It's that time of year again. The feeling of Christmas is in the air...it's the time of year when I want the comforting smell of pine wafting through the house; cookies baking in the oven; Christmas music - traditional and not-so-traditional as only my family can initiate into annual custom (what, every family doesn't play Wooly Bully as part of their yuletide chorus?); and, of course, A Christmas Story on TV.
Yes, that's right, that cult classic of a Christmas movie is my favorite. For those who may live in caves or who for some reason haven't yet seen this film, it's an off-beat tale of a midwestern family in the '40s told through the eyes of nine-year-old Ralphie, whose only wish is to receive a Red Ryder BB gun, and who is repeatedly told that with such a gift "you'll shoot your eye out". Witty and endearing, it portrays many aspects of childhood in the midwest that we, too, experienced.
On a more personal level, though, it shows some of my own childhood Christmas events, as the film, while purportedly taking place in Hammond, IN, was filmed in Cleveland. I grew up just an hour from there and no Christmas was complete without a trip downtown to see the glorious displays in the gigantic windows of Higbee's, Halle's and May Company. We bundled up, walked around and gazed upon the splendor of a bedecked city center as only children can- with stars filling our eyes as we took in the lights, the larger-than-life themed showiness on display, and then topped it off with a visit to Mr. Jingaling. Mr. Jingaling was, to me, better than Santa himself. He had gigantic keys which - you guessed it - jingled, he smiled, he was sweet and enthusiastic and knew how to connect with kids and make them feel at ease. He was like a favorite uncle you saw once a year, who couldn't wait to give you a hug, and loved to see your little, front-teeth-vacant smile. He was wonderful. And he was a Cleveland icon. (Appropriately, when he died a couple years ago, it was the day after Christmas.)
After, we indulged in a treat. Walking around the corner from Higbee's the heavenly aroma filled the air, wafting on a breeze across the street and beckoning our nostrils to follow it obediently, which we always did. Freshly roasted nuts...salty and warm and oh-so-delicious. I sometimes dream of that smell and mourn that I've not encountered it anywhere in the past 25 years.
If we were really lucky -or my mom had extra cash (a true Christmas miracle if ever I saw one!) we were treated to the ultimate indulgence - lunch at the Silver Grille at the top of Higbee's. This usually occurred if my grandma joined us and was paying for lunch; it was her favorite indulgence as well. This was a special place. It felt sophisticated, grown-up, but friendly and welcoming. You reached the restaurant by way of an elevator with a real, live operator inside who called out, "Tenth Floor, Silver Grille". It was an art deco room with glittery silver and cool greens and a square fountain in the center. Their treat to children: our meals were served on little plates tucked away inside metal stoves. It made dining out something fun and special. It was here that I first tasted such culinary delights as beef stroganoff and chicken a la king.
I don't remember actually doing any shopping on these excursions. It was all about the atmosphere, the twinkling lights, the parade, the tremendous tree in the lobby of the Terminal Tower. It was about community and interaction and tradition. How I miss those days. A chill in the air only contributed the sense of "something special", the spirit of the holidays. Is it any wonder I so dislike the modern shopping "experience" with it's sterile, climate-controlled, dull- flourescent, generic, homogenized, bland malls. It's no experience at all.
At least I can relive these memories annually through Ralphie's eyes and look at the scenes and think, "No, it wasn't a dream or a fairyland, it was real. It was just like that, and I was there." It was a wonderful time to be a kid, I think.
copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider
About Mr. Jingaling