15 December 2004

Parakeets, Purses, and Pumpkin Pie...All In One Place

For some reason the lights on the Christmas wreath had quit working when I put it up (they were fine when I put the wreath in the closet last year), so we had to buy another set.

Christmas lights are everywhere these days: you can get them in drugstores and supermarkets and craft stores, and from Sears to Kmart (almost hard to believe that over 100 years ago you needed a "wireman"--electrician--to set up Christmas lights on your tree; the darn things were $20 for a set of 16, or something like that). And I knew that.

But the first thing I said was "I miss Woolworths."

I did an online search on "Woolworths" last night and found it very depressing when all the British, Australian, German, and New Zealand stores showed up–to know that here in the US, where Mr. Woolworth pioneered a new type of store, it's no more.

Okay, who out there remembers Woolworths? Not the Woolco department stores, nor the last-gasp Woolworths of the 1980s, but "the five and ten," Woolworths, the one you walked into and smelled the good hot coffee and simmering soup from the lunch counter on one side of the store plus the fresh popcorn offered in the candy department. Where you could literally order soup–at the lunch counter–to nuts–canned Planters, in the candy department. Where you didn't have to buy candy in measured containers, but could order it freshly scooped by the candy lady in as little or as much as you wanted. Where the parakeets chirping from the pet department accompanied the whirr of the demonstrating fans in the summer and the low hum of the heater in winter. Where you could get anything from hardware to inexpensive toys to sewing thread to dry goods, and the aisles were packed with all sorts of goodies, from toy cars to candy bars to ladies' makeup and shoe polish.

Oh, there were Valentines aplenty in February and too many marshmallow chicks and chocolate rabbits to count at Easter and flags flying and picnic sets for Independence Day, but it was at Christmas that Woolworths came into its own. After all, Frank Woolworth sold the first glass Christmas tree ornaments imported into the United States from Germany in his stores. At Christmas Woolworths became an explosion of color. The store was draped in garlands–tinsel garlands and accordion foil garlands and holly garlands and pine garlands--and lights, and Christmas decorations popped up everywhere from the front windows to the lunch counter. The waitresses wore Christmas corsages and the checkout clerks donned red-and-white Santa hats. Woolworths had their own line of Christmas decorations and lights and artificial trees. To the scent of popcorn was added the delightful odor of peppermint. The aisles bloomed with net Christmas stockings, holiday-wrapped Whitman samplers, and Elizabeth Arden gift sets, plus cards, bows, ribbons, wrapping paper, tissue paper, stickers (anyone remember Christmas stickers, the things that held your wrappings together before adhesive tape was popular?), and tags. There was always a train, however small, set up someplace, with some type of Christmas boxcar (this year's newest design), or a flatcar full of Christmas trees. They were usually too small to have a Santa Claus like the department stores, although some Woolworth Santas did exist, but there was a Toyland, filled with all the latest dolls and trucks and other coveted playthings.

In certain parts of the country, in the basement with the Christmas decorations, you could find bins filled with different figures for the family creche scene. One started out simply, with the Holy Family. Then the Three Kings could be added, and some shepherds and of course an angel. In subsequent years you could add the ox, and the donkey, the camels and the camel boy, other people offering gifts, sheep, a goat or two, a sheepdog. A crudely-made stable could also be purchased, as well as miniature straw bales, so that an entire Bethlehem scene could sit under the tree or on top of the big box-shaped television for the kids to move about and re-inact the Christmas story. The traditionalists didn't put the Baby Jesus figure into the manger until Christmas Eve and started the Kings and their camels in the kitchen, slowly following the star until finally arriving at the manger on Twelfth Night or the day of Epiphany.

Among this forest of Christmas fantasy were all the ethnic goodies that made the holidays so memorable. The Woolworths in our neighborhood sold torrone and panettone along with German stollen, and we knew in the Spanish and Portuguese neighborhoods those folks were able to buy their own favorites at their Woolworths. It was one of the few non-specialty stores where you could find Hanukkah fixings: small menorahs, blue candles, plastic dreidels, and net bags full of chocolate Hanukkah gelt. Jewish kids would tease us that they got eight days of gifts and we only got one.

Plus there were those hard candy fruit slices in orange, lemon, and tangerine flavor that only were sold at Christmas, and the little candies whose wrappers looked like strawberries and which were strawberry-flavored inside, and red and white popcorn balls and of course candy canes of every stripe, and spheres and disks of chocolate covered with Christmas-themed foil.

Oh, for a time machine, if just for one day before Christmas...

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