I have vivid memories of each December during the 1950s when downtown Johnson City was magnificently transformed into a winter wonderland of holiday enchantment, thanks to city officials, storeowners and eager shoppers.
The recognized commencement of the Christmas season was launched at the conclusion of the Thanksgiving Day parade, with the appearance of Santa Claus sitting on a big colorful float and throwing out candy to youngsters. Should some persons not be in the holiday mood, all they had to do was spend some time within a half-mile radius of Fountain Square.
I recall making several trips downtown with my parents each Christmas season to savor the festive atmosphere. Moving through traffic and finding parking was a challenge, especially at nights and on Saturdays. Main and Market Streets were profusely decorated with large colorful decorations, perhaps gaudy by today’s standards. Storeowners decorated inside and outside their lively establishments.
It was imperative that Christmas be cold, not cool and certainly not hot. Cold air and Christmas seemed to blend together wonderfully. Occasionally, things got even better when snow blanketed the area, adding even more winter wonderland realism. As kids, we cheered the icy covering, leaving worries about the slippery roads in the hands of grownups. The town was heavily adorned with large colored lights, unlike the miniature white ones so prevalent today. Such illumination was magnified by the darkness of the night.
A dilemma for some parents was explaining to their youngsters how Santa could be at several downtown stores at the same time. My mom’s explanation was that one was the real Santa and the others were his helpers. My next question was quite predictable: “Which one is the real one?” Santa did not charge us to have our picture taken with him; instead, he freely gave us candy and special holiday comic books.
Kings’ Department Store appropriately placed Santa on the fourth floor between the toy department and the elevator. Penney’s Department Store located him in the basement where youngsters could sit on his lap, tell him what they wanted for Christmas and simultaneously be broadcast over a local radio station.
Businesses stayed open late at night, adding more excitement to shopping. You could feel the exhilaration in the air as a host of shoppers navigated from store to store. Merchants offered several choices of merchandise but not an abundance of them. Self-service had not yet arrived on the scene; each counter had one or more attendants waiting on customers.
Kings Department Store was, without question, the winner for their store window decorations, reserving one section of their wrap around window for the Nativity Scene. People from neighboring cities came just to see this highly inspirational display.
Christmas chimes floated melodiously through the air, being played from Home Federal Savings and Loan. The steady ringing of bells was heard all over town as the Salvation Army manned their big pots, collecting money for the needy.
After Christmas, a trip downtown just wasn’t the same. The city seemed to lose something after the decorations were taken down and the crowds diminished. It was time to think about the approaching New Year, which at its conclusion would once again bring back the festive holiday spirit with all its holiday enchantment.