Berkshire Memories | Jim Shulman: Reflections of a festive downtown Pittsfield
Following Thanksgiving each year, all Berkshire municipalities were festive during the baby boom years. Whether or not one celebrated Christmas, the lights and decorations brought happy feelings.
Pittsfield was the mecca of shopping in the county. North Street area had well more than 100 businesses, including clothing and shoe merchants, bakeries, candy vendors, five and dimes and department stores. England Brothers with six full floors of wares and a fourth floor toy department was everyone's destination before shopping was done. Just looking at the toys was a treat for many of us small fry.
Garland-like decorations hung across the street with a lighted star in the center or decorative bells or Santa heads. Store windows would be adorned with holiday displays and fancy gift items. England's offered the most ornate displays, often with animated figures and electric trains. For many years, Art Gillette had a Santa's Village in front of England's, replete with live reindeer named for Santa's troop members.
Many stores constantly played music, melding traditional carols with more contemporary hits like "Jingle Bell Rock," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and of course, "The Chipmunk Song." Even (light) snowfalls were welcomed and added to the holiday feeling.
After shopping, folks rarely hesitated to drop change in the pots on tripods beside the Salvation Army bell ringers. The holiday time was a time of good spirit.
Annually, Park Square displayed a tree donated by a local family, a tradition that still exists. The trees would be draped with colored lights, fake candy canes and wooden boxes resembling wrapped gifts. The city also put a creche on the park, which in more recent times was relocated to a nearby church lawn as the separation of church and state became an issue.
Children loved the opportunity to visit Santa Claus in one of the downtown stores. Some seasons there were as many as six Santas on North Street. It became a challenge for parents to avoid encountering more than one, rather than having to explain to a youngster Santa's magical powers of being in more than one place at a time.
At England's, while kids were waiting in line to see the jolly old fellow, they were treated to a talking reindeer named Robert. Interestingly, Rudolph was a copyrighted character so his cousin had to be the substitute. One never saw more than a head and neck and the deer's voice was a role assumed by females.
Youngsters would sit on Santa's knee and list the favorite gift requests and assure Santa that it was a year of excellent behavior worthy of much more than a candy cane or other treat offered by the store's Santa or his helper.
Of all the downtown Santas, the best known was William Pigott. He did not miss a season between 1941 and 1969, serving first as Newberry's Santa and then, from 1969 to 1976, taking the role at England Brothers.
William, who mastered his role, came from Ireland in 1928 at the age of 30 and worked at the GE until retiring in 1963. In the 35 years, he estimates that 100,000 children sat on his knee and shared their holiday gift wishes, ranging from bubble gum to a pony. Many youngsters who grew up brought their own children to William and recalled him.
He was a natural for Santa as he had nine children, 27 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren that he got to know in his lifetime. There were many Santas in Pittsfield back in the baby boomer years, but none were as memorable as this one with a strong Irish brogue.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.