The holidays are on us like a train barrelin' down the track. Christmas 1999 is all about electronic shopping. Pokemon's Pikachu wooed thousands at the annual downtown parade. Movie queues are forming for "Toy Story 2." And amidst the hype, millennium fever is tepid while Y2K has us edgy.
Ultimately however, such concerns are fleeting.
As we wade through the century's final hours, three Richmond natives who've experienced nine decades here reflect on Christmases past. They remember the Depression gifts were scarce but hopes were high. They remember festive gatherings in neighborhoods that have changed radically. They recall the excitement of shopping close to home or downtown at emporiums whose names are now found only in history books. Their vivid memories offer a window on the past while offering inadvertent cautionary tales about taking the fast-changing present too seriously.
Most importantly, they speak of families and friends, things that most who experience this holiday season will also remember once calm returns.
Christmas in Manchester
"Our Christmases were terrific," gushes Anne Poynor Walker. "At Christmas, Hull Street was decorated with lights that were hung up high. Years later, they had Christmas parades there." Today, the down-at-the-heels commercial strip dividing Blackwell and Manchester is mostly a vehicular route for downtown commuters.
Walker is a native South Richmonder and retired microbiologist who now lives at Cedarfield in Henrico County. She recollects her girlhood in a once-bustling neighborhood in the years soon after Manchester's 1910 merger with Richmond.
Walker was reared in the boxy, five-bedroom house her folks built on Bainbridge Street on the site of a former lumber yard. From their wide front porch, the Walkers kept up with the neighbors, many of whom worked for the Southern Railway. The family strolled to services at nearby Central Methodist Church but, "Being Methodist, we couldn't do anything on Sunday. I'd sit on the upstairs back porch and watch the men bootleg on Hull Street." In retrospect, she says she found the illicit activity depressing and was delighted when her family moved to Forest Hill.
But Hull Street, Manchester's main shopping strip, was teeming with other activity. "It had two department stores, real department stores with elevators Hutzler's and Baldwin's. It had two movie theaters, the Venus and the Ponton. ...
"Hull Street on Saturday night was quite the place," she says. "All the country people came in with their cars, trucks, horses and wagons. They sat in their cars or walked up and down the street." They shopped, gossiped, consumed hot dogs, but mostly people watched and shmoozed. Businesses stayed open until 9 p.m. Then people headed home.
For Christmas shopping, despite what Hull Street offered, Walker and her family traversed the river to shop at Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, two now-defunct department stores.
Walker's relatives, especially her mother's people who lived in the former Chesterfield County railroad resort town of Centralia, each had a designated date during the holidays they called "dining days." Walker's uncle's family always received on the Sunday closest to Christmas. On Christmas day, the clan dined with grandmother Annie DuVal Jenks (who had been born at Magnolia Grange in Chesterfield Courthouse).
On Christmas Eve, everyone descended on the Walkers on Bainbridge Street. It had become "dining day" by default. "Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers wouldn't deliver out in the county or to Centralia, but they would deliver to South Richmond, so everybody had their purchases delivered to our house," says Walker. On Christmas Eve, aunts, uncles and cousins came over to pick up their things. ...
"Three meat dishes were always on the menu, country ham, corned beef and turkey. Back then turkey had to be bought 'on foot,'" explains Walker. "We'd purchase it, keep it a couple of weeks and fatten it up. You had to kill it, pluck the feathers and take the insides out. If you lived in the country, there were men that came around to do this; if you lived in the city, you did it yourself.
"My father was chicken. He couldn't kill it, so this fell to my mother. She'd break its neck. Then she'd scald it and pluck those feathers and eviscerate it. My mother always worried whether it would be too dry. If it didn't turn out well, you lost a week's work."
Also on the Walker holiday menu pickled peaches and homemade mayonnaise, wine jelly which the Walkers colored red, fruit cake and coconut and mincemeat pies. "We didn't have pumpkin pie in the south, we had sweet potato pie.
"I'd gain 15 pounds every Christmas and then worked hard to take it off," laughs Walker, "but I could only off 10 pounds. Over the years that adds up."
Decorations and carols in Ginter Park
"There was always a cedar tree and we still get one," says longtime Ginter Park resident Peggy Curry Worsham as she thought back on Christmases past. She still owns the house in which she was born.
"We had a little tract of land in Laurel [north of the city in Henrico County] where my father would go to cut a tree. Lots of times he'd take my mother, brother Billy and me with him." The Currys also pulled running cedar from the Laurel property which they'd festoon along the banister of their Seminary Avenue home.
If decorations called for boxwood, the family motored out to New Kent County where they also had land. "There was a corduroy road," says Worsham, referring to a wooden plank road that was probably constructed during the Civil War, " I was always afraid we'd turn over in my father's Model T."
Worsham says her mother especially loved these jaunts to the country. When they visited her hometown of Leesburg, she'd take a deep breath when they got out of the car: "'Even the air smells better,' she'd say,'" Worsham recalls about her mother. "Boy, would she roll over in her grave if she could see what's going on there now. It's all part of Washington, D.C."
"I don't remember getting a lot of presents at Christmas, but I had friends that got lots of presents," Worsham says with a smile. "It was the Depression. I learned to ride the bicycle that belonged to the boy next door, but I didn't get a bicycle of my own until I was 15."
At the Curry household, Christmas decorations were simple and mostly natural. Worsham calls her mother, who was the first president of the Ginter Park Garden Club, a "'dirt gardener,' she didn't make flower arrangements." Instead of a wreath on the front door, Mrs. Curry always hung a sprig of evergreen gathered from the large, extensively landscaped garden. Worsham continues to hang a sprig of greenery from the yard on her door.
The Curry tree was put up on Christmas Eve by Worsham's parents. "It was always decorated by the time we got up," she remembers, referring to her four siblings.
And there was another Depression-era nod to frugality: "I can remember we used to save the [tinsel] icicles. My father used them over and over."
"We never used lighted candles on the tree. They used those at the Governor's Mansion and the tree caught fire during Trinkle's administration," she remembers.
But before the Curry children went to bed Christmas Eve, they awaited neighborhood carolers, often led by Eileen Call, whose husband was president of the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. "Mrs. Call had a beautiful voice and took many of the neighborhood children caroling. We'd turn off the lights in the house and open the door. It was a beautiful thing to hear."
Decking the halls downtown
For most of this century, Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads were synonymous with Christmas in Virginia. The legendary emporiums made Richmond the shopping Mecca for residents of tobacco towns and cities south of the James and stretching well into North Carolina.
"Miller & Rhoads had the Santa Claus," says former chief executive William B. Thalhimer, 85, whose forebear William founded the department store in 1842. Thalhimers would operate at many locations before settling on the block bounded by Broad, Grace, Sixth and Seventh streets, "We couldn't get the Santa Claus, but we got a good one."
The Santa, to which Thalhimer refers, was at Miller & Rhoads across Sixth Street and held forth during lunchtimes at the popular Tea Room, often accompanied by his Snow Queen.
Miller & Rhoads may have had the Santa, but Thalhimer said his family's department store prided itself on unique, colorful and lively holiday displays. "At one point Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads owned a parking deck on Canal Street [the stores offered shuttle service up the hill]," he says. "On the roof of the parking deck we placed a train that ran 'round and 'round."
In the early 1940s, before additional floors were added, another railroad display was placed atop the store's third story roofline fronting East Grace Street. Years later, a Santa-with-reindeer display was perched on the store's permanent canopy just above the sidewalk.
Thalhimer had begun his retailing career in New York City as a retail stock boy, but in 1934 returned to Richmond to join the family business as an art and needlework buyer.
Was the Thalhimer family exhausted from the Christmas retail push each holiday? Thalhimer bristles at the suggestion. "No. We were sophisticated and highly organized," he said. "And all the coordination made it fun. We worked a year in advance and searched the world for the wildest and most imaginative things, especially for the mechanical displays in the store windows. One of the most wonderful set of windows we did included old Richmond mansions of the 1890s."
Throughout the day and evenings during the holidays, shoppers were five and six deep, children on shoulders, mesmerized by Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads' windows.
"We also created snow bear," he recalled, referring to the white, fluffy Teddy Bears which sometimes sported knitted stocking caps.
For all the company's fondness for Snow Bear, however Thalhimer said snow itself was something else. "The thing we'd dread most was snow in December. This was not just detrimental to retailers, but also to our shoppers if they weren't able to buy for so festive an occasion."
Thalhimer particularly remembers one Christmas season in the late '60s when a heavy snowfall forced store closings: "We had no choice. Our people couldn't get to the store. We couldn't get there ourselves. Everybody closed."
And what about the Thalhimer family's own holiday plans each year, while working to serve thousands of customers? "For 25 years we usually had an open house at our home for store executives and close