Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

A publisher friend of mine, who was working on a “past, present and future” article about Christmas on Elm Street in Manchester, called me a few weeks ago to pick my brain.

Unfortunately, when he thought of “Christmas Past,” I was the first person who came to mind…which only served to reaffirm my suspicions that I truly am older than dirt.

Still, it was fun to verbally escort him on a trip down Memory Lane, back to the Decembers of the 1950s and early ‘60s.

Back then, most families had only one car, if that, so people usually hopped on a Manchester Transit bus whenever they wanted to go downtown. My mother and I would get off the bus at City Hall. Then, when we were ready to head back home, we’d catch another one in front of Thom McCan’s shoe store across the street.

Personally, I think Thom McCan’s business boomed because of the bus stop there. I mean, there was nothing better to do while waiting for a bus than to stare at all of the shoes displayed in the store’s windows. And sooner or later, one of those pairs of shoes was bound to jump out and say, “Buy me!” Not only that, when the weather was too cold to stand outside very long without risking losing a limb to frostbite, people would duck into the store and pretend to be shopping just to warm up. Guilt, however, from habitually mooching the store’s heat, eventually forced the majority of them to actually buy something.

At Christmastime, there were bell-ringers on most of the street corners, their collection plates and buckets overflowing with donations. And Salvation Army musicians played Christmas carols, even when the temperature outside was so cold, it’s a wonder their lips didn’t permanently freeze to their trumpets.

What I remember most about Christmastime on Elm St. was the day after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas lights made their debut for the season. My parents and I always made a special trip downtown on that night for the sole purpose of doing our annual “oohing” and “aahing.”

But the lights back then really were “ooh”-and-“aah” worthy. There were hundreds of strings of multi-colored lights wrapped in greenery and strung from one side of the street to the other, all the way down the entire length of the downtown area. And at the Hanover St. intersection there was the biggest light display of all, a huge twinkling Christmas chandelier.

Throughout the Christmas season, men on tall ladders constantly could be seen replacing bulbs on the Christmas lights, because back then, when one light on a string burned out, the rest of the lights on that string died with it. I admired the courage of those guys, balancing up there the way they did, playing Christmas-light Russian roulette while cars and buses zoomed by on both sides, threatening to de-ladder them at any moment.

My publisher friend asked me which store downtown was my favorite when I was a kid. It definitely was the toy store (Toy City?) that was next to the State Theater. That’s where I bought all of my Barbie dolls and the 7 million outfits that went with them. That’s also where 95 percent of my allowances ended up. The other five percent went toward either a cherry Coke and a grilled cheese sandwich, or a cup of hot chocolate at the Puritan Tea Room.

There also was a joke shop that reaped the benefits of my weekly allowance when I wasn’t spending it at the toy store. For some reason, I had a penchant for buying things like foaming sugar, rubber chocolates, plastic ice cubes, itching powder, fake vomit and anything else I could diabolically spring on my unsuspecting parents.

“Elm Street was magical,” I told my friend. “The lights, the crowds of people, the window displays with animated Christmas figures, the Santa Clauses in the stores… it was just like the New England Christmases you see in movies.”

“Are you sure you’re not just remembering everything more magically than it actually was?” he asked.

I assured him that I wasn’t.

The first Santa my mom took me downtown to see was one in Grant’s basement. His straggly beard was made of thin cotton, and he must have had an entire container of red rouge smeared on his cheeks. The moment I caught sight of him I started to scream, and I never stopped until I was back out on the sidewalk. Mom said my mouth looked bigger than the Grand Canyon, which unfortunately was immortalized in a black-and-white shot taken with our trusty Brownie box-camera.

The second time I went to see that same Santa, I didn’t scream. Gathering my courage, I managed to squeak out a request for a baby sister and was very upset when I didn’t find one underneath my tree on Christmas morning. So I still didn’t like the guy very much.

My dad always took me shopping right before Christmas so we could pick out gifts together for my mother. I remember the pretty flowered dishes we bought for her at Moreau’s Hardware, the wristwatch at Scott’s Jewelry, the blue sweater at Pariseau’s and the set of kitten knickknacks at Woolworth’s. And after shopping, Dad liked to go to Verani’s Restaurant, where we would sip hot cocoa with lots of real whipped cream on top, and play the song “Volare” on the little chrome jukeboxes that were at each table.

Am I, as my friend suggested, remembering things more magically than they actually were? I don’t think so…but if I am, I’m pretty sure I’d prefer not to know about it!

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