Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Recalling childhood holiday times in Pittsfield


December holiday season elicits memories of a simpler, non-high-tech period of time for baby boomers; an era of rotary phones, black and white televisions, non-electronic toys and no internet.

Shopping online instead of on a bustling North Street could never have been imagined in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, Christmas music seemed to emanate from every retail establishment on North Street. England Brothers, the largest store in Pittsfield, always drew crowds to see its festive, often animated windows. Once past the bell ringers and the Santa's Village with live reindeer across from the entrances, families would take escalators up a few floors for the annual Santa and Robert the Reindeer visit. The next stop for the kids was to the fourth-floor toy department to "ooh and ahh" at the items seen only in Sears holiday toy catalogs.

North Street was magical as snow fell over decorations of bells, stars and/or Santa faces hung from garlands strung over the street. Park Square lit up with its a huge decorated Christmas tree replete with large boxes painted as wrapped gifts. Each year, a creche was located near the tree.

For several weeks before the holiday, all the elementary schools devoted music segments to Christmas carols provided in booklets by the John Hancock Insurance Co.

There were no comparable Hanukkah booklets, but if a teacher knew this holiday's (one) favorite song, we would sing it, i.e., about a dreidel made of clay! Annually, the schools staged Christmas pageants until in high school years, when they recognized both holidays in the program.

Homes that celebrated Christmas were full of holiday activities from decorating the tree, often with homemade ornaments. Mothers baked cookies shaped like bells, Santa, snowmen or Christmas trees. Families would place a wreath on the outside door and/or cover bushes or trees with colored lights. (No inflatables or plastic figures).

As it is presently, Christmas morning was full of excitement when kids scrambled to see what Santa brought them that he left under the tree. Stockings were filled with candy canes and lots of other goodies. Families enjoyed Christmas dinners and attending parties as well, Adults sought elusive mistletoe as they imbibed on (spiked) eggnog and joked about fruitcakes heavy enough to anchor a boat.

In Jewish homes, kids cut and pasted strips of colored construction paper to form daisy chains to decorate a family room. Mothers made latkes, potato pancakes eaten with sour cream or applesauce.

Children sang Hebrew blessings as they lit orange candles, adding one on each of the eight nights to celebrate this Festival of Lights. Kids would spin the dreidel to win gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, or gelt, and of, course, open a gift each of the nights.

As a youngster, I enjoyed the non-holiday winter activities almost as much as the holiday celebrations. Bundled up in outfits that somewhat impeded movement, we were still able to build snowmen and snow forts and engage in snowball fights.

We looked forward to going to Clapp Park to maneuver wooden sleds down what seemed like a mountain. Ice skating at one of a half-dozen city rinks was special, but the best was at night at the well-lit Common. The more adept skied at Osceola Plark playground, and those who could afford it frequented Bousquet.

Pittsfield had winter carnivals that were kicked off with carnival queen contestants selling pins. The activities were all kinds of winter sport competitions, e.g., skating, ski, toboggan and sled races, snow sculptures, a ball and more.

I also recall car races on Pontoosuc ice and ice fishermen with heaters in their shanties. Neither activity seemed to break through to the water below.

These days, I often hear baby boomers say that the holiday time is not as exciting as it was when they grew up in Pittsfield or elsewhere in the Berkshires. But for sure, through the eyes of today's youngsters, the holiday magic is just as great as it was for us!

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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