When I was a young child, all Christmases were magical. There were the preparations; the cookie baking, my siblings and I making ornaments out of cotton and walnut shells, the foil caps from milk bottles, or uncooked macaroni–going downtown to see the nativity at Garfield Park, midnight mass at St Leo’s if you were old enough to stay up that late, going to my grandmother’s on Christmas Eve day, where she had a tree with bubble lights, only to be picked up later by my father–we drove home to see a lit Christmas tree glowing from the living room window and we’d know Santa Claus had been there. (Our tree was never up before December 24th. My mother waited until the last minute so she could get one, really cheap, at the tree stand on the corner next to Fred’s Saloon).
Seeing the lit tree – our anticipation grew.
“Hurry!” my mother would cry as we clambered inside “He’s just leaving – he’s on the roof!” and we’d rush out to try and catch a glimpse of Santa Claus, but never did. Never mind, there were all these presents in the living room, under the tree. I think one of my earliest Christmas memories has to do with a dollhouse and a little china cabinet that I knew immediately were for me. Another year I very much wanted my very own desk. It was the first thing I spotted inside the living room.
“My desk! My Desk!” I cried.
“How do you know it’s for you?” my mother asked.
“I know!” I said. It was the best Christmas present.
When I was a bit older – maybe about ten – I began taking my two younger brothers downtown on the bus, sometime shortly before Christmas. We’d visit all the department store Santas to get free peppermint sticks, and we’d do all of our Christmas shopping at the various 5 & 10 cent stores. I began learning my way around downtown when my mother bought a coat for herself at Lerner’s and had it in layaway. She gave me a dollar (weekly payment on the coat) and two nickels (bus fare each way). I wasn’t particularly interested in the big department stores but I loved Fountain Square, the 5 & 10 cent stores, thrift stores and used bookstores.
We had Woolworth’s, Kreske’s and Newberry’s. My brother recalls all the holiday store front displays, some of which were animated. Santas ringing bells and collecting money for the Salvation Army were on every street corner. (We knew they were just Santa’s helpers as were the department store Santa Clauses. Everybdy knew the real Santa Claus was busy at the North Pole.
I can’t tell you how three young children managed to buy gifts for everyone in the family–we never got an allowance so we had to scrounge around cashing in pop bottles or doing odd jobs for the neighbors in order to have any money at all. It also cost us a nickel for each bus trip, down and back, to downtown Cincinnati. And we somehow managed, I can’t imagine how, to work in a visit to the lunch counter at Woolworth’s to share a grilled cheese sandwich (the cheapest item on the menu) or a hot dog, and a coca cola or a phosphate. Our presents for each other and our parents and grandparents were often the least expensive items you could find in an 5&10 – hair nets for grandmothers, nail polish for our mother, a man’s handkerchief for our father, those tiny glass bottles shaped like toys filled with tiny round candies – for one another.
We had our parents, grandparents, and one another – five children – to shop for. My brother Bill always had the most change, pennies mostly, that he kept in a small coin purse, clenched tightly in one hand. We all knew the hazards of shoplifters! No shoplifter ever got any of OUR money.
Later we would go home and wrap our gifts in ironed-out gift wrap paper and ironed-out ribbons, and then plaster the whole thing with the stickers that came with the gift wrap (stickers that didn’t stick very well, I might add).
But downtown Cincinnati – that was the place to be, just before Christmas. There was Fountain Square, all lit up, and the department stores (Pogue’s, McAlpins, Shillitoes) with all their holiday displays in the store windows; Santa Clauses in each one of the stores, dispensing peppermint sticks. We made our rounds visiting ALL of the Department store Santas – for one thing, we loved free candy. For another, we weren’t above hedging our bets in getting what we wanted for Christmas. So we stood in line to see all of the Santa Clauses, wherever they were, to tell them what we wanted for Christmas. (My younger brothers always wanted the same thing: a cap gun-and-holster set either sponsored by Roy Rogers or Gene Autry and a wind-up train).
One year my brother Biff bought a small wax Santa boot filled with hard peppermint candies, for Dad. When Dad opened it, everyone laughed. Biff was affronted and ran upstairs to cry. The entire family had to go upstairs and convince Biff that they only laughed because it was such a wonderful gift.
Downtown Cincinnati during the Christmas holidays; It was all glittery and sparkling, a kind of wonderland. After the war ended (WW2) Fountain Square was once again lit up.
It could sometimes be made even more special if snow began to fall as we headed for the bus stop, loaded down with our gifts, satisfied that we had once again managed to find the most perfect presents for our parents and siblings.
When we arrived back home, we surreptitiously toted our presents up to my bedroom, to wrap our gifts with ironed-out Christmas gift wrap paper saved from previous years, then put them under the tree.
These experiences were ones shared only with my two younger brothers; there are no photographs to remember them by, only our most cherished memories. I can’t think of anything that would be more perfect than visiting downtown Cincinnati once again, during the Christmas holidays, with my younger brothers. And maybe it would even begin to snow as we are heading for home.
Sandra Lee Smith