The Magic of Being There

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

November 30, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Television commercials, store promotions and ''special'' junk-mail packages pretty much opened the Christmas season back around Halloween this year, but for many families the Jingle Bells were not appropriate before Turkey Day.

The Great Depression made Thanksgiving poignant for earlier generations. My parents were children during the Roaring Twenties and became adolescents as the economic gloom descended. Having lived through those years of privation, then World War II, their generation had a lot to be thankful for.

So when it came time to celebrate the mythical Indian harvest supper with which the Pilgrims marked their survival in the New World, my parents, their friends and the rest of America could identify with the mood. Even for kids like me, the extra-long grace before the meal was a solemn occasion.

But it could not be observed before another big event: the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Television was not widespread in those days. David Sarnoff of RCA had introduced it at the 1939 World's Fair, but the only set we knew about was in the nearby industrial hub of Chester, at the home of the Reverend Scott, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church. That wonder had a table-top screen -- you propped open its mahogany top, so watchers in front could see a mirror on its underside.

I'm told very important people got all dressed up to watch the tube at Reverend Scott's house. That's probably funny to today's young people; who ever heard of getting dressed up to watch TV?

So you had to see the parade in person. Macy's still has a parade in New York, broadcast for the nation. But back when Gimbel's still existed, its competing edition marched in Philadelphia.

It was an annual ritual to get dressed for Parade Day. Mothers mummified the young -- two sets of socks, pants, shirts, then leggings, sweaters, coats, hats, earmuffs, scarves. You could hardly breathe, but you were proof against everything but Arctic Circle winds.

And mittens. You had to have gloves, mittens and maybe even a wool muff. If your hands got cold during the parade, relief would only come when the adults bought scalding hot chocolate in a paper cup, which would warm your hands back up in a hurry. It also would turn your mouth and throat into dead cotton if you forgot yourself and gulped without checking.

My earliest parade memories go back to about age three. One million people would line the route, and to get there you had to take the train into Philadelphia.

Gruff conductors were nice to little boys like me and most passengers had time for a smile. And once in the city, you got to take a trolley ride to Market Street. There you could buy hot peanuts, hot chocolate with marshmallows, donuts, hot soft pretzels, chestnuts roasted in sidewalk carts, hot dogs.

Then the parade would start. I burrowed through the crowd with my cousin Priscilla, four years older and parade-wise. We could get away with putting our heads down and plunging in; everyone knew parades were for kids. We'd sit on the curb under a heavy wool blanket.

Walking mailboxes would come by to get the letters we had prepared so Santa would know what we wanted for Christmas. These letters were a big production involving all the help you could get from parents and aunts and uncles. It also was an opportunity for them to urge obedience, neatness and general good citizenship on you. You never knew what Santa's spies might divulge.

Clowns walked beside the bands and floats, handing out candy canes and joking around for kids. Being small, I got my fair share of attention from them and the gorgeous ladies dressed as Santa's helpers.

And then, suddenly, it was over. Santa came by in his sleigh, waved and headed for the Gimbel Brothers store and a climb up a fire ladder, which little kids like me could barely see because of the packed crowds. Then you'd realize your fingers were frozen and it was time for a new round of hot chocolate.

That's mostly gone, now. Television, the maker of bigger-than-life drama and lower-than-life comedy, covered both Philadelphia and New York parades into the 1960s, extending the audience but killing the magic of being there. Still, looking at the crowds at Macy's parade, it's clear some parents remember their days lining the sidewalks. Their children are forming memories of their own, to one day pass on -- ''just think, we actually used to go to big events called parades'' -- and if they are lucky, their hot

chocolate won't burn their throats.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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