Column: I didn’t even know they sold trees

Jason-Column2When you’re a child, if you’re lucky, Christmas is magical.

I was, and so it was.

I remember many of the things I got for Christmas, of course. The Star Wars Rebel Snow Speeder was a big hit, as was the Ewok Village a year or two later. There was 1984, the year in which Santa Claus brought me a mess of these new things called Transformers and the next day my sister was born.

She didn’t change into a semi or anything, but, still, pretty cool.

There was also the year, I forget which, when I got 2-XL, an 8-track tape player in the form of a robot. I won’t go into him any further for now, he sort of transcended a mere plaything for me and probably deserves his own column someday.

Even 2-XL notwithstanding, none of the presents I got as a kid is the reason Christmas was magical for me. Looking back, the Christmas things I remember as most magical were the little things I now realize my parents did to make sure I felt that way about it. Two stand out, the puppet show at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers and, most especially, visits to Handleman’s nursery in White Plains.

There were Santas and Christmas decorations in pretty much every major store when I was a kid, but I remember Cross County had an actual house set-up for Santa at the Wanamaker’s end of the outdoor arcade. You went in, you saw Santa, you got a candy cane and, if you were me, you were pretty much terrified the whole time and it was not an experience you were eager to repeat.

Ah, but there was also the puppet show.

It was near Santa’s house and, looking back, it was a truck with a stage built out from the side of it, but, to me it was part of any magical Christmas. I don’t remember a single story or character I saw in any of those shows, to be honest, but I do remember going to Cross County with my mother, being excited to see the stage, and wanting to check the sign to see when the next show would be. I have no idea if those shows, or the puppets in them, were of any quality whatsoever, but I do remember how it felt to go to Cross County, a place I knew quite well in those days, and feel like it was someplace else; someplace made just for kids like me.

I wonder if kids still feel that way about things like that puppet show.

I wonder if there are even things like that puppet show now. I hope so.

I know there isn’t Handleman’s anymore, and that’s a tremendous shame because that’s the thing I remember most about the magical Christmases of my childhood.

As I said above, it was a nursery; trees and that. I didn’t know that until much later though because for me Handleman’s in White Plains was there for just one reason. Christmas lived there.

It was a walk-through Christmas village with entire scenes populated by animated figures. Animated figures fascinated me. There were elves, Santa, Mrs. Claus, reindeer; everything.

I especially liked the reindeer. I was a big reindeer kid.

I remember the lighting being a pale blue; I remember everything being covered in cotton snow. I remember winding my way through the displays, taking them all in, never wanting it to end.

Then we got to the end, where Santa was waiting, and we had to go back the way we came.

My anxiety over live-action Santas was, I think, more about being put on the spot than anything else. I do remember telling Santa what I wanted for Christmas at the end of the Handleman’s displays one year, but it must have been a year in which I was feeling particularly brave, or else there was something I really wanted and needed all my bases covered.

We went to Handleman’s during the Christmas season for years. When my sister was of age to enjoy the displays, we went back probably a decade after we were last there. By then, Handleman’s had weathered a fire and, possibly because of that, possibly because of the already changing times, the winter wonderland wasn’t what it had been when I was little. It was still there, it was still nice, but it wasn’t as elaborate and I feel like my sister missed out.

On the plus side though, my parents bought a Christmas tree from Handleman’s during that time they still use to this day and I still have a wizard ornament I got the first time we went with my sister.

The family that owned Handleman’s sold it in the late 80’s and it became an Arcadia Garden Center.

Not the same.

Still, Handleman’s Christmas displays and the sense of wonder and magic they gave me are my best holiday memories. They’re the sort of memories on which, hopefully, we can all look back this time of year to remind us, as Handleman’s does me, what this season is supposed to feel like.

I talked to my mother about Handleman’s for this column and, in doing so, she reminded me of a few of the details you’ve just read. In turn, I hope the words in this space serve as a reminder to her, and to every parent who reads them, that the memories you create with us as children, especially during the holidays, stay with us and can help carry us the rest of the way.

When you’re a child, if you’re lucky, Christmas is magical.

I was, and so it was.


Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas