the streets, the giant State House tree shimmering at the end of the street, and, of course, the window displays in the stores. My favorite was always Belk. They had massive Christmas displays that still linger in my mind… like the manger scene up on the catwalk… or the actual working model trains in the window displays.

These days, it doesn’t seem possible that a 9 year-old kid could be left alone on Main Street of a major city, darting back and forth from store to store and block to block, with only the instructions to “meet at the Eckerd’s lunch counter in two hours”. If, after nearly 50 years, my memory is correct, there was Belk, Eckerd, J.C. Penny, Tapps, Berry on Main, Woolworth, Kresse, McCory, J.B. White, and about a hundred other shops and stores. (The official names were “Belk”, “J.C. Penny”, “J. B. White”, and “Eckerd”… but we for some reason always pluralized the names to “Belks, Pennys, Whites and Eckards”.)

Off we’d go, in various directions, into a sea of Christmas shoppers from throughout the Midlands who had all converged on the same six-block hub.

Of course, I usually wasn’t actually doing any SHOPPING on Main Street in Columbia. Mainly, I was just looking and wishing and dreaming. It was wonderful!

My personal holiday gift shopping would come later on Main Street in Lexington, my hometown, just 13 miles away from Columbia. Lexington’s Main Street was also quite a festive place, with Session’s and Harman’s Drugs and Taylors Hardware and the Western Auto all on the same block!!! Most of my actual purchases came from what I considered to be the epicenter of the Lexington shopping district: Dodd’s Dime Store! (And, usually, at a more appropriate time for Christmas shopping: Christmas Eve -- or maybe the day before -- a fine holiday tradition I continue to this day!!!)

I still recall what was likely the first time I went shopping at Dodd’s by myself with my own money. (It was bicycling distance from my home, only about a mile further down Main Street.)

At the age of probably eight years old, with my own money earned from chores during the Christmas vacation, I located what I was certain to be the perfect Christmas gift for my Mom: a 25-cent arrangement of plastic flowers which I was absolutely certain she would adore!

And, sure enough, I was right! When she opened my gift on Christmas morning, she couldn’t stop oohing and ahhing! She was thrilled with my gift! Completely overwhelmed, based on her reaction!

My gift-giving prowess continued through the years. By the time my kid brother Shawn came along, Mom and Dad were in the habit of showering us with goodies on Christmas. And since he was about a dozen years younger than the three older kids, he really racked up on the Santa loot. At about age three, he got a ton of gifts: Hot Wheels, Big Wheels, a drum-set, games and toys galore.

From his older brother, his gift was a roll of Scotch tape… which he proceeded to play with for the rest of the day while virtually ignoring all of his big Santa Claus gifts!!!

I recall that, when I was age 11 or 12, my older sister Sherry -- who was already old enough to have a real, part-time job -- gave my sister Cric and me each a transistor radio! Now THAT was a major gift! As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been a car or a yacht or a house. They all cost the same amount to me: LOTS! It was at that moment when I first began to really understand the value of having a job, and to develop the work ethic that would stick with me until… well, I guess last weekend!

Of course, the most unusual gift any of us received came on Christmas, 1967, when each of us three older kids received a note in the toe of our stockings announcing the Shealy family would soon be adding a fifth and final child: Lorri, the youngest, who sure enough came along a few months later! (I also recall getting new shoelaces in the stocking, which I badly needed. And, every year since I can recall, everybody’s stocking had a flashlight. At our house, Santa had a very practical side!)

At the Shealy home, Christmas was a happy time. We were blessed, and we knew it.
That’s why Dad, every Christmas, took it upon himself to try to make Christmas a little brighter for some other family. Long before there were Toy Drives or Adopt-a-Family programs, he would quietly find a family each year that was not financially able to provide gifts, and deliver a couple of packages for each of the kids. He did it without fanfare or acknowledgement. He never really even told us kids what he was doing. He was simply trying to share our blessings.

One year, though, on Christmas morning, he invited me to go along with him to deliver those gifts… and I suppose that is when I learned what Christmas is truly about. It’s one Christmas memory that I’ll never forget… and a gift that will stay with me forever.

Great parents and caring families, it turns out, are the very best gifts of all!

Here’s hoping your Christmas is filled with wonderful gifts for you and yours.

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