Boomers Visit the Jolly Old Man in the Red Suit

For our parents, Christmas was the best of times. The War was sitting in the rearview mirror, consumer spending was up and the Baby Boom was under way. Suburbia went from an idea to an even bigger idea: the Promised Land of home ownership where children could play and grow, and adults could enjoy an after-work cocktail, barbecue and drive to their hearts’ content. So it seems no mystery at all that our parents would take genuine joy in the boomer-era Christmas season and further the tradition of a visit to Santa to heretofore unseen heights. And most of those visits were to department store Santas.

Department stores had been around for more than a century before baby boomers, of course. Independent stores started to proliferate in greater numbers in the early 1800s as the population of cities grew along with their industries. Yet the story of department store Santas actually began in the late 1800s. Depending on which source you want to believe, the first department store to employ a Santa was either Macy’s in New York City (in 1862) or The Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts (1890). The argument goes that James Edgar, of Brockton, should be accepted as the first Santa because he was the first to embody the character we embraced as Santa (jolly, fat, white beard and red suit, as drawn by Thomas Nast for the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1862). Whereas, states the argument, Macy’s put a guy in a holiday outfit mainly to promote itself. Regardless of where the tradition started, by the 1950s, every department store had its Santa.

With three kids in tow, Mister Boomer’s parents headed out for Christmas shopping forays. There they saw that Sears, Roebuck and Co., Spiegel and even Montgomery Ward (or “Monkey Ward” as we kids called it) each claimed to have the real Santa. Every respectable city had at least one local department store, and many had the national chain stores that started buying up regional stores in the 1950s. Most of us were told, and we believed, that all the different Santas were merely helpers. Santa was a busy guy and couldn’t be expected to be in every store, listening to every kid, went the explanation.

For Mister Boomer and his siblings, the “real” Santa wasn’t at a department store. Rather, he sat in a lavish holiday display sponsored by one of the area’s biggest manufacturers. Each year the company would install two floors of decorated tableaux in their own building, featuring animated figures, rows of trees, trains, lights, decorations and, to Mister B’s delight, even a theater where they’d show a Chip ‘n’ Dale holiday cartoon. He and his siblings enjoyed the annual trek to this holiday wonderland, except for one thing: the visit to Santa. Mister Boomer, like many fellow boomers, felt mixed emotions when visiting Santa in his early years; for many of us, the experience marked the first time we would stand in a long line, either dreading or anticipating the event at hand — and many of us did both. As for Mister Boomer, a born Santa skeptic, being plucked from a line and shoved on the lap of some creepy guy wearing something white on his face that surely didn’t resemble anything close to an actual beard was an ongoing mystery. Why would his parents put him through this ordeal? The guy couldn’t be real, and besides … he never did seem to get the gift list right. From an early age, he felt the whole business just didn’t add up.

Santa resided on the second floor, on an elevated platform against a back wall at least a dozen feet above everything else. The platform was barely eight feet wide — just large enough for Santa’s throne and a couple of elves who stood next to him. The stairway to Santa was on the left of the platform, and the exit was a slide on the right. There was no railing to keep children from tumbling into the display. (That wouldn’t fly in today’s environment!)

A large line of children snaked around rolling mounds of fake snow and oversized candies while girls dressed as elves kept things moving along. Slowly inching forward with the queue along with his brother and sister, the annual drama unfolded before their eyes: little kids screamed when they were plopped on the guy’s lap; some kids squealed with glee while others squealed because they had to go to the bathroom. Then there was the big slide down. The whole scene was very much like the one pictured in A Christmas Story, only higher and bigger.

Mister Boomer liked slides, but hated Santa. He had decided early on that he’d blurt out one thing and get to the slide. The least amount of time he could spend with the scary guy, the better. And so it went, for a few years.

When Mister B was six, his older brother sprang the news that Santa wasn’t real; as proof, he showed Mister B where his parents had hid their gifts. Mister B was neither surprised nor disappointed … an early realist in the matter, his suspicions were confirmed. Now his concern was to maintain the charade as long as his parents seemed to want it, and to keep the truth away from his little sister. Both brothers could see she reveled in the whole pageantry of the season, and agreed to keep her blissfully in the dark — at least for another year.

What memories of visiting Santa come to mind for you, boomers?

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Soup Bones

The Thanksgiving meal had ended, and the clean up had begun. Mister Boomer’s father-in-law was carving the remainder of this year’s turkey and removing large chunks of meat from the carcass. “I get all the bones!” Mister B’s mother-in-law stated emphatically. Befitting a person of her generation, nothing would be wasted on this holiday bird. That sent Mister B on a trip down Memory Lane.

When Mister Boomer was a child, leftovers extended as many days beyond Thanksgiving as the remaining turkey would allow: turkey sandwiches; turkey casseroles; hot turkey open-face sandwiches; and turkey soup were on the family menu. The turkey carcass, like all meat bones, were used to make the soup. It was common for the parents of boomers to wring as much use as they could out of whatever food they purchased. Whether it was from a time when people held a different train of thought that had been ingrained into their being from their immigrant parents, or a result of living with food rationing during World War II, “waste not, want not” was the order of the day.

It was common for the parents of boomers to use every bit of the holiday turkey, including making soup stock with the bones. The leftover bones of any family meal could end up flavoring a pot of soup.

Turkey carcasses weren’t the only animal bones utilized in the Mister Boomer household. When he was a youngster, money was tight in the Mister Boomer home. That meant the leftovers from any family meal would help make up a meal or two during the week. At least three other meals per week were either meatless or executed as economically as possible. Fortunately, Mister B’s father loved soup in any iteration. The soup-cooking trinity for Mister B’s mom were carrots, celery and onions. Aside from being among the most inexpensive and readily available of fresh vegetables, they could impart real flavor to water to become the basis for any soup.

Mister B recalls his mother sending him to a corner store a couple of blocks away. “Ask the man behind the counter for soup bones,” she would say. At the store, the meat man would know exactly what she was talking about. In the late fifties and early sixties, soup bones could be gotten for free, or in some instances, for only pennies per pound. Most often Mister B would return home with oxtails or ham shanks. One time in particular, Mister B recalls the butcher wrapping ham shank bones in paper. Without any charge, he was free to walk out of the store with the paper package, as large as a school book, tucked under his arm.

Mister B’s mom dropped the ham shank bones into the pot she had used to caramelize her vegetable trinity and covered the ingredients with water. Then she’d add a package of split peas and some salt and pepper. A few hours of simmering later, the family had split pea soup for dinner. Sometimes, there would be fork-sized chunks of ham still on the bones, adding an extra salty, meaty flavor to her thick soup; Mister B’s father would sop up every drop with the help of a slice of white bread. As a change of pace, butter beans were substituted for split peas.

These days, Mister B prefers to make vegetable soup, but he doesn’t care for onions. Nonetheless, the same basic steps hold true: inexpensive ingredients, starting with celery and carrots and combined with whatever is on hand in the fridge, are fair game for a great soup concoction on a fall night. Mister B learned his frugality lessons well.

Whether we’re personally in a situation of plenty in our lives, or experiencing tough times, perhaps we should take a page from the book of our economically-minded parents, beginning with making full use of all the food ingredients at our disposal. “Waste not, want not”; now that’s something to be thankful for.

What visions of soup bones dance through your memories, boomers?