Christmas Shopping the Boomer Kid Way

As young children, we boomers faced many challenges when it came time to shop for Christmas. Our first challenge, of course, was transportation. As youngsters, we were at the mercy of our parents. Once we got to be eight or so, walking (with our neighborhood group) to any stores within a couple of miles became possible, but in earlier times, the family car was it. “Family car” was singular, because it was extremely rare for a middle-class suburbanite to have more than one car in the 1950s and 60s.

In that era, stores were not open every night of the week. More than likely, they were open two weekday evenings, plus Saturdays … and never on Sunday. With dinner being served between 5 and 6 p.m., that left little time for actual shopping since stores would close promptly at 9 p.m.

When it came time to jump into the car and visit a store, chances are it was to a major department store. Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck and Company were the biggest, though there were regional department store chains that had also expanded to the suburbs. The different departments gave each member of the family the opportunity to search for something on their list.

The typical plan of action was to split up into two camps, with some of the children going with the father, the others with the mother. It was not unusual for families to have two to six boomer children in tow. Splitting up enabled the children to shop for the siblings or parent they were not attached to at the moment.

Children were expected to use their own money to purchase gifts. It helped those who received an allowance to learn the virtues of savings. Mister Boomer did not receive an allowance, so money at the pre-teen age came by way of birthday gifts from grandparents, snow shoveling and pop bottle redemption. Sometimes a parent would sweeten the pot and contribute a few dollars to Mister Boomer’s Christmas fund.

For many families, including Mister Boomer’s, the Christmas shopping season was not complete without a visit to Downtown. There, children could visit the “real” Santa, since we all knew the suburban stores only used his helpers. Even more, families could make a day or evening out of viewing the holiday decorations and window displays. Dressed in snow suits and galoshes, our mittens were attached to our coat sleeves by way of clasps on either end of a small piece of elastic. We’d trudge through the snow and marvel at the festive lights, giant snowflakes and ornaments hovering on lampposts, and garlands of evergreens scenting the air with the unmistakable aroma of the holidays.

The major department store that sponsored the Thanksgiving Day parade always had the most elaborate window displays. Animatronic characters in seasonal tableaus told a story in each window. Macy’s, in New York City, had begun the tradition of holiday window decorations in the late 1800s as a way of luring more Christmas shoppers. Now, in boomer time after the War, Downtown stores took up the banner as a way to lure the new suburbanites back Downtown. For the most part, it worked.

Mister Boomer vividly recalls one such Downtown visit. After the obligatory visit to Santa (Mister B was a non-Santa believer by then, thanks to his skeptical nature even at age six, but the final straw came by way of his brother’s prodding), Mister B and his sister were lead to a special “Children’s Shopping Land.” The store had sectioned off an area where parents weren’t allowed, and children could shop on their own. Mister Boomer walked through the entryway of giant candy canes, holding the hand of his younger sister who trailed behind. Inside, a single aisle snaking around displays kept children moving in the right direction, with helper elves along the way. Display bins were filled with low-cost items children could afford. Getting near the end, Mister B hadn’t found anything he deemed acceptable. Finally, he hovered at a bottle of bubble bath for his mother. It was a large, opaque white glass bottle with a flower painted on it. His indecision, though, sprang from the price – it was above the budget he had in mind. After some whining from his sister, Mister B decided to purchase the gift. The path lead directly to the checkout register and ultimate exit, where parents could collect their children. Mister B’s parents did just that, but his brother said the children weren’t done shopping yet. Taking charge of Mister B and his sister, he lead them to another area of the store.

Mister B’s brother had seen a Norelco electric shaver — the same one that was advertised on TV — that he thought would be the perfect gift for their father. There was no way he could afford the gift on his own, so he needed his two siblings to contribute to the purchase. Arriving at the counter, a good-natured man in a white shirt and tie removed a hard-shelled, rounded corner case from the display and opened it for us to view. An electric shaver with pivoting circular blades appeared. It was a true symbol of modern man, and what they wanted for their father. Gathering their last bit of dollars and change, they were just able to come up with the cost of the gift.


This is the actual commercial that had caught Mister Boomer’s and his siblings’ attention.

Arriving back at the designated meeting spot, the family made their way to the store exit as the announcement was made for closing time. They quickly made their way through the revolving doors; all but Mister B, that is. He had hesitated. The whirl of the doors was just too much for him. The speed was too fast and it didn’t seem likely to him that he would make it through. Now on his own on one side of the door while the family was on the other, they urged him to “come on!” but he froze in place. Finally, with more shoppers gathering behind him, he garnered the gumption to step into the whirling doors. He entered with such conviction that as his arms reached up for the door handle, the bag containing his bubble bath gift swung like a pendulum, abruptly stopping at the glass with a large, ominous crack. “Oh NO!” he thought, but there was no time to dally, he had to get out of the door. Stepping into the outside, the family began their walk back to the car. Mister B, trailing back a few steps, carefully reached down and felt the outside of the bag. It seemed OK. Evidently his family, focused on coaxing him through the door didn’t notice this secondary drama going on, so it looked as if he might get a pass on his latest bout with clumsiness.

Once home, Mister B took the bubble bath bottle from the bag and carefully inspected it. It was a Christmas Miracle! The bottle remained completely intact. All that was left was to wrap it and place it under the tree.


If you can’t find some Christmas gifting in this clip to relate to, you probably aren’t a boomer.

Mister B cannot remember what his mother thought of the bubble bath. But attending his father’s funeral a couple of years ago, Mister B came across the Norelco shaver in his parents’ house. Bearing the marks of years of use, it was still in its case as it was when the Boomer children wrapped it up a lifetime ago.

How about it, boomers? Is there a gift you purchased that you can point to that helps define your early boomer years?

Boomer Turkey Days

The Thanksgiving holiday is this coming week. Recently, Mister Boomer ran across an advertisement from 1935 which read in part, “We may not all be able to afford a turkey this Thanksgiving, but we have much for which to be thankful.” That got Mister Boomer in a pensive mood. As boomers, we certainly have much to be thankful for. Parents of boomers lived through Thanksgivings in the 1930s, which was during the height of the Great Depression. Just when the country was pulling out of its worst economic maelstrom ever, World War II knocked on the door. World events didn’t exactly give our parents happy Thanksgivings through their formative years, certainly by today’s standards.

It’s Mister Boomer’s theory that their experiences had a direct impact on how the holiday would be celebrated with their boomer children. As boomers were being born after the War, these new young families set out to make a better life for their children than what they and their parents had — the mantra of every parent. The country’s economic engine was churning as the nation recovered, highways were being built, and suburban sprawl meant a home of one’s own was within reach. It is likely that that new home looked like a modern, idyllic paradise to young parents anxious to begin a new chapter of their lives. It was also something to be thankful for.

Mister Boomer’s Thanksgiving memories go back into the Eisenhower era. At that time, Thanksgiving and the Christmas season weren’t complete without the requisite trips Downtown, beginning with the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. In Mister B’s household, the children would be awakened at the crack of dawn. Sometimes there would be snow flurries, sometimes freezing rain, but always there would be cold. After a quick breakfast of cold cereal, the children were dressed in multiple layers to ward off the frigid November Midwest air and whisked into the family car. Mister B’s mom stayed at home tending to the meal, as was the custom of the era.

A short ride later, Mister Boomer’s father would pull the car into a Downtown parking garage and the family made the walk to the Boulevard to stake their space along the parade route. Mister Boomer would stand there shivering, and wondering why he couldn’t have stayed in bed a while longer and watched the parade on TV. Aside from the cold, there was the viewing challenge. Mister Boomer’s family didn’t always get the best viewing spot. The Boomer children were considerably smaller than the sea of adults surrounding them, so at times seeing any glimpse of the parade at all meant crawling through legs to try and get to the street barricade. Mister B would observe how some fathers put their children on their shoulders, while others brought along step ladders, but with three children in tow, Mister B’s dad was not able to be among them.

As the parade marched on, Mister B did occasionally enjoy a colorful float and some of the marching bands — when he could see and if the bands’ cacophony didn’t hurt his ears, that is. By the time the star of the parade — Santa Claus — drifted by to mark the close of the parade, toes and fingers were numb. The crowd always stepped through the barricades at that point and followed Santa’s float to the big department store. There, a temporary second-story entrance to Santaland was installed in the side of the building. Santa would move directly up a staircase from his float to a platform decorated in full Christmas regalia, where the Mayor was waiting to give him the key to the City. Conveniently, it was also the key to the hearts of good little boys and girls everywhere, as the crowd was informed. After a hearty “Ho, ho, ho” and wish for a “Merry Christmas,” Santa retired inside to his home for the next four weeks, and the crowd slowly dispersed.

To avoid the traffic, sometimes Mister Boomer’s dad would take the children into a coffee shop. There, they’d attempt to warm themselves and their fingers with a cup of hot chocolate. Invariably, there would be a large swirl of whipped cream on top of the hot beverage, and a candy cane with which to stir it. The Boomer family children always ate the whipped cream on top first, leaving little to stir into the cocoa. Not being a fan of peppermint or hot chocolate, this was not a ritual that Mister B enjoyed. To this day he dislikes hot chocolate, candy canes, and the cold November air.

Boomer families were divided on the best time to serve Thanksgiving dinner, as families appear to be today. For some, it depended entirely on when the bird was cooked. If that was 1 p.m., then so be it. Dinner was served. Others had a more precisely timed approach, choosing 3 p.m. or even their regular dinner times. In Mister B’s house, it was the former rather than the latter. Dinner was almost always served by 2 p.m. — whenever the big bird was finished. It had been cooking away since 6:30 a.m. in the roaster that was kept in the basement. Meanwhile, a tablecloth covered the table, which only happened on holidays. It didn’t matter that the china arrived courtesy of a weekly discount purchase for shopping at the supermarket. It was special dinnerware for special occasions only.

Most of the time, some aunts and uncles or family friends were invited to share the feast, prompting the “children’s table” to appear. Who knows when the first children’s table was set up, but boomers are well acquainted with the holiday tradition. It helped keep the children separate from the adults by design, it would seem. Was it to get a moment’s rest for adult conversation to ensue or to keep fidgety, picky eaters out of a major sight line for a while? Inevitably, the mother, an aunt or older female cousin would tend to the children at their table, seeing to it that each had the meal they wanted.

In Mister Boomer’s family the bird was the star, followed by the stuffing, sweet potatoes and that wonderful can-shaped cranberry sauce that the family ate only once a year. Vegetables were clearly down the list. It would be many years later before Mister Boomer would learn that vegetables didn’t have to come from a can. That’s a trait shared by many boomers… was it because our parents lived through the Great Depression where every can was precious, or rather that in that time, in Cold War America, canned goods were the American thing to have on hand? In any case, there was always plenty of food and enough for leftovers. The meal would be capped off with pumpkin pie, banana cream pie and a pineapple upside-down cake.

Somewhere along the timeline, perhaps germinating in our youth, the meal gained in importance over the holiday sentiment. Boomers have changed the holiday from one of thanks to the one of over-indulgence that is celebrated today. Is it merely that boomer parents, like their parents and grandparents before them, want more and a better life for their children? Or have we gotten too comfortable in the lifestyle our parents’ generation worked so diligently to create for us?

Mister Boomer wishes you and yours a happy, thankful Thanksgiving. Now where is that can opener?