Lately the weather has often been bleak, which it should be at this time of year. In late December 2012, we've had rain, clouds, and what the weather folks call a "wintry mix." The bleakness has its own beauty, stark and silvery.
Granted, most of December's bleakness as been obliterated by sparkly lights, plastic decorations, inflatable lawn ornaments, and whatever else many folks think makes the season brighter. A lot of these things went up before Thanksgiving. Or just after Halloween.
Lately I've been remembering Decembers when I was a kid. Back then—the late 40s and early 50s—things were different. We accepted December's bleakness because it would end with Christmas's brightness, and there was a distinct gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nobody decorated for Thanksgiving, and nobody thought of putting up Christmas decorations until a few days before Christmas.
The first Christmas event was Roanoke's Christmas Parade in early December. Mama would bundle me up, and we'd ride the bus downtown. Then we walked a few blocks to stand in front of the Elks Lodge on Jefferson Street, one of the best spots to view the parade. I really liked the big statue of the elk that, in later years, sometimes sported a red nose. (The Elks Lodge hasn't existed on Jefferson Street since the late 50s-early 60s.) We waited under streetlights in the cold until we heard the sounds of a band in the distance. Before long, the parade came into sight. There were high school bands, some Christmas-themed floats, a few fur-wrapped beauty queens shivering in convertibles, and—at the very end—Santa Claus himself. After the parade, we waited for the Williamson Road bus, and rode back home.
About mid-December, we'd ride the bus to town again, but this time during the day. Mama would take me to Pugh's Department Store, where we'd ride the elevator to the top floor where an imposing Santa sat on his throne. I waited patiently in line until it was my turn to sit on his lap and tell him what I wanted. As I recall, he listened politely but made no promises, and I never got the pony I asked for.
Less than a week before Christmas, we bought a tree—usually a fresh cedar from one of the many places that temporarily sprung up on Williamson Road. (In later years, it was a white pine, and by the 60s a spruce.) Mama put it up in the living room and we decorated it with lights (which we only turned on for a limited time and never left unsupervised), fragile glass balls, tinsel made of metal (not vinyl!), and—for a year or two— something called angel hair which made you itch if it rubbed against you. We usually had running cedar on the bannister, and a homemade evergreen wreath on the front door.
No one had anything plastic, and no one had outside lights that I can remember. (This was a time when a 40-watt bulb was sufficient to light a room, and any higher wattage was considered wasteful.) Outside was bleak, as it should be, but everyone's living room was brighter than usual—at least while the tree was lit.
The tree stayed up until New Year's when it was usually shedding needles all over the floor. While it was up, it smelled wonderful, though.
By the 60s, extravagant folks put lights on an outside shrub or two. Some even bought artificial trees and displayed plastic poinsettias, but—as I remember—the tackiness that is a plastic, inflated, over-lit Christmas didn't really arrive until the 70s, a decade noted for tackiness in decorating.