Some Christmas memories, written for our new church's Advent booklet...My hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, had a busy downtown until the early 1980s or so. As with many small communities, the business district is quieter today.* But I like to think of my childhood days when a person would go to town and shop (or window shop) among the several clothing stores, buy the hardware you needed at Western Auto, get groceries at the A&P or Tri-City or Kroger, and run other errands. Maybe you’d stop for coffee at the Abe Lincoln Café inside the Hotel Evans and get local news not printed in the papers. My parents also liked to shop in downtown St. Louis, just 70 miles away, at Famous Barr and Stix, Baer, and Fuller. We’d travel over on U.S. 40 (I-70 still incomplete) and cross what was still called the Veterans Bridge (with its dime toll). But “big city” shopping was a treat rather than a necessity, because a person would shop for pretty well in downtown Vandalia.
During the Christmas season I loved the Christmas holly and bells that draped over the downtown street lights, and the trees and wreaths that appeared in some store windows. “Silver Bells” depicts a city but I always associate it with our small hometown because the song’s images fit well with Vandalia’s holiday style. I recall participating in our church’s Christmas pageant. I’d stand by the altar in my “biblical” bathrobe and struggle to remember my lines amid the red-and-green drapery of Christmas. (“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field…”) Our church was just a couple blocks from downtown, so church Christmases mix in my memory with downtown cheer.
On Christmas day itself, after I dispatched my toys with a little kid’s eagerness, my parents and I drove east toward Brownstown, Illinois, to my grandmother’s farmhouse--literally over the river and through the woods--for a holiday feast with relatives. The timber beyond the fallow fields faded in the snowy air, and the fence posts of Grandma’s farm were ringed by white skirts of snow.
Family, shopping, small town life, and rural countryside join to form a peaceful Christmas “place” amid my childhood memories.
* Among the several downtown businesses today, some of which are new this year, I should give a "shout-out" to my cousin's long-time shop, The Sunshine House Health Store, at 420 W. Gallatin.