My Christmas memories are sparse – no tree, no presents, no guy in a red suit riding in a gravity-defying sleigh. That wasn’t for a Jewish kid growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the 1960s. Still, I’m warmed by the memories, even those tinged with sadness.
In high school, I worked in my parents store at Christmas. They had a ladies clothing store, the elegantly named New York Hosiery and Silk Shop, on West Main Street in Johnstown, New York.
I wrapped packages, rang the cash register and held the door for overburdened shoppers. It made me feel important that I was actually contributing something to the family business.
And then, when we closed on Christmas Eve, I’d walk down Main Street and look at the lighted store windows. In my memory, it’s always snowing softly. Christmas music drifts from the department stores. One window has a display of elves hammering away with jerky motions in Santa’s workshop. It wasn’t Audio-Animatronics. It was pure magic.
The decorations, the snow, the music – I loved it all.
To me, Christmas Eve on West Main Street, circa 1962, represents normalcy.
This was an America where men still wore hats they tipped to ladies, where cops were respected and obeyed, where cars had huge tailfins and gas was 25-cents a gallon, where television sitcoms were hilarious and wholesome, where an army of busy bureaucrats didn’t try to regulate every breath you took, where schools taught manners as well as academic subjects. It was a land where love of country was celebrated and religion was honored.
It was an America where you knew everyone on your block, not just the family next-door. It was an America before hippies and urban riots, free love and R-rated movies, non-stop protests and manufactured rage. It was an America where ideas were freely exchanged on college campuses. This was an America where the grandson of immigrants — the son of a man who grew up in a tenement and left school in the 8th. grade – could dream of one day becoming a writer.
Back in the day (my day) Christmas was magic – so enchanting that even some who didn’t celebrate it were touched by it.
Chances were that one of the department stores on West Main Street would be playing that sad, sweet World War II song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
“Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree.”
“Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.”
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was first recorded by Bing Crosby in October 1943. Many of the guys who heard it then were serving overseas. And many of them would never make it home for another Christmas. They would stay behind in places with strange names like Normandy, Bastogne, Monte Cassino, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Christmas means many things, like family and home. When I stood on West Main Street in 1962, home was a 20-minute walk through a safe, snug little town in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.
Today, home seems a million miles away — a long walk back to faith and freedom, caring and sharing, courage and self-reliance – and, above all, truth. But, in the words of Lao-Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” and Theodore Herzl reminded us that “If you will it, it is not a dream.”