I need to confess that if you get a Christmas gift and the tag says “from Kim and Wes,” it’s probably all Kim because I have a history of not getting things done on time.
What’s more, the bulk of the gifts she purchases come to our doorstep while the green leaves still sing in the trees. The FedEx guy knocks and walks off before anyone can even ask how the kids are doing. I don’t even know if he has kids or not.
Christmas shopping has lost its magic.
It wasn’t always like this. Way back in the fog of memory, I can still picture the two of us, newly married, going out on frigid December evenings to attack the Christmas list after digging a little deeper into our ANB overdraft protection to splurge on fried vegetables at Gardski’s. Then came the thrill of finding gifts that seemed expensive but weren’t because our budget probably didn’t exceed $50. Hastings had us in mind when they brought in a load of bargain books.
And if I dial it back further, I faintly see the glow of colored lights swinging in the wind around the courthouse back home in Wellington. There was that one night when the downtown stores stayed open late and everyone in town was on parade. You could buy most anything in Wellington then, and Saied’s and Hatch’s would wrap and dress our gifts at no charge using their fancy bow makers and thick paper that tucked just right on the ends. A trip to Sears to see Santa marked the final station on this secular posada around the square, a happy (if not mildly confusing) memory, seeing how the jolly old elf looked a lot like Gary, the appliance repairman.
Shopping in stores, out in the cold, with whiny kids and groaning old folks was a memory-making experience, almost as exciting as the Christmas celebration itself. And while exchanging gifts goes way back with Christmas, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that gifting on an industrial level became a thing. Savvy department store magnates such as R.H. Macy in New York convinced Americans it was our religious and patriotic duty to spend and have some fun doing it. Then along came songs such as “Silver Bells” in the 20th century, tattooing in our minds scenes of merry shoppers virtually floating in the ether of nostalgic commercialism.
Amarillo once dressed its holiday cheer on the busy sidewalks of Polk Street. The great white way of the Panhandle, brash and gaudy with its nightly displays of neon the year round, would trip the light fantastic come December with holiday lighting displays designed on the premise that nothing succeeds like excess. It was here the Jaycees organized a big daytime Christmas parade to kick off the season with marching bands and elaborate floats, many with overt religious themes to convince folks that Jesus fully endorsed all the hoopla. And of course, Santa would ride into town on the heels of these parades, probably looking for last-minute deals at Fedway like everyone else.
If you stepped into Colbert’s you might see Max Cohen behind a counter flattering old women into buying a gift or two for themselves. It wouldn’t have been uncommon to see Stanley Blackburn policing the aisles down at Blackburn Brothers, making sure everything was in order. They not only knew their Amarillo customers, but also the folks who journeyed in from Dalhart or Memphis. Everyone had a name and a preference, and these folks made it their business to know both.
Maybe that’s why it wasn’t as much fun after a while, at least for some of us. The commercialization of Christmas is nothing new, but when mainstream American retailing lost the personal touch, when the lights went dark on Polk and the stores closed around the courthouse square in Wellington, Christmas shopping seemed to lose its religion. The pandemic played some role in this too (Christmas 2020—now that was fun), but we were feeling the burnout well before.
But let me finish on a high note and point out that my desire to buy things for people who don’t really need any more things has been rekindled to a degree. Pop-ups, thrift shops, used book and record stores and antique emporiums have been proliferating of late. They sell not only interesting and unique items, but also the idea of community—places you can shop and make lasting friendships. In the end, it’s this human connection, the peace and goodwill among all folks of every stripe, driving us against a chilly Panhandle breeze to spend money we don’t have. And that is what Christmas is really about.