A Very Special Christmas, 1950’s

It has been more than 70 years since I remember my very first extremely special Christmas. I was eight and my brother was seven. We lived in Dover Delaware.

Christmas always arrived on Lockerman Avenue, the five-block long main downtown street, a little before Thanksgiving. A canopy of green garland stretched across the street punctuated with a lighted white star, or snowflake, or a red holiday bell at the midpoint. More garland and ribbon were strapped to each street-light pole and  Christmas music hovered over our heads from multiple speakers above the sidewalk.

For many years, snow swirled around us as we made our way from store to store. The indoor mall had not yet been invented.

Downtown Dover, all dressed-up for Christmas was kind of exciting but not too much fun for a kid. But the trip to Wilmington or even better Philadelphia to see Santa was the journey of the year to me and my brother Joe. We usually made it in one day because it was only an hour to Wilmington and two to Philadelphia but it was hard to sleep the night before the trip knowing that the next day we were going to meet Santa himself.

We left early so that mom and dad could have plenty of time to do their shopping.

 I remember being bundled up in a wool hat and a wool coat sometimes in boots and gloves walking around in overheated stores all day and waiting for our turn to meet the big guy.   

Finally, it was our time to go to John Wanamaker‘s Department  Store and meet Santa. As we arrived, there was a long line ahead of us and we could see it winding around some of the merchandise.

After a long while, we got our first peek of Santa.

There he was way up high, almost like a mountain!

There were several sets of steps, a landing at every four steps and children at each step and each landing.

You have seen it in the Christmas Story movie, yes, the sliding board exit was a real thing! Our Santa was nice though.

As we drove back home late at night I fell asleep to the dreams of toys and gifts and colorful wrapping paper, home-baked cookies, and hot chocolate!

When I  woke up the next morning I realized it was only a few weeks until Christmas. I could hardly wait!

Christmas day finally arrived and it turned out to be more special than I could ever have imagined. My brother and I woke up early and woke our parents and urged them to get out of bed fast so we could see our gifts and start our celebration.

We ripped open package after package, played with something for a minute, and went to the next one and the next one, it was great fun!

But I don’t remember anything I got that Christmas!

Because that Christmas, my memory is of what my father gave my mother and what my mother gave to my father. 

It was like the story of the Gift of the Magi.

Remember, where she sold her hair to buy him a watch fob and he sold his watch to buy her a hand-carved decorative hair comb?

Well, that’s exactly what happened at my house in a 50s way before I ever read O’Henry’s version of the Gift of the Magi.

After my brother and I opened our presents  Dad went to the closet and gave Mom a large package wrapped in very distinctive paper. Before she opened her gift she stood up and went to the bedroom to retrieve her gift for dad. 

She opened hers first and it was a complete set of Merle Norman cosmetics products. They were all the rage!  They had done a great job using television advertising to convince women all over the country that Merle Norman had the best and that your beauty would be assured as long as you used their products. 

Mom was stunned, she exclaimed, “Oh Johnnie this is beautiful, you know how much I wanted this. But it’s too much!”

“I know it’s not in our budget, I sold some of my tools and chipped in a couple of my poker night winnings,” he responded smiling.

They kissed.

Then Dad opened his gift, wrapped in a bright scotch plaid paper. Inside was a tan Jantzen windbreaker jacket with scotch plaid lining, matching the wrapping on the box. Every time Dad had passed Brennan’s Department Store window, that jacket had captured his heart.

It was over fifty dollars and way out of reach. “Ellen, how did you do this?” She blushed, “Each week I have saved the loose change from the grocery and the milkman, it worked out just right!”

They kissed.

There they were kissing and crying and hugging…

Then it happened! The citywide fire alarm siren went off!

action adult fast fire
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My dad was a volunteer firefighter with the Dover fire department, the Robbins Hose Company, one of the oldest continuing all-volunteer departments in the United States founded in 1878.

Mom wiped the tears of joy from her eyes and knew that dad, in his pajamas and slippers and his new Jantzen jacket windbreaker would be out the door, in the car, and around the corner before our neighbors could look out their window to catch a glance of him!

It was a historic fire! The whole downtown, all five blocks of Lockerman Avenue was threatened by this fire.

It had started in the bowling alley and had caught several other buildings adjacent on fire. It was a cold winter day snow and sleet all day long and the fire lasted until after dark. 

When dad got home he was in tears. The new jacket had become soiled by soot from the smoke and fire. Dad had been assigned to a 2-inch line in the alley behind the bowling alley and he threw water on that part of the fire for more than 10 hours. The wash of smoke and soot and water had done permanent damage to the new gift.

Mom had spent a good part of the day learning about all the beauty and skin products and had dolled herself up for Dad’s return. She looked beautiful.

When she saw Dad’s tears and the jacket she knew how hurt he was, she burst into tears ruining her makeup and with mascara streaking down her cheeks she ran to him with open arms, and they kissed again.                     

After they had each had a chance to clean up, dad took a shower mom fixed her makeup, we all sat together and dad told us the story about the fire downtown. It was so cold that the wash from the hose sprayed on him for hours and hours until he was encased in ice and frozen solid to the ground in the back alley! 

Other firefighters had to chop him out so that he could get home. 

For many many years, my dad wore that jacket with pride. Dry cleaners could not remove all the stains but he was so proud and wore it until after my mother died. She on the other hand was very sparing with her special Merle Norman gift and only used it for years to come on very special occasions.

Their love for each other, their sacrifice for each other, and their understanding for each other are lessons they continued to teach me throughout my youth.

Truly the Gift of the Magi is “LOVE.”

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