By Richard S. Scarsella
Holidays rekindle fond memories of times past. Regardless of what has or has not happened in our lives, we inevitably revisit yesterdays, for comfort and reflection, during the holidays.
In the once bustling Mahoning Valley, tri-county area residents doggedly headed to Youngstown’s crowded central business district, in search of memorable gifts. Glittering specialty boutiques, trendy shoe stores, fashionable diamond jewelers, fussy gentlemen tailors, style salons and landmark department stores welcomed intrepid shoppers with great hospitality.
Well into the 1960’, Federal Street was a thriving avenue of trade. Fleets of yellow and checkered cabs delivered patrons to storefronts. Elephantine-like buses stopped at each downtown corner block, much to the exasperation of motorists. Throngs of pedestrians choked walkways and intersections, with jaywalkers receiving tickets from ever-vigilant traffic cops and beat officers. Festive decorations featuring bells, Santa’s and snowmen were hung elegantly by the Downtown Board of Trade and adorned store facades and light poles.
The traditional Central Square Christmas tree and crèche were breathtaking, in their symbolism and size. Despite automobile fumes, industrial smog, flocks of pigeons and steam escaping from street manholes, we enjoyed our days of “going to town.” Eating lunch at a chrome counter, in an art deco five-and-dime store was a novelty. Buying a Struss’ chocolate malt in the bargain basement or on the mezzanine was a special treat. “Taking in a movie”, at a grand movie palace, was a side trip into another dimension. A journey into the city was full of welcomed diversions.
Area churches, usually somber and drab, suddenly came to life, once they were festooned with boughs of evergreens, colorful ribbons and fresh garland. European clarions chimed robustly with religious favorites such as Silent Night and Come All Ye Faithful. Of course, the ubiquitous Salvation Army red kettles and bell ringers, along with the forlorn pan-handlers, encouraged us to share with those less fortunate. Our strident Mid-western ethic constantly reminded us to guard against frivolity.
The observations of the birth of Christ and of New Year’s necessitated obligatory visits to ancestral cemeteries. Hand-carved headstones, both new and weathered, were lovingly decorated with votive candles, religious emblems, artificial poinsettias and black wreaths. Local graveyards become hosts to carloads of kin paying earnest respects. Oddly, the departed seemed particularly close to us, as we rejoiced without their earthly presence. Widows, widowers and orphans were known to be stricken with a touch of melancholy, as the merriment commenced.
I can still clearly recall inviting the mailman and milkman into the house on Christmas Eve, for fresh egg-nog and fruitcake. It seems like yesterday when we would peruse corner Christmas tree lots debating the pros and cons of long and short needle freshly cut trees. Purchasing extra greenery for the mantle, staircase and dining room table was a task entrusted to the youngest children, old maids and the elderly.
When all the gifts had been wrapped, after the Christmas tree was lit and when company had gone home, the evenings oftentimes ended with families singing carols around an old upright or parlor grand piano. Special radio and television programs also fueled our holiday cheer.
To this day, when I hear Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Kate Smith or Brenda Lee sing Christmas standards such as White Christmas, I am transported back to earlier simpler times. We did not know it then but we do now. Those were the good old days. And I expect them to be time immemorial.
The above selection is an excerpt from Memories and Melancholy: Reflections on the Mahoning Valley and Youngstown, Ohio, iUniverse, 2005, by Richard S. Scarsella. You can order this book from Amazon.com and other fine booksellers.