‘SHOREBORN’ BARRY MEARS: A Christmas to remember

Barry Mears

It all started with a magic marker and a Sears Roebuck catalog.

The Christmas edition was called the “Wish Book,” and many hours were spent turning the pages and making wishes.

We were well aware that Santa Claus had a lot on his plate. Mother instructed us to circle a few of our favorite toys, and these suggestions would be passed on to the North Pole for consideration.

I’m not sure if it was excitement or greed that got the better of us while we were marking the pages.

Mine looked more ike a Vince Lombardi playbook with the Packers trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter.

My mother was rather baffled by the cross-outs, revisions, footnotes, and check marks.

Christmas is usually a time of great excitement and the Eastern Shore is a wonderful place for celebrating the birth of Christ.

In the old days, each town and business put up the nicest decorations.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, every town would begin the process of stringing lights on the poles.

Candy canes, bells, and Christmas trees were illuminated, much to the delight of young and old alike.

A family ride in the evening from Cape Charles to Salisbury would get everyone in the holiday spirit.

In the business district of most towns, stores lined the main road. Those storefronts were meticulously adorned with items that would catch the attention of a young boy or girl.

Many a parent nearly lost an arm to an eager youngster pointing out a new train set.

Perhaps it was the beautiful bride doll that caught the eye; there wasn’t a kid who hadn’t worked their parents over for a bright red Radio Flyer wagon.

“After all, Mom, this isn’t a toy; it’s more of a tool, and I can help you around the house.”

Walking into Western Auto in Exmore, I remember seeing a toy display like no other: doll houses, dresses, and Easy Bake Ovens.

There were bows and arrows and plastic survival knives with compasses in the handle; if you were looking for a toy paradise, this came close.

My grandmother loved to shop at Glick’s in Onancock; it wasn’t my favorite store at the time because I was afraid of being double-crossed with some new socks and underwear as a gift.

We would travel to Salisbury and visit what is now known as the old mall. As a child, this was considered a big adventure because there were dozens of stores lined with shining glass, and the fountains were loud as the crystal clear water fell back into the pool.

Many people have thrown some of their fortunes into the water in exchange for a wish.

This was the first place I encountered Kris Kringle, although he wasn’t the real Santa Claus.
Every youngster knew he was busy at the North Pole and his helpers were scattered about, scaring the daylights out of small children.

The mall was alive with Christmas music and lights, and the Salvation Army bells rang in unison, reminding us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I still recall the thrill of having my first Orange Julius, a mouthwatering beverage that I most definitely couldn’t find at Truman Lewis’ store.

A trip to Salisbury took all day, and my sister and I slept much of the way home.

The weeks leading up to Dec. 25 were filled with excitement and anticipation. I noticed a lot of whispering among the adults; I’m sure that the thought of receiving a bunch of new toys was what was most important to most children back then.

It is through much older eyes we learn what was really special about Christmas — how as a family we celebrated the birth of Jesus.

Every gathering was filled with laughter, fellowship, and delicious food.

Most Christmas songs allude to the fact that people are returning home to see their loved ones.

Even now, I still have “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” on my playlist. We love to play them while decorating the tree.

Every family has unique traditions about the Christmas tree. Some families put up their trees the day after Thanksgiving, while others wait until around mid-December.

When I was a boy, I remember cruising through the woods with my Pop in search of the perfect size and shape.

The trees looked considerably smaller in their natural environment than they did pulled into the living room.

He cut cedar, and even now the sent of it brings back memories of this activity.

We used to get a few second glances coming through Lee Mont with a giant cedar tree tied to the top of Pop’s Volkswagen Beetle. We would stop by Nate Willet’s store for a Yoo-hoo drink and a honey bun.

Once the beast had been trimmed and was standing, it was time to decorate. Christmas decorations have evolved quite nicely over the years; I grew up in an era of a cat’s best friend, yarn-covered ornaments, and silver tinsel. Anyone who is familiar with them may remember one or two messes that were credited to them.

One of my jobs was to unravel the previous year’s string lights. Theoretically they were always neatly rolled and stored for simple unwinding.

Once the lights were in a straight line, there was only one thing left to do. Each cord was plugged into the other in a ritual that would make Clark Griswold proud.

It never failed that one or two strings would not light. My job was to replace each bulb; decorating a Christmas tree is probably a child’s first experience with self-expression. Items made at school found a special spot to hang.

We made paper chains and threaded popcorn on long strings, which added a personal touch and a sense of accomplishment for a junior decorator.

Wrapping presents is either a blessing or a curse; a true test of a marriage is for a husband and wife to spend an afternoon wrapping Christmas presents.

It is usually fairly simple to identify the person who wrapped each gift, from her delicate Origami lesson to his dirty hands-duct tape method.

Once wrapped, the gifts found their way under the tree. Of course, these were big family gifts; the cornucopia would not arrive until the big guy came on Christmas morning.

The long season of anticipation was soon coming to its climax. The Eastern Shore churches were out in force, singing Christmas carols.

The joy of the season is not limited to the very young; everyone, regardless of age, has memories that they hold dear.

When I was a child, the morning of Christmas Eve was usually hectic since my mother was in the kitchen most of the day preparing food.

My pals and I would call each other to check what was going on at their house, and it was then that I began to second-guess some of my choices on the list to Santa.

Wayne Gwaltney had his hopes up, thinking a Zebco 202 was in his future; Carl Ayers had asked for a new erector set — why hadn’t I thought of that?

It really didn’t matter because the wheels of fate were already in motion.

Christmas Eve was a big deal at our house because it was when the extended family exchanged gifts and ate an old country breakfast prepared by Mother.

As it got close to bedtime, my sister and I were allowed to open one gift, a teaser of what was to come.

I was never particularly skilled in selecting fun gift to unwrap, but I suppose it didn’t really matter because we all need items like t-shirts and underwear.

The last order of business was to leave a snack for the man of the hour, which in our house was the traditional milk and cookies.

Bedtime was a theory at best; who ever got a good night’s sleep on Christmas Eve?

I tossed and turned all night, and my sister and I would sneak into each other’s rooms to see if the other had fallen asleep.

By 3 a.m., we were so worn out that we started calling for mom at her bedroom door.

When she answered, she would tell us to go back to bed. The admonishment did little to deter us from pleading our case every 30 minutes or so; the technique usually paid off around 5 o’clock.

Mother would climb out of bed with her long chestnut hair all over the place. I don’t know about your mother, but mine was not to be messed with until that first cup of coffee was past her lips.

We were on the verge of entering the living room when I heard the words that were a dagger to my heart. My sister and I had to wait for our neighbors to arrive before we could examine the haul.

These neighbors happened to be our grandparents, and despite moving slower than molasses on Christmas morning, I loved them dearly.

Once the sleepy family arrived, it was a time of magic. We were always given the greatest presents, but it wasn’t until many years later that I learned about the sacrifices our family made for us.

My childhood memories of Santa Claus are ones I cherish to this day. Blessed with children and grandchildren, I am proud to say that I am still a believer.

Peace, love, and joy are always in season.

— Barry Mears is the author of “Living Shoreborn,” which was edited by his daughter, Kamryn Mears, and published in 2023. He is also the founder of the popular Shoreborn Facebook page, which delves daily into the history and culture of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Passages from his popular book, which is sold all over the Eastern Shore, will be printed monthly in Shore First.

Barry Mears
Mears said the name “Shoreborn” actually came from a family member who during conversations quipped as an affirmation, “as sure as you’re born.”

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