This essay was previously published in the book Cleveland Christmas Memories - edited by Gail Bellamy
It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t born in the 40’s or I would have morphed “A Christmas Story” into my own Cleveland Christmas memories by now. However, there are moments in the iconic movie that are very reminiscent of my own youth. To be born in the 50’s and raised in the 60’s in a middle class family meant that nothing much happened.
It is difficult to describe the simplicity of those years to the current generation. It is the scarcity of material possessions, the absence of media and ubiquitous electronic communication devices that make my generation's Christmas memories so unique.
The truth of the matter is that my memories, I am sure, are almost exactly like all the children of my era—those of us fortunate enough to have parents who took the time to carry out all the relatively new traditions of an American Christmas.
How unique is a Mr. Jingaling or the Captain Penny show he appeared on? What about the enormous Sterling-Lindner tree with basketball-sized ornaments? There were animated figures in store windows that were thrilling. Cleveland was a greatly endowed city and the 40’s and 50’s were glory days. Downtown Cleveland was a shopping mecca before the malls appeared.
My great Aunt Irene worked at the May Company. She was the only person I knew with a connection to downtown—the place of buses spewing gas fumes and people of color I had never seen in my east side suburb. (I was also duly impressed that she had Dorothy Fuldheim for a neighbor.)
My mother would dress me up in my best dress and patent leather shoes and we rode the bus downtown so my mother could shop. We would meet Aunt Irene in her May Company office cubicle and I would be ushered off to a playroom with strangers who would look after me while my mom shopped. (Stranger danger!) I can still picture the playroom as a dark cavernous space.
There is one distinct memory I have of shopping on my own. I had to return a gift and was allowed to choose another. I remember visiting one of the downtown stores and becoming completely overwhelmed at the sight of shelves upon shelves of dolls. Dolls were my favorite thing in the world. Never in my young life had I faced such a decision. After a long deliberation I chose an angel ensconced in a pink dress with wings. That’s the whole memory, so why is that image of a wall of dolls still stuck in my mind from so long ago? It is because of the sparseness of images our minds held in those decades. The abundance and onslaught of visual information that children now know from birth was missing. Every new experience was formidable and memorable. None were made from movies or television—they were real experiences.
Standing on a sidewalk in blustery Public Square to see mechanical characters in a store window would hardly be a destination now, but then it was a thing of beauty. Christmas shopping at Twigbee’s with our few dollars or coins is nothing to the amount of time children spend at Walmart or Target now.
And Mr. Jingaling? What a weird old guy! Can you imagine treasuring a cardboard key? Yet, we did, and life was grand.