by Susan Taylor Block
I feel fortunate to have been born in 1951 – in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a quiet time in an unselfconscious place that knew not yet its beauty. Many things that seemed normal and permanent about Wilmington to my young mind have proven to be rare and somewhat fleeting. Such is the case of downtown Christmas decorations in my dear hometown.
The old street adornments were entirely different from the strange dullness of LED lights. They were a bit big, sharply bright, and very colorful. Multicolored lights crisscrossed the streets and lighted medallions dangled on each side of the street. Predictably, the only medallions I remember are the Santa Claus faces, but I think there were at least three other images.
Just like we did on Sunday afternoon rides, my parents, brother, and grandmother traveled together to see the Christmas lights. We did this several times each December. Mother and Daddy sat in the front seat, and Nana and I sat in the back seat, with my brother, Jay, sitting between us.
Those were more formal days. My parents, brother, and I were dressed casually, as we would have labeled it then, but today it would seem a bit dressy. My beloved grandmother, as always, was clad in a nice dress, and was wearing just enough jewelry.
I clearly remember the Christmas ride we took in 1957, when Jay was just 18 months old. He was perched in a baby seat, but, in those years, that merely meant it was elevated. That was a seatbelt-less era.
We rode north on South Front Street, and when we got to the brow of the hill, the dazzlement of yuletide lights below actually took Jay’s breath away. He stared bright-eyed, gasped several times, was silent, then finally began breathing normally again. He was on my left. I can still picture it and feel the relief of that episode being over.
By contrast to the nightly show, how disappointing it was to see the same downtown sight in daylight. The medallions were drained of most of their definition and the colored bulbs were dull. It would be decades before I would understand the spiritual symbolism of the Christmas phenomenon of light.
I can’t remember when I first saw the animated storefront windows of Belk-Beery, but I remember my impressions. Even though the movements were simple and slow, what was assumed to “stay still,” moved! It was like plugging the Christmas street illuminations into a Walt Disney movie.
In those days, Belk-Beery decorator, S. O. (Jack) Guyton was responsible for the Christmas windows. As soon as the draping was removed, people would leave their cars and stand quietly in front of the glimmering displays. I think background music played, but emotional memories play tricks. Except for the dreamy, moss-draped mood under the World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree, locally, there was no other secular Christmas thrill like the Belk-Beery windows.
For more on the municipal tree, see: http://susantaylorblock.com/2009/12/26/the-worlds-largest-living-christmas-tree/