Christmas Stories From Petain Street – Lights, Tinsel, Gifts & Thankfulness
As Christmas comes, I remember Christmases past when I was a child on Petain Street in South Alabama. They were times of awe and magic, of learning the joy of giving, and of starting rituals that would last a lifetime.
Some people just know how to receive a present!
Petain Street was rich in old people who had time to share with a child. When I was ten, and finally allowed to go to Prichard all by myself, I took my allowance and went Christmas shopping at Kress’s 5 and 10. It was filled with treasures to buy – a fountain pen for Daddy, a little silver pin shaped like a flower for Grandmama, and the most splendid red beads for Mama.
I still had a dollar left to buy gifts for three of the ladies – and what wonderful gifts I found! “Real” cut-glass vases! And they only cost a dime apiece. I could get plastic roses too! For my dollar, I got a vase with two red roses for each lady. I took them home and wrapped them with big, curly bows.
On Christmas day, I went to see the ladies and gave them their presents. They were all appreciative. But Mrs. Gates was the best. When she opened her gift, you’d have thought it was a Cadillac car. She looked at it with awe. “Ooooh, isn’t this the prettiest thing,” she crooned and hugged me. Then she traced her finger over every angle of the vase, held it up to the light and exclaimed, “My! My! My! Look how it sparkles, just like crystal.” Some people just know how to receive a present.
From that day on, whenever I passed her and she was talking to neighbors, Mrs. Gates called out to me and bragged that I was, “the best girl there ever was. Ruthi has never missed a Christmas. She always remembers the old folks and brings us a little something.” Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I loved her saying it, and I wanted to be the girl she told everybody I was.
Aunt Pauline – Style, Christmas trees, and recycling
Aunt Pauline had style you could see in everything she did, how she dressed, and how she always had her red hair fixed. (“When you have red hair, you can never let it go. It’s the first thing people will see.”) She made everything pretty. No plain blue, pink, and yellow Easter eggs for her! In her hands, the same PAAS dyes the rest of us used to make plain one-color eggs, turned out eggs that were stripped, speckled, and polka-dotted. But her annual masterpiece was her Christmas tree.
I remember the year I was finally big enough for Aunt Pauline to let me help decorate her Christmas tree. I gulped breakfast and skipped to her house. In the living room, stood her tree almost to the ceiling. It was surrounded by boxes of colored ornaments. She let me unwrap and hang the glass balls, making sure I mixed the colors and spaced them for best effect. With the colorful balls hung on the branches, the tree was beautiful.
“Now for the most important part,” she said, “the icicles [tinsel]! Icicles are what makes the tree!” She brought out an old Look Magazine. Between its pages were the long silver strands, arranged neatly, just a few to a page.
I knew Mama bought our icicles in a box. I asked Aunt Pauline why she put hers in a magazine. “To save them, of course. You can use the same icicles year after year – and icicles just make the tree. During the war, you couldn’t buy icicles. Aluminum was needed for ships. So, most people’s trees were plain. But my tree was always so pretty that people would drive by my house and stop to see it in the window.”
I grabbed for a handful. “No, not like that.” She took a few strands and showed me how to hang them. “You have to put them on one or two at a time so you fill all the branches. Some people throw them on, in clumps. That’s not good. Hang them long and even.” So I hung the precious strands, just a few at a time.
She plugged in the lights, and we stood back, looked at the tree. She said again, “Icicles just make a tree.”
Aunt Pauline – style, Christmas trees, and recycling too! Today we talk about recycling as though it’s a brand new idea. Recycling happened then because people didn’t have money to waste by throwing out perfectly good things to buy new. Outgrown dresses were cut down to fit the younger children or cut up to make quilts (my junior high school wardrobe came from my pretty cousin Mary Gayle’s closet). Broken things were fixed – televisions, toasters, radios, and frying pans. And Christmas decorations were passed down the generations.
This week I took out my boxes of glass ornaments to decorate my own tree. I finished it with the hundreds of icicles preserved between the pages of a big magazine – because o know. Icicles are what makes the tree.
The Christmas ritual
Getting ready for Christmas was the best part – putting up the tree, wrapping packages, trying to find where Mama hid the gifts Santa Claus would bring to me. Then, a few days before Christmas, Mama, Daddy, and I would do our annual ritual. After supper, we’d get in our old, brown and white Plymouth Savoy and drive to Mobile to look at the Christmas lights.
A few people in Prichard had decorations, but nothing like those we saw as we drove, first downtown to see the lights around Bienville Square, then zig-zagging through the neighborhoods between Dauphin Street and Spring Hill Avenue. With my face pressed against the icy window, I stared at the houses, where I was sure only very rich people must live because they were big and so beautiful with Christmas lights dazzling. Even the entrances to the streets were lit up with lights, garlands, stars, and angels.
I keep the ritual today, always hoping to recreate the feeling of awe I had on those Christmas excursions in Daddy’s old car when I was a child.